LAKELAND — The United States of America is a nation founded on the dreams of immigrants.

For many, the American dream lies in education, and for some, athletics can be the key to education.

A dream of playing basketball and an American education began for four Cote d’Ivoire teenagers when they first placed their hands on a ball.

The African country, like many on the continent, has been racked with civil war, political unrest and the struggle to finally and firmly shake off the vestiges of colonial rule for decades.

These issues touch the lives of children as they play, shaping the dreams that lead to a brighter future.

Emmanuel Ezoua, Herve Gnonkonde Jr., Malick Koné and Teddy Somolo have been playing basketball for 10 years. Their passion, cultivated on the streets and courts of Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, could now ensure a bright academic future for them all.

“That was my dream in Africa,” Ezoua said. “I wanted to come to the United States to play basketball and go to school.”

In the summer of 2008, the boys — all 15 years old — were recruited to play in the 42nd Annual International Children’s Games in San Francisco, Calif.

Cote d’Ivoire — Ivory Coast — was one of three African countries selected to attend the games. The Abidjan basketball team took home the gold after beating the San Francisco team 40-26.

After competition the boys split off, visiting various family and friends living in the states.

Family connections lead the boys to Lakeland.

All except Ezoua went to visit Gnonkonde’s uncle in Atlanta. While there, Koné’s brother in Texas told a friend with college connections about his brother and teammates from Africa. Robert E. Williams, recently hired as the boys basketball coach at Lanier County High School, invited them to a workout session.

After meeting Williams, the boys expressed a desire to move to Lakeland to play for the coach, Principal Tim Cochran said.

After placing a call to Ezoua, Gnonkonde’s uncle agreed to be the legal guardian for all four boys.

“It really was kind of a coincidental thing,” Cochran said.

Things have not been smooth since moving to the states. In October of 2008, Williams resigned from the school. Then when legal troubles prevented the uncle from retaining care of the boys, the community stepped in and helped out.

They now live with Lanier County High School educators, who serve as their legal guardians.

“That’s very common with educators,” Cochran said. “They are not going to allow kids to be thrown out on the streets.”

Most students end up with another family member, Cochran said, but with family hundreds and even thousands of miles away, helping out was the right thing to do.

“Their families want them to be in a stable environment, and we have a lot more to offer them than the Ivory Coast does,” Cochran said.

Their commitment to education is something Cochran hopes to see spread across the campus. Command of the English language is still a work in progress, but all four are A/B students, he said.

Ezoua said the classes in America are too easy.

“In Africa, school is very difficult,” Ezoua said. “Multiple choice tests are easy. In Africa you have to write and write and write.”

Learning another language has not been an unusual undertaking for the teenagers, as all four grew up bilingual.

“In my country we have 60 languages that we speak,” Ezoua said. “Sixty different languages. When Teddy speaks with his father, I can’t understand him.”

Ezoua is clearly the spokesperson for the four and a passionate leader on the court. Gnonkonde, who goes by Junior, is the youngest and quite shy. Though all are 15 years old, Somolo is quick to point out that he is the oldest and will be 16 years old in April.

The boys are patient with questions about their country, no matter how far-fetched or ridiculous they are. The curiosity about their life in Africa is something they find amusing.

“People think in Africa that we all live in huts,” Ezoua said. “We have houses and big buildings, but it is not the same as here. Here the houses are very pretty. There most people that live in the pretty houses are people that have money.”

Though Abidjan is the largest city in Cote d’Ivoire, with skyscrapers and apartments, the differences between the United States and Africa are great, Ezoua said.

Lakeland is prettier than Abidjan, where the trash and sewage often runs in the streets, he said.

Koné said the Lanier County High students can ask some strange questions as they try to understand the culture and country the boys have come from.

“The other day someone asked me if we wore clothes in Africa,” Koné said. “I said no, we don’t wear clothes.”

Sarcasm, it seems, spans all continents.

Though born in Africa, they have a normal teenage boy obsession with ESPN, MTV, food and girls.

“I love to watch basketball,” Ezoua said.

Athletics dominate most of their free time.

They even suited up and took to the football field last fall. Gnonkonde played defense for the Bulldogs and enjoyed the rush that came with tackling an opponent.

This has been the first basketball season played in gymnasiums. In Abidjan all games are played outside, Ezoua said.

“If it rains, you play in the rain,” Koné said.

In Abidjan the boys played against each other in a league — sports are not played at school. Koné and Gnonkonde played together, but all faced off against each other at one time or another.

Who had the better team back home is a conversation lost in a chorus of trash talk in English and French. It wasn’t until they were recruited to play in America that they were placed on the same team.

In his first year coaching at Lakeland, Jared Garner said working with the boys and the rest of the team has been interesting.

Caught up in the high emotion that dominates high school basketball, the boys will sometimes come off the floor talking in French.

“I wait for them to get done then ask them to talk to me in English,” Garner said.

The ultimate goal during their career in Lanier is to win a state championship, Ezoua said.

“But my first plan, our first plan, is to go to college and play basketball,” he said. “We will work very hard to obtain this.”

As region tournament play starts, the boys and Garner are focused on the closest dream — the next win.

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