We sometimes hear stories of athletes fighting through adversity.
It could be someone who's dealt with an injury, someone who's trying to make a comeback when the cards are stacked against them. But regardless of what it is, those stories are usually the ones we pay close attention to.
In this case, it was a man that was forced to take a year off from playing basketball due to academics.
It was a year that defined Ryerson Rams fifth-year guard Jean-Victor Mukama, who truly exemplifies the story of resilience.
“In August, it really hit me that I’m not playing,” Mukama says. “I was thinking basketball was done.”
A wave of motions started to hit Mukama, when he realized he wasn’t going to be playing that upcoming season. With the team coming off its first-ever OUA championship in 2016 and winning bronze at the national tournament, he didn’t want to look back thinking that they could’ve won if he was there.
His head coach, Roy Rana and former assistant Patrick Tatham, now coaching at McMaster, provided him with all the resources he needed to succeed in the classroom. While also attending games courtside, he was going to practices from time to time to watch. He even joined the team in Ottawa to shootaround and help prepare for the Wilson Cup Final Four.
“It felt good to put a jersey back on in practice,” he said. “Just the thought of them going to the OUA championship, my stress was going up.”
Mukama felt as though he was still part of the team, even though he was watching from the sideline that season, celebrating with them after successfully defending the conference championship over Carleton.
The Rams went on to compete in their first ever national championship final, ultimately winning a silver medal, while Mukama focused on himself, learning lifelong lessons in the process.
“I grew three years in that one year,” Mukama says. “They can’t walk me to class, they can’t teach me good habits, they can’t force me to pick up a book and read it, it was really up to me.”
After a great year in the classroom, Mukama was welcomed back with open arms by Rana and the coaching staff. Looking back, the roadblock he overcame was not only a testament to his character but a defining moment in his university career.
“For someone to say ‘My academics are important to me, school is important to me and being a Ryerson Ram is important to me and I’m going to take a whole year and not be part of the team and just focus on trying to improve myself as a person and succeed as a student,’ and then come back and play basketball – that’s not an easy thing for anyone,” Rana says.
Returning for his fourth year in 2017-18, Mukama played in all 23 regular season games for Ryerson, averaging 11.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists per contest.
In the Final 8 tournament, the goal was to win it all, and the only team in their way was the Calgary Dinos.
A close battle with Calgary saw Mambi Diawara hit a game-winning layup to catapult the Dinos to their first-ever national championship.
After the devastating loss, Mukama vividly recalls getting back to the hotel and the team having dinner together and hearing Rana reflect on their journey to Halifax.
“Probably one of my favourite moments last year, he came and talked to us about how proud he was – to him this is why he coaches for the good and the bad,” Mukama says. “It was an emotional time, but it’s something I’ll never forget.”
About a month after the tournament, Mukama received a text from Rana that he and teammate Ammanuel Diressa were selected to represent Canada in the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.
It was one of the best trips Mukama has ever been on, being able to play one last time with one of his best friend in Diressa, while also experience an Opening Ceremony – something he never thought would be possible growing up.
“For him to have that opportunity to go to a Commonwealth Games and be around that set of athletes and coaches in that environment, I think it was a real eye-opener for him,” Rana says. “I think it gave him a better appreciation and understanding of what basketball is like at the highest level.”
This past summer, Mukama invested countless hours in the gym, determined to take his game to the next level and make sure his fifth and final year at Ryerson is a memorable one.
Looking back to those that came before him, Mukama sought advice from Rams alumni Adika Peter-McNeilly, Diressa, Juwon Grannum and Jahmal Jones. Heading into the season, he garnered advice on how to approach this upcoming season and seeing what worked for them in previous years.
“They told me don’t try to copy what we did, be your own leader because we’re all different,” Mukama says. “We didn’t lead the same way, there’s not a blueprint on how to be a leader.”
Mukama has made it an emphasis to take everything he’s learned in his years at Ryerson and spread it around with the younger guys on the roster.
Harping on the importance of time management and making sure they are on top of their academics, while also being there to just chat if they ever need it.
“He cares about the people in the program, he cares about his coaches, he cares about everyone that’s here,” Rana says. “That’s a tremendous tribute to him and a tremendous tribute to our program. I have to say he’s carrying on a tradition that others before him did.”
Through the first 15 games of this season, Mukama is averaging 19.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists on 51.9 per cent from the field, while shooting 41.2 per cent from long distance.
Improving in almost every single statistical category doesn’t mean much to Mukama unless the Rams can get back to the national tournament and win the program’s first national title.
“Being in my fifth year, I’m trying to do it for everybody that has been in that position trying to attain that goal,” he says. “I’m trying to do it for them, that’s my extra motivation.”
Libaan is a second-year journalism student at Ryerson University. He’s written for several publications covering the Toronto Raptors and the NBA. In 2017, he travelled to Halifax to report on the U SPORTS Men’s Basketball Final 8 tournament for The Eyeopener, Ryerson’s campus newspaper. Libaan is most excited to showcase the phenomenal level of play U SPORTS has to offer through his writing.