Muusa Dama looks like a polished player on the court for the Eastern Illinois men’s basketball team.
The 6-9, 225-pound senior center is able to throw dunks down with ease, he has a turnaround hook shot that is basically undefendable and he’s able to glide up and down the court. During Saturday’s game against SIU Edwardsville, he grabbed a rebound and dribbled almost the full length of the court and even dribbled behind his back, something most centers wouldn’t even attempt.
Plays like those make it seem like Dama has been a basketball player all of his life. Contrary to popular belief, he’s only been playing basketball since he was 16. He’s a converted volleyball and soccer player from Parakou, Benin, in West Africa.
Dama later moved to California and lived with his father, and that’s when he started playing organized basketball full time. Dama said he’s only been playing basketball for five years.
“I was playing volleyball back home, and because I could move and jump and stuff and my height, they said I should try basketball,” Dama said. “I started dunking the ball and I fell in love with the game.”
Dama averaged 9.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game as a senior for Maranatha High School in Pasadena, California.
He played one season at William Jewell College before transferring to Moberly Area Community College. Dama drew EIU coach Jay Spoonhour’s eye there even though he only averaged 4.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.
Dama proved Spoonhour right as a junior last season. Even though he was only in his fourth season of playing basketball, he set the EIU record for blocks in a season with 61, which also led the Ohio Valley Conference. He also led the OVC in rebounds with 9.6 per game.
This season as a senior, Dama is averaging 9.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
Dama, who is an economics major, said his two seasons at EIU have been quite an experience.
“It’s great. Just looking at the improvement alone on and off the court, it’s been a terrific experience for me,” Dama said. “Just getting to learn basketball and learn my major and stuff like that. It’s been good. I love it.”
It’s been a long journey for Dama from Africa to California to Missouri to Charleston.
Before he played basketball, he was also a soccer player. Dama was a midfielder, but he knew he needed to transition sports because of his height.
“I was fast and quick and could do it all basically,” Dama said. “I just quit playing soccer because, for my height, you don’t find too many midfielders in soccer that are 6-9. I was kind of interested in everything growing up, and then I just fell in love with basketball.”
When he first started playing, he didn’t have a decent court to practice on in Africa.
“I started on a very rugged court, barely patches all over the place. The rim couldn’t bear a lot of dunking, so I had to stay off the rim a lot,” Dama said. “It wasn’t a good start.”
Dama was able to find better courts in the United States when he moved to Pasadena to live with his father, who was working on his doctorate. But Dama didn’t move to the U.S. to play basketball. He moved in with his father in order to get a high school education.
“I just went there with the intentions to get my high school diploma,” Dama said. “But that ended up with me getting a scholarship and playing for a private high school in California, then JUCO (junior college) and then EIU.”
Dama’s father still lives in California along with Dama’s younger brother, who is a soccer player. Dama’s mother and sisters still live in Africa. His family comes from a missionary background and moved around a lot.
Dama isn’t able to see his family often but keeps in contact with them as much as possible. He talks with his mother and brother every day. He’s able to talk to his dad once or twice a week.
“It’s tough, but at the same time, it’s my life and this is what I was destined to go through. Thinking a lot about it isn’t going to help me achieve nothing,” Dama said. “I miss interacting with my family, but I know just me working hard now will make it easier to be with them in the future.”
Even though Dama is so far away from his family, he’s been able to be around family of sorts in Charleston. None of Dama’s family members were able to make it for senior day, but Spoonhour gave Dama a big bear hug when he got to midcourt.
Dama’s has quite the bond with his fellow seniors, too, along with junior Aboubacar Diallo, who grew up in the Ivory Coast.
“You get to a place and you have to find people who have the same drive and determination as you do. Just being around people like (Montell Goodwin), (Mack Smith), (Shawn Wilson), (Diallo), all of those guys have a similar story as me,” Dama said. “Even though some of them aren’t from all the way back in Africa, they know what they want in life and are passionate and responsible. Just being around them has kept my head right. If I ever need to talk about anything that I can’t talk to my family about, I can pull one of those guys over and have that conversation.”
Dama’s bond runs a bit deeper with Diallo since they are both from Africa.
“We both speak French all of the time, on the court and off, and we always have a good time,” Dama said. “We relate to each other.”
It hasn’t always been easy for Dama. He’s moved around a good amount and he’s been away from family, but all of it has made him a stronger person.
“It’s been challenging, it’s been good and bad, but at the end of the day, but if I can go through all of that, I am just one step closer to my dreams and achievements,” Dama said.
For Dama, the dream is to be able to play basketball professionally in order to help out this family. He also hopes to be able to start some humanitarian efforts back in Africa.
“I don’t know where I will end up, but I know that’s what I want to do,” Dama said. “I’ve got a lot of business ideas that I’ve seen in this part of the world that we are lacking back in Africa, in my place. Just to establish those businesses and partnerships back home is what I am really looking at after basketball.”
No matter what happens, Dama will embrace whatever his future holds, whether it’s challenging or not, because that’s what got him from Africa to California to EIU, and that’s what has helped him succeed, on and off the court.