For the extended family gathered at the home of Raoul Bozo in the northern Cameroon city of Garoua, there was limitless excitement.
Raoul, 20, was headed to America. Better than that, he was headed to America for an education that would be awarded based on his skills--sight unseen, save for a videotape--as a basketball player.
Raoul Bozo may have grown up in soccer-rich Cameroon, but with basketball becoming increasingly global, he saw plenty of televised National Basketball Association games and aspired to emulate Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett.
Cameroon is no longer unfamiliar to basketball coaches. Indeed, the UA last week faced a skilled postman from Cameroon, Brice Vounang, now playing for San Diego.
In a country with more than 16 million people, but just 60,000 Internet users and fewer than 500 Internet hosts, it was the Internet on which Bozo surfed to learn of the success of Brian Peabody and his basketball program at Salpointe Catholic High School. Peabody, during his 1993-2003 run at Salpointe, compiled the best record in Arizona.
"I wanted to play for him; Salpointe is Catholic, and I'm Catholic," Bozo said.
Peabody was in his final year at Salpointe, and Bozo would have to wait--there was no place for him in high school. Then Peabody, despite impressive records and annual postseason appearances, was bounced by an unfriendly principal (who was later fired for multiple complaints of mismanagement) at the prestigious school. Peabody wound up at Pima Community College, where he and his boosters fully expected that he would match his high school achievements.
And Bozo figured in his plans. Peabody was satisfied with what he saw on the tape Bozo shipped from Cameroon showing the angular, 6-foot-4 swingman in game and workout situations.
And so Bozo's family gathered to celebrate and to contribute the hard-to-come-by money to send Bozo to Tucson, where he was promised a scholarship to play for Peabody's rebuilt Pima Aztecs. He planned to earn a degree eventually in international business, ride his basketball talent as far as it took him and then return triumphantly to Cameroon to help his developing country.
He could have continued his studies in Cameroon or in France, which controlled Cameroon until 1960. He also could have taken his skills, developed on club teams in Cameroon, to increasingly basketball-minded France. But America held more promise. Vounang, the star at San Diego, took the same, if less-turbulent, basketball odyssey; his talents took him first to a remote junior college then to Division I San Diego.
"America is the American Dream," Bozo said. "When you have a degree from the United States, you can do more, get more. It means more. You can get better jobs."
On his 20-hour trip to Tucson nearly a year ago, Bozo covered the big territory that is the George H.W. Bush Airport in Houston ("I've never walked more in any airport, including Charles de Gaulle in Paris"); found the gate for his Tucson connection; and struck up a conversation with a young woman also catching the Tucson flight. She told him she went to the UA, and when he said he was going to Pima to study and play basketball, she turned downcast and said, as Bozo remembers, "Oh, you're not going to like it."
At first, Bozo believed that the woman, with a little parochial pride, meant he would be better off at the UA. Then the comment began to gnaw on him.
It turned out, in a big way, to be an omen.
Peabody signed Bozo up for a scholarship worth $15,750, according to papers Peabody and other Pima officials signed. Peabody, who has long earned sizeable profits from real estate speculation in Tucson, personally promised to provide Bozo--while acting as a sponsor of Bozo, an international student--with $5,634, records show.
But Bozo has not played one second for the Aztecs. Peabody is long gone, bolting from Pima in May with characteristic immodesty.
"I had hoped to build a national championship contender," Peabody told Arizona Daily Star sports columnist Greg Hansen. "But the administration chose to go in another direction. I wish them the best."
Peabody was 7-23 in his only year at Pima. He alighted as an assistant coach for the Western Carolina University Catamounts in Cullowhee, N.C. Peabody did not return calls from the Weekly.
Bozo said Peabody, the coach he dreamed of playing for, stopped paying attention to him long before he executed his exit.
And now Pima Community College--from bureaucrats to deans to lawyers to the head man, Chancellor Roy Flores--wishes Bozo would get lost. After stripping Bozo of most of his benefits, accusing him of making threats against himself and Flores and forcing his commitment to a mental ward, Pima's administration wants Bozo deported.
Things were much different when Bozo arrived. Peabody dispatched John Ash, a popular basketball figure from a prominent family in Tucson, to pick him up at the airport.
Ash, to Bozo, only enhanced what he believed Peabody and Pima thought of him. But that, just like the scholarship and promises, was illusory.
"I was going to stay with him," Bozo said. "I stayed with him only one night."
Ash, a fireplug guard, played at Salpointe Catholic and then made the roster at the UA. He rode the bench for five years, yet was a fan favorite and even got a ring for the UA's 1997 national championship. He now makes his money in commercial real estate.
When Bozo finally laced up his Adidas shoes at Pima, he was quickly told to wait until next year. Not a problem, he thought.
"I needed to work on my defense. I knew that. Defense is more complicated here. And I needed to work on my quickness. Basketball is a something like an art," Bozo said.
Still, even in practice, Bozo said, "it felt great" to be part of the team. "The guys were great."
And he would be able to concentrate on classes that included English as a Second Language. Besides his native languages, Bozo, also speaks French, an official language in Cameroon.
And school was paid for. Peabody signed an affidavit of support Nov. 3, 2003, for Pima's International Student Services Office committing $5,634 that he swore he would provide to Bozo, records show. The Wells Fargo Bank branch, at 4669 E. Broadway Blvd., verified Peabody had the funds.
Pima backed that up with a commitment for Bozo to receive $5,300 for international student tuition and fees, $800 for books and supplies, $650 for health insurance and $9,000 for room and board.
Yet Bozo ended up homeless and just able to avoid sleeping on the streets. The money didn't come, and he was forced to crash with teammates, followed by an assistant coach, then another host.
By January, Peabody had cooled toward his prize African recruit. On Jan. 7, Peabody wrote a "To Whom It May Concern" letter that claimed: "Due to misleading communication and extenuating circumstances, I, Brian Peabody, am withdrawing all financial support and relinquishing all prior agreements with Bozo Raul Alfred."
Bozo had other problems.
Pima counselors signed him up for an insufficient number of courses and credits. Besides English as a Second Language, he was enrolled in a couple of basketball classes, a writing class and a weight-training class. He was shy of the required level for sports eligibility--but he didn't know that. And nobody bothered to tell him.
When he learned of the deficiency, Jane Olcott, Pima's director of International Education, said she had the "power to sign" Bozo up for nine credits and "tell the Immigration and Naturalization Service that you're signed up for 12 units and fulltime."
Although Pima lodges many of its out-of-town athletes in apartments, Bozo still did not have the apartment he said Peabody promised him.
Just before the Super Bowl, Bozo says, the assistant coach he'd been staying with told him he could no longer stay with him. Bozo had been there for 45 days. He stayed with a teammate and then ended up at the home of a Tucson woman as a boarder.
Bewildered and admittedly lonely for his family, Bozo took to the phone. He talked and talked and soon racked up $3,000 in phone bills.
"I didn't know about phone bills and the cost," he said.
That prompted an exit from that house. But it was several more months, in June, when Bozo was provided an apartment that the college rented on Tucson's westside. He also was given the long-delayed meal ticket, for Furr's Cafeteria across the street from the apartment complex, and a bus pass.
In late May, with the spring semester at a close, Nancee Sorenson, dean of student services for Pima's West Campus, stepped in. She asked Bozo what he wanted and put him in contact with the chancellor's office.
As he talked with Flores' staff, a nastier undercurrent developed. Pima began accusing Bozo of marketing himself to Peabody and the school with a bogus tape. School officials claimed the tape was a fake, that the player who enticed Peabody to offer Bozo a two-year scholarship was not really Bozo.
When Bozo told his family about the problems he was facing, they reacted with surprise.
"My dad didn't believe me. He said he knew about the United States, and that this sort of thing could not happen here. When I told him it was about money and that I needed help, he believed me," Bozo said.
A few weeks later, Sorenson told Bozo that he either needed help--money--from his family, or to go home.
Bozo met with administrators, and his frustration grew to despair.
Outside the college's Downtown Campus on a hot day late last spring, he looked across Stone Avenue and saw a sign on the law office of Gale Dean. "Personal Injury," it read.
Bozo believed he had been personally injured.
He walked into Dean's office and asked to speak with him. Dean, in practice for more than 30 years, could have done what most lawyers would do for a kid like Bozo--nothing. Dean's son played basketball for Pima under Mike Lopez, but Dean, busy with career and family, didn't pay much attention to Pima basketball after that. He did, however, pay attention to Bozo and his story. He decided to take the case--and it has not been easy.
Pima quickly began spending taxpayer and student money by bringing in lawyers Wayne Yehling and John Richardson, of DeConcini McDonald Yetwin and Lacy. But Dean and those two seemed to be making progress toward a settlement, particularly when the contracts Peabody and Pima signed for Bozo's financial support were reviewed.
Pima officials continued to tell Bozo to go home, to return to Cameroon. The frequency of that line, combined with the slow-moving settlement, sent Bozo into a deeper funk; one day, he wondered aloud if he should kill himself.
The problem is that he said it while in a college office. Security was summoned; he was restrained and sent to the psychiatric unit of the Pima County hospital, Kino Community Hospital. He spent three days there in the summer.
"You have to understand, he was distraught. He was ashamed to go home a failure. For his culture, the only honorable thing would be to kill himself," Dean said.
Dean continued to work with Yehling and Richardson and secured a letter from a Kino doctor certifying that Bozo was not a threat to himself or others. Pima would agree to allow Bozo to stay in the Zona Rio apartment the college leased until June 2005.
"I was happy," Dean said. "I thought we had a good agreement."
But just as the agreement was to be faxed among lawyers for signatures, Pima officials told Bozo that he needed to take 17 units one semester and 21 units the next or face expulsion from school and eviction from the apartment.
Although his English is expanding and improving, Bozo knew there was no way he could successfully complete 21 units.
Bozo did what seemed ordinary and natural to him, but was a unilateral move that no lawyer would allow. Without Dean's knowledge, he hopped the bus to the chancellor's office and waited a couple of hours to see Flores. He wanted to know why this deal- breaker--to take 21 units in a semester--was added to the conditions.
Flores' staff warned him by phone that Bozo was waiting to see him. But they couldn't wear down Bozo with a wait long enough for him to give up and leave. Eventually, he got to see the chancellor.
"Mr. Chancellor," Bozo said he told Flores, "I have some difficulties with some of my classes, mostly because of my English. There is no way I can take 21 units in one semester. I want to extend my time until the spring of 2006."
Flores, Bozo said, declined.
"Then Mr. Chancellor, you don't care about my education," Bozo said he told Flores, who has led Pima's change of direction in athletics to focus on local athletes rather than the ambitious, national and international recruiting missions launched by Peabody and Pima football coach Jeff Scurran.
Flores' reaction stings Bozo to this day.
"He told me, 'Bozo, you were nothing. I gave you everything. I paid for your classes. I paid for your apartment. I paid for your bus. I paid for your food.'"
Flores gave Bozo five days to accept the deal, including the heavy load of courses. Bozo, raised to await a move by the elder, was offered no handshake from Flores. Fearing more overactive Pima cops, Bozo quietly left.
Flores, outwardly polite, even dignified, declined to respond to the Weekly's question about what happened to Bozo.
"I can't speak about that," Flores said. "It is an issue of litigation that limits me to almost zero to what I can say." However, Flores acknowledged that the matter "at one time" appeared to have been settled.
Yehling also said he and Richardson could not address questions about the recruitment of Bozo or his treatment here, because Bozo has filed a legal claim against the college.
Bozo said he was deeply troubled after his meeting with Flores. He was a world away from home. He again faced the crushing pressure of failing, of letting down his father, a retired customs worker; his mother, a descendant of African royalty; and all those who chipped in to pay for his trip to play basketball and score an American dream.
He went to his college-provided job, and more hell broke loose.
"They allege," Dean said, "that Mr. Bozo made some statement about wanting to burn down the chancellor's house. Mr. Bozo denies saying that."
The words nonetheless spread like a fire. Soon, Dean of Student Services Sorenson called in Bozo's boss, and a statement was quickly prepared placing that statement as coming from Bozo's mouth.
The knock on Bozo's apartment door also came swiftly. Three Pima cops delivered a letter that stated Bozo would be arrested if he showed up on any of the Pima College campuses.
Bozo was given the right to appeal. The hearing officer, however, worked for Flores. The expulsion was upheld. After a little more discussion, and lawyering, an alternative was offered: Bozo could agree to a one-year suspension and reapply. College officials would agree to consider his application in a year.
Neither Dean nor Bozo bought into that.
Flores and his team then sought to kick Bozo out of the apartment; the college stopped paying the utilities. But Pima and its lawyers hit a snag--the lease lists co-tenants. Pima is a tenant, and Bozo is a tenant; his name is on the Zona Rio Apartments lease. Pima threatened to kick Bozo out on Oct. 30; he's still in the apartment.
Pima has continued to push Bozo to go home. College officials have threatened to have the INS intervene for deportation.
But Bozo confounded the college on that move: He married Titania Mailboy, a Tohono O'odham woman and United States citizen, in early October.
Bozo now works out to stay in shape in hopes of playing collegiate basketball. He sometimes hooks up with UA players. On a sunny day this month, he shot around at Menlo Park. After watching his graceful, right-handed jumper, young students walking home through the park stopped to gaze at the long-armed shooter. "Dunk it," implored one student. Bozo obliged with a tomahawk to the young kids' delight.
But this is shooting around in a park. The game seems far removed, stripped away by Pima Community College.
"I'm sure I could be in the starting five right now," Bozo said.
Most followers of Pima basketball saw the Bozo case as a cause for Peabody's rapid departure. But even Dean said that it is improper for the blame to be placed solely on the flamboyant, one-year coach.
"They have tried to slough this off on Peabody and as a mistake," Dean said. "But Peabody was cloaked in the authority of Pima. Pima is on the hook for what Peabody did."
Dean is pursuing a legal remedy for Bozo. He has filed a $1 million claim against Pima, Flores, Sorenson, Louis Albert (the president of the West Campus), Olcott, Peabody, Randall Moore (the former Pima athletic director) and six other college officials.
The claim states that Bozo was wrongfully expelled from school and has "suffered severe damage to my personal reputation and general well-being." The claim alleges defamation of character, intentional infliction of emotional distress, beach of contract, fraud and racial discrimination.
Pima's five-member governing board must vote on a response to the claim, required by state law as a precursor to a lawsuit, within 60 days.