Romaric Belemene is part of a growing trend in Spanish basketball. And the athletic Unicaja Malaga forward is quite thankful. The native of the Republic of the Congo is one of a number of African-born players who are playing for the youth teams at Spain’s top clubs.
Belemene is finishing his third season with Unicaja and played a huge role in getting the Spanish team to the ADIDAS NEXT GENERATION TOURNAMENT Finals. The 2.05-meter forward averaged 15.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.6 blocks at the Rome qualifying tournament and the ANGT Finals at the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four. It marked his third time competing in the event since arriving in Spain. Playing at his first ANGT Finals, Belemene was impressed with the steady improvement of the teams involved.
"I think that every season the playing level gets better," Belemene said. "The best teams in Europe come to the Final Four tournament. They are taller, more-physical teams than in previous tournaments."
Belemene helped keep Unicaja competitive in Madrid, where it lost to eventual runner-up Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade by just 5 points, beat Zalgiris Kaunas by 5 points and fell to Spars Sarajevo by 3. His game relies on his superb athleticism and his passion for the game, which leads him to regularly throwing his body around for loose balls and playing tough defense.
"I gave everything I had, with all of my energy, but things didn't work out well for me as I had expected," Belemene said. "But I did what I could and I am happy with the job I did. Most importantly, we competed and I fought with all of my soul."
It’s that heart and energy that has earned Belemene playing time in four Spanish League games for Unicaja this season. In fact, he scored his first point for Unicaja’s senior team during the season.
“I am very happy with the way I am improving and the chances the club is giving me. I am working hard and still have a lot of things to improve, which I can only do by working hard," Belemene said. "I did a lot of things working hard and can get better if I keep doing that. I hope to be at a high level soon."
Belemene has made major strides in all aspects of his game since coming to Spain from Congo three years ago. He is one of many African players who made the jump to the Iberian Peninsula. Among Belemene’s Unicaja teammates this season at the ANGT Finals were Ablaye Sow from Senegal and Viny Okouo from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last season, Belemene and Okouo were joined by another Senegalese forward, Bruno Diatta.
Unicaja Malaga is just one of a handful of Spanish clubs bringing in African players. At the recent ANGT Finals, Souleymane Diakite from Mali played for Canarias Basketball Academy and Atoumane Diagne from Senegal played for Barcelona. African players also had an impact on 2014 ANGT finalist and 2015 ANGT champion Real Madrid with Senegalese Samba Ndiaye. Last season the Madrid club had Ndiaye as well as compatriot Waly Niang and Jonathan Kasibabu from the same country as Belemene.
The Unicaja forward appreciates the offer that he and the other African players received to develop their careers in Spain. "It is an opportunity for us African young players to have Spanish clubs counting on us and giving us this opportunity to come here to Europe, where everything is more developed, and improve," Belemene said. "We can study and play at a good level, do what we need to become good players. I can only thank Spain and its clubs for what they do for us. I hope that more African players will come here with great willingness to work. Let's see if any of them can reach a high level."
Belemene would like to use the opportunity that he has to help others back in his homeland. "I am helping my country as much as I can. Sometimes, I can go back with some sports material - basketball clothes, jerseys and stuff like that," he said.
Belemene also tries to organize tournaments and talk to clubs and agents about getting more of his younger compatriots to Europe. And he’s not nearly done yet.
According to Belemene, "In the future, if I get to be a big player, I have a lot of plans to help my country."