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'Let's talk about life': Basketball, Mozambican heritage define Billings Skyview senior Kendal Manuel

'Let's talk about life': Basketball, Mozambican heritage define Billings Skyview senior Kendal Manuel

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Each night, Kody Hert walks into her son’s bedroom.

Kendal Manuel knows what’s coming, but his mom sits on his bed and says it anyway:

“Let’s talk about life.”

The conversations often cover topics that occupy the life of any ordinary senior at Billings Skyview High School.

School. Basketball. Girls.

Hert and Manuel, 17, are best friends, so there are no secrets between mother and son. It’s a two-way street, too. Hert wants to know every detail of Kendal’s life, and he asks her about hers — “You can’t get her to stop talking,” he said with chuckle.

Sometimes the talks might look to the past.

Like to Kendal’s African heritage — according to the family, Kendal’s dad, Paulo Manuel, is late South African President Nelson Mandela’s nephew.

Or to the time when Kendal was 5 years old and rode in fear on his grandmother’s back as she danced and chanted during a traditional Mozambican ceremony.

Or when, as an 8-year-old with an African accent, he used basketball to assimilate into the American culture in coastal Maine.

Or when he witnessed first-hand the carnage in New Orleans less than six months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.

Or when Kendal sheared sheep and branded cattle in tiny Melstone before ultimately ending up back in Billings, where he was born 13 years earlier.

At other times, they’ll talk about the future and basketball’s role in the next stages of his life. They’ll talk about recruiting, preparatory school and college choices.

As Kendal’s life has weaved through diverse cultures, basketball and his ability to play it at a high level has been a steady influence. It — along with his dynamic experiences — has shaped the man he’s becoming and likely will determine his future.

“It’s a constant cycle. Basketball’s been there,” Kendal said. “It’s helped me create friends and everything. It’s just been a fun ride.”

• • •

Kendal didn’t have much of a choice but to love basketball. His mom would have likely played collegiately if not for a torn ACL her senior year of high school at Hysham, and his dad played for the Mozambique National Team.

Hert met Paulo Manuel when the two were in school at Miles Community College in Miles City. Paulo Manuel came to Montana to play basketball with three of his cousins.

“Just being a guy from Africa and beating the odds and being able to come get a scholarship in the U.S., it doesn’t matter where it was, that’s a big statement,” Kendal said.

Paulo Manuel, who eventually earned a degree from Rocky Mountain College, missed a semester of school, which led to his deportation in 2001. Kendal was 4 years old. Twin sisters TyLee and TyRaa had just arrived.

The family moved to Paulo’s home of Mozambique, a country of approximately 26 million people in southeast Africa. They lived in Maputo, the capital.

Paulo’s dad is Graça Machel’s brother. Machel married Mandela in 1998 12 years after her first husband, Mozambique President Samora Machel, was killed in a plane crash.

“Kind of crazy,” Kendal says of the royalty in his lineage.

Geographically and culturally, Maputo is halfway around the world from Montana. Kendal claims the lifestyle, especially for young children, isn’t much different — though there are exceptions.

“We had a nice house, nice furniture and maids. Nice stuff,” Hert said. “Then you go to see (great) Grandma, and Grandma lives in a hut.”

The village where Kendal’s great-grandmother lives is about a 50-mile drive from Maputo. Ten grass huts with dirt floors comprise the village, which shares a community water spigot.

Kendal remembers the children using sticks to roll old bicycle wheel rims for entertainment.

His late grandmother, Paulo’s mother, lived in the underdeveloped outskirts of Maputo. Paulo offered to move her to more plush living quarters in the city, but she declined.

On Kendal’s first visit to her house, his grandmother picked him up, wrapped him in cloth and danced with him on her back as other tribal members sang and chanted. The dance was part of a ceremony welcoming young children.

For Kendal, whose first years were in Montana, it was culture shock.

“I’m sitting there like, ‘Mom, she’s gonna eat me!’ I was freaking out,” he recalled, now laughing at the absurdity. “I was just so scared.”

Kendal soon embraced his African heritage, though. He learned to speak six languages: Shangaan, Swahili, Portuguese, French, English and “a little bit of Arabic.”

Portuguese was Kendal’s first language, but he quickly picked up the international language of basketball. He would shoot on side baskets in arenas while his dad played with other members from the national team.

Kendal landed on a youth basketball team sponsored by Sprite when he was 6. They traveled to other African nations — Angola and Swaziland among them — to play in games and tournaments.

Though they spent countless hours in the gym together in Africa, Kendal and Paulo rarely keep in touch now. There may be an occasional Facebook message, but the two have only seen each other once in the past decade.

Paulo Manuel operates a limousine service in Maputo and works in the Ministry of Education, but he always wanted Kendal and his sisters to go to school in the United States.

“It means a lot to me just knowing where I’m from and knowing I have the opportunity to do something big over here,” Kendal said. “Like, none of (the family) would even get a chance to do that.”

• • •

Kendal returned stateside in 2004.

The family had been flying back and forth between Mozambique and Montana for three years. Hert was in her mid-20s and had never experienced life outside of Montana. She eventually grew tired of living on another continent.

So she moved back to the United States, settling in Brunswick, Maine, a coastal town just north of Portland.

Though the move wasn’t especially challenging — “Pretty sweet actually,” Kendal said — the kids could be cruel. Kendal spoke English, but the nuances were different than American English. It took time for him to get back in the flow, and kids would poke fun at his accent.

Basketball provided the path to assimilation. Kendal grew up with a ball in his hands and both parents coached him early. He has always been better at the game than most kids.

“When I first got to Maine, I didn’t have friends,” he said. “I saw everybody playing basketball, and I was like, ‘All right, I’ll go play.’ From then on, I ended up adding friends and playing in the (recreational) league there.”

The stay in Maine was short-lived. Hert married a Navy man, Drew Porter, who was assigned to New Orleans as part of the post-Hurricane Katrina cleanup late in 2005.

But Kendal, in basketball, had found the door that would ease his immersion into any new locale.

• • •

Kendal’s basketball excellence continued to grow, and it was becoming clear that he was a special talent.

In New Orleans, he was on NBA star Chris Paul’s AAU team, even playing at the New Orleans Arena, then home of the NBA franchise. The Pelicans remain Kendal’s favorite team.

Sports provided an outlet for the citizens of a city in shambles.

Dirt and mud covered the streets and buildings that remained. Trees were toppled and houses destroyed, uprooting families and forcing them to resort to begging or living in the Superdome.

Kendal, just 9 when the family arrived, understood the gravity. He and his family lived on the naval base, which limited their personal challenges, but nobody could erase the images of a downtrodden community.

“I saw a lot of people’s morale down,” Kendal said. “I actually had friends that were going through it with their families. Seeing the way it had affected them and seeing how good of a life I had and not having to deal with any of that, it was definitely a life-changing moment. You realize you don’t want to take anything for granted.”

• • •

Embracing each day is easier said than done, especially when you’re bouncing between cultures. Kendal never lost his positive attitude, though, and that was never more evident than when he and his younger siblings moved from New Orleans to Melstone.

Hert’s marriage with Porter ended, and she decided it was time to move her family back home. She didn’t have a career and Kendal was tired of moving, so he asked his mom if they could settle down.

Hert worried about stability while getting her feet under her in Billings, so she reluctantly made a decision: Her children would live with her aunt and uncle until she had her life in order.

Art and Yvonne Kincheloe invited the kids to stay with them in Melstone. It was a temporary solution, but Kendal considers the three-plus years he lived there to be some of the most important years of his life.

The Kincheloes gave him everyday chores at their ranch. He sheared sheep and branded calves. He learned to ride horses and drive a car.

“I had some great experiences in Melstone,” he said. “Not a lot of kids get to go live on a ranch and have the freedom out there to do whatever you want. I’m glad I had to go through it, because it’s kind of helped me become who I am, too.”

In his spare time, Kendal was in the gym. His fifth- and sixth-grade teams were routinely beating teams comprised of kids two or three years older. The anticipation of his high school career mounted, and the locals began dreaming of state championships.

Jason Grebe, a longtime friend of the family and Melstone’s boys basketball coach, observed Kendal’s maturation — on and off the court.

Kendal returned to Billings in 2010. Grebe jokes that Kendal’s departure cost Melstone a couple state titles, but Grebe saw the positive effect Melstone was having on Kendal as a person.

“I think he learned a lot of values in Melstone,” Grebe said. “I think that’s where Melstone’s helped his life.”

• • •

The move to Billings has proven equally important.

He’s been back for nearly five years, making it the longest stretch of stability of his life. Kendal has always carried himself with a quiet confidence, but his comfort level continues to grow.

“You couldn’t ask for a better kid,” Skyview boys basketball coach Kevin Morales said. “I would let my daughter date him. He’s that type of kid off the floor. I could trust him. I look to him for the vibe of our team, too.”

He’s been at Skyview throughout high school and has developed into one of the state’s top players. At 6-foot-4 and still growing, he’s a quick-scoring guard equally adept at shooting from the perimeter and driving and finishing through contact at the basket.

“He’s really developed into that scoring guard,” Morales said. “I think he’s got one of the purest forms and purest shots in Montana.”

Kendal had his coming-out party last season when he was second in Class AA in scoring, averaging better than 21 points per game. He punctuated his junior season with a 32-point performance in a win over Billings Senior to qualify for the state tournament.

It was the kind of effort that has college coaches around the region salivating while simultaneously scratching their heads. Kendal had just three points at halftime.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re up 20 (points) or down 20, I’m going to go give it my all,” Kendal said. “I feel like I’m the type of player, if things are going right for my team, I’m going to try to do whatever it is I can do to go out there and make sure we get things done.”

It’s a mindset that was borne out of his life experiences.

Kendal has learned to embrace challenges, and his perseverance is being rewarded. The countless hours of studying Michael Jordan highlights and imitating the moves in the driveway — day or night, rain or shine — are paying off, too.

Last summer, Kendal declined an invitation to play on the Mozambican national team to focus on his AAU circuit, which has helped him draw interest from Division I colleges from around the region. Since he just turned 17 in September, going to preparatory school for one year is an option as well.

This fall, he’s even been contacted by some schools about playing college football.

Despite the attention and accolades, Kendal remains humble. Basketball is just a small part of what defines him. But on a journey with few certainties, it has been one of few guarantees — basketball, his siblings, and his best friend sitting on his bed every night with the comforting words:

“Let’s talk about life.”

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Online sports editor for The Billings Gazette.

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