The pandemic has kept many of us from our loved ones for more than a year. Imagine being away from your loved ones — or the person you care about the most — for eight years.
That’s the story of North Carolina Central University forward Kobby Ayetey, who was reunited with his mother, Patience Baaba Ayetey, on March 26 after nearly a decade. It’s not enough to speak of their triumphant reunion, however, without speaking of Ayetey’s coming-of-age journey from a 15-year-old Ghanaian heading to the States to a 24-year-old with the future ahead of him. That journey can be told through not only Ayetey’s eyes, but from the perspective of his mother and coaches:
Kobby Ayetey: Coming here, I wasn’t scared. From the age of 15 to now, I’m still doing good things and on a straight path. I feel like I’ve grown in a lot of areas — mentally. Having your mother away from you, and it’s just you, you have to grow up. It made me a strong man. What my mother instilled in me was great, and I’ve kept that. Coming here by myself mentally was a little bit tough, but I persevered.
My mom wasn’t really in support with me playing basketball when I first started playing. The typical African parent, you know, they’re all about academics. Go to school, go to school. They’ll compare you with your peers: ‘Your friend from church, he’s going to school and he’s doing good. Why don’t you want to go to school? All you do is play sports.’
But I knew what I wanted to do. I had a love and a passion for the game. Sometimes, parents don’t understand what the game can do for you or where the game can take you. That’s something that my coach broke down for me, and I got my coach to talk to my mom. She was more lenient with my curfew times, and she said, ‘My son, if this is what you want to do, and it makes you happy, then you have my blessing.’
Patience Baaba Ayetey: I was a single mother and he was my only child. … But I wanted him to go out and explore, learn what was in the world. When the chance came, I had to give him my blessing.
Kobby: We got through with our prayers. We pray together every day. She always tells me, ‘God brought you here and brought you this far. He’s never going to leave you. Do what you’re doing.’ I’m sad that she wasn’t a part of my adulthood — but she was there in spirit. I was 15 when I came here, and now I’m 24. She told me to be happy and live my life, and we would meet again one day.
Ayetey has spent the last two seasons under the tutelage of NCCU coach LeVelle Moton. Like Ayetey, Moton was raised by his mother and she, too, wanted to keep her son away from the basketball court:
NCCU coach LeVelle Moton: His mom really didn’t want him playing initially, but his love for the game continued to override that fact. My mom didn’t want me playing basketball at the park, either, because the basketball court is the cornerstone of the ‘hood. And there’s a lot more than basketball being played at the basketball court in the ‘hood. I grew up in the ’80s. … That’s where the get-down happens, and my mom knew that. The inception of crack – she didn’t want that. Every time I went up there, I got a whuppin’ for that, and two days later, I would go back.
Eight years? C’mon, man. I go eight hours without mom, and I’m going crazy. His story is palpable, and it makes us appreciate our mothers even more. A lot of us are going crazy through the pandemic, and this is that times eight. Anything I’ve ever done has been to take care of her. … What happens is, you lean on your mom, and that’s all you have. In the midst of that, you worry because if anything happens to mom, I knew my brother and I would have to go into the foster care system, and we didn’t want that. I never took that for granted.
Ayetey arrived in Bowie, Maryland, in October 2013. He attended Capital Christian Academy (CCA) and initially stayed with boys basketball coach Van Whitfield before he settled in with a teammate and his family, who would become his host family.
Kobby: I came here and I didn’t know anyone — not even my coach. I stayed with him from October to December. My teammate, Naim Hodge, and his family invited me to come to Christmas break. His grandmother encouraged the family to also let me come over for New Year’s Eve. Then she asked, ‘Why can’t Kobby just stay with us?’
His mother and grandmother took me in. Just moving here fresh, not knowing anybody, them taking me in was a blessing. They treated me well. It was like being home, but also in America. The only thing was that I didn’t have Ghanaian food, but Grandma got me right. [Laughs.] The mac and cheese, collard greens, cabbage. I love cabbage. She prepared fried chicken and rice. Other differences? The weather was different — it was pretty cold. It was summer all year in Ghana. Also, there were several opportunities out here just with the educational system. The internet was readily available. In Ghana, the educational system just doesn’t compare. Vast difference.
I’m not going to lie to you. It was not easy at all. Being on the other side of the world from your mother. I’m the only child to my mother. I’m the only one she has, and she’s the only one I have. Not being able to see her, feel her, it’s difficult, but it’s a sacrifice that we both have made and are living with. We talk on the phone every day, and we also video call through WhatsApp. … Some days, we’ll talk on the phone and just cry. Eight years is a long time. … She has a lot of patience.
Ayetey’s play at CCA drew the attention of community colleges, including Baltimore City Community College (BCCC). During Ayetey’s two years, he was a “3-and-D” player who earned National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Honorable Mention All-American honors as a sophomore. At the time of his recruitment, his defensive prowess drew the attention of Coach Terry Maczko, who said he was one of his “all-time favorite players”:
BCCC coach Terry Maczko: He was going to Capital Christian when he first came over from Africa. He was there for two or three years and my assistant got to see him, then I got to see him a couple of times, and we liked what we saw. Coming out of high school, he was more known for his defense. We brought him in for a visit, he liked it and the marriage was made.
We soon realized he was very active. From a skill perspective, he was decent, and he was working on his game. He was a hard worker and always had a nose for the ball. He had a really nice stroke. … Over the course of the two years, he turned out to be a really good 3-point shooter and was known for it by the time he left our place.
During his sophomore year, Ayetey averaged 11.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and shot 38% from 3-point range. His skills — and his spirit — were an asset to BCCC’s Panthers.
Mackzo: We used to run a lot of sets for him to get 3-pointers, and teams were so afraid of his shot-making ability that he really set up other guys — slip screens, those types of things. Teams were very conscious of his skills, and because of that, he made other players better.
Everybody was aware that he’d been over here for a number of years and hadn’t seen his family. Kobby, he led by example in the way that he went about his business. He didn’t miss class, got his assignments in, he did well in school. He was early for workouts, stayed late to work on his game. His commitment level to getting better and achieving his goals … there was so much dedication, his teammates couldn’t help but notice that. He would go into the gym to get shots, and he’d bring two or three guys with him. It helped build a good chemistry among the team.
He’s one of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet — very polite. Kobby is one of those kids who’s very charismatic and everyone he comes in contact with, they like him. We talked all the time about his mother, and he had his ups and downs, missing his mother. We’d talk, he’d share some of his feelings, and it’s a huge sacrifice for him and his family to be without each other for so long. We talked about that often, but he was so focused on getting his college education and playing basketball that it was the sacrifice that both he and his family made.
Ayetey crossed paths with Coach Moton during a matchup between NCCU and Howard University in the Washington area. He met with the team and the coaching staff and thought Durham would be “somewhere I feel like would be fun to me.” Ayetey joined the three-time defending Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) champion Eagles, and sure enough, the team won the conference title again. But the pandemic took away an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament last spring, and picked up where it left off at the start of the fall season, which was Ayetey’s senior campaign.
Kobby: We were really looking to come in and play as a team, win the regular season, go to the MEAC tournament and win, but it didn’t happen like that. We didn’t get to play a lot together, and COVID put us in quarantine a lot of times. We would get out and play two days. Then we’d quarantine. … We were out of shape, and it was difficult. We didn’t think COVID would hit us the way we did, but I’m glad we got to play for real. It wasn’t what we’re expecting, but my teammates and I made the best of it.
Moton: People say we didn’t finish how we expected. Hell, we ain’t start how we expected. It was the most trying time I’ve ever experienced in my coaching career, and I’ve been coaching for 20 years. … It was crazy, and it reminded me of the first day my mom first dropped me off at kindergarten; I beat her back to the car. What you think you doing? I lost my mind, because you not just dropping me off by myself, and she tried to sneak out. That’s how quarantine was with our guys, and they had to go through that for 56 days. They no longer cared about competing. They wanted to participate, because participation was better than the alternative. … I wanted to give my seniors a memory. This is going to be the ‘last dance,’ so to speak.
With Kobby, I think the sky’s the limit. He can use basketball to propel himself in life. In this game, it’s two things that can happen — you can use basketball, or it can use you. … He has options on what he would like to do. Whatever he does, or decision he makes, he’ll be fine. He’s cultivated enough relationships for people to help him.
There he was again — looking for his mother. But this time, he wasn’t a teenager. He was a grown man — and at 6-foot-6, standing out in the crowd.
And this time, his mother was only a few feet away. When he saw her, he picked her up and embraced her for the first time in eight years. The tears were overflowing, and so was their joy. They went to the baggage claim to pick up his mother’s bags, and when he scooped up her luggage and put it down, he too, knelt beside it. For a moment, the emotions of her return had overcome him.
Yet, things were different now. His mother, Patience, was here, after a 10-hour flight from Ghana. The plan is for her to stay about “three to four months,” which will take them through Ayetey’s graduation in May. He will graduate with a degree in behavioral and social sciences. They cried, laughed and settled down for a moment. It had all been worth it.
Kobby: The first thing I said was, ‘You’re here. Thank God you’re here.’ She said, ‘We shall meet one day.’ Today is that day.
Patience: I just thank God for this day, for me to see my son. Today is the best day of my life.