Hardest Working ‘Cat in the Game
Harouna Mutombo has a big game to match his name.
If you don’t know the name Harouna Mutombo, you better take advice from Clinton Sparks and get familiar. Chances are you haven’t heard about the silky smooth 6-4 guard out of Western Carolina but you will soon enough. He has a game to match his name.
Mutombo went largely under the recruiting radar while playing at Pickering High School in Ajax, just a short drive east of Toronto. Playing on team that included current Minnesota Gopher Devoe Joseph and Findlay Prep standout Cory Joseph, he played a role on the team that would win the gold in the Ontario provincial high school championship during his senior season. With the spotlight clearly on Devoe at the time, Mutombo would make his name on the summer AAU circuit.
It was on the AAU road in Las Vegas that he was spotted by Catamounts head coach Larry Hunter.
“My assistant and I were scouting at an 8 a.m. game in an auxiliary gym at an offsite high school when we spotted Harouna. We were there scouting another player but he kept getting our attention during the game. We liked what we saw and we began to recruit him [from then on].”
Harouna had an optional fifth year of high school he could have taken to help with improving his game or academics but instead he opted to enroll early at Western Carolina and arrived on campus December of 2007. He red shirted that season and this gave him some time to get acclimatized to his new environment.
Admittedly, he wasn’t entirely prepared for the DI game when he arrived in Cullowhee, NC. When asked about his transition to the college game, Mutombo readily says the biggest hurdle was the intensity level: “In high school, I was able to take breaks here and there [during the game]. [At this level] you really gotta know your stuff. You can’t take plays off.”
To overcome that, Mutombo did the easiest thing to say but the hardest thing to do: He went to work.
After his first semester at Western Carolina, Harouna spent a part of his summer with his uncle Dikembe in Houston. Harouna spent days working out and playing with pro players. It opened his eyes to what he needed to do to become the player he and his coach thought he could be.
“I’ll never forget when he came back to camp [the following school year],” remembers Hunter. ”He came into my office and he said, ‘Coach, now I know what you mean when you say I have a lot of room to get better and work harder.’ He just made that his mindset.”
When his freshman basketball season finally came around, he was ready to play.
Playing in a mid-major conference, Mutombo’s exploits were regularly outshone by the bright star that was Stephen Curry at Davidson last season. Regardless, Harouna made a huge splash in the Southern Conference leading the Catamounts in both points (14.4) and rebounds (4.6) while placing second in assists (68), steals (56) and blocks (16) and minutes (30.4). The league’s coaches took notice of Harouna and his game and they voted him Freshman of the Year as well as to the SoCon All-Conference second team.
And it didn’t stop there. After he finished up his college season, Canada Basketball invited him to train with the National Team as they prepared for the World Championship Qualifying Tournament where he would be under the tutelage of not only Team Canada’s head coach Leo Rautins but also Raptors’ Maurizio Gherardini and Cavs assistant coach Mike Malone learning the international game, even playing a few exhibition games in Spain for Canada.
With all he’s achieved in his young college basketball career, it’s obvious he has made significant progress from when he first arrived as wide eyed newbie. When asked about his growth as a player, Hunter always returns to Mutombo’s work ethic.
“Anything we gave him, anything to improve his game he took it. He really wants to be worked with and that’s impressed me the most,” gushes the coach. “He’s like a sponge when you coach him, very coachable and very hard working. He wants to be a special player. He’ll be the first to tell you that he has room for improvement. That’s his mentality and that what makes him so good-he wants to get better.”
This season that work ethic will definitely come in handy. As a preseason All-Conference First Team selection by coaches and by many media outlets, he will not be sneaking any 20 point games on teams anymore. Teams will be gearing their defenses to lock up Mutombo, but that doesn’t faze him much. He is aware that he has the target on his jersey and he is ready to accept the challenge. When asked about this season’s expectations, Harouna gives the most all encompassing reply: “I don’t put much pressure on myself. I know that I put in work in the off season and I’ll rely on that to keep me going through the regular season.”
Translation: I’ll get the job done because I work.
Ray Bala is a freelance sports writer from Toronto. Catch Ray covering all things Canadian basketball at Raptors HQ in The Can Ball Report.