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Visa issues thwart USF men’s basketball player Russel Tchewa’s return to U.S.

The 7-footer went home to Cameroon to see his sick father. Now, he can’t get back.
 
USF 7-foot center Russel Tchewa (54) scored in double figures in eight of the Bulls' final 12 games last season, hitting a game-winning shot at the buzzer in a road win at Cincinnati.
USF 7-foot center Russel Tchewa (54) scored in double figures in eight of the Bulls' final 12 games last season, hitting a game-winning shot at the buzzer in a road win at Cincinnati. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 26, 2022|Updated Aug. 27, 2022

TAMPA — USF men’s basketball coach Brian Gregory stepped to a podium this week inside the Selmon Athletics Center to address something profound and disconcerting.

A week before the Bulls football season formally kicks off, it’s Gregory’s program that is receiving a groundswell of national support but for reasons he wouldn’t wish on his most bitter rival.

Seven-foot center Russel Tchewa, who returned to his native Cameroon when his father became seriously ill with COVID-19, can’t get back into the United States due to a student-visa issue.

“To be quite honest, this has been a strain on him and a strain on his family,” Gregory said. “Where he’s from, his family is not accustomed to having Russel around this long and, in a lot of situations, maybe not built for that as well, to have a 7-foot, 270-pound guy. The grocery bills are going off the charts right now.”

A junior who evolved into one of the American Athletic Conference’s most improved low-post players last season, Tchewa went home about a year ago — after a 2020-21 season disrupted by the pandemic — and returned about a month later with no issues.

“Took care of all the stuff that needed to be taken care of,” Gregory said. “And in two days had had his student visa, passport stamp and was able to spend a month (in Cameroon).”

Tchewa wasn’t planning to return home this summer but did so with Gregory’s blessing when his father fell ill, logistically going through the “same exact process as we went through 12 months earlier,” the coach said.

“And that’s led us to this situation that we’re in right now,” Gregory said. “We are continuing to assist Russel in his attempt to get his student visa approved from Cameroon to the United States. It has not been approved yet by the United States. It’s been a lengthy process. We’re coming on four months right now; his initial meeting was May 9.”

Tchewa’s plight has gained national attention, with former Bulls coach Seth Greenberg, a longtime ESPN analyst, saying via Twitter that the player’s inability to get back is “just not right.”

On Thursday, Tchewa issued a brief video message on social media.

“Getting back to the United States and being a student-athlete provides so many opportunities,” said Tchewa, who is scheduled to graduate in December. “One of those opportunities is to get a chance to graduate with my undergraduate degree and start on my masters. I’m thankful to everyone at USF who has been working to resolve this situation, and I can’t wait to get back to my USF family.”

Gregory said the program has received tremendous support from USF’s Office of International Services, as well as from state government agencies and many state lawmakers.

“Our elected officials have been asked and have come to the battle with us,” Gregory said. “They’ve done a great job.”

Tchewa, who speaks four languages and spent parts of his youth in Africa and Italy, currently is residing in a household with roughly a dozen family members, Gregory said. He’s taking online courses, though the five-hour time difference provides logistical difficulties.

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Meantime, the Bulls, coming off an 8-23 season, have begun small-group workouts. Tchewa, projected as a frontcourt cornerstone of the 2022-23 team, averaged 8 points and 5.7 rebounds last season, taking huge strides at the end of the year. He scored in double figures in eight of USF’s final 12 games, sinking a hook shot at the buzzer in a 56-54 road upset of Cincinnati in late February.

“I’m hopeful every day,” said Gregory, who communicates via Zoom with Tchewa almost daily.

“The biggest thing is that it has put him in a difficult situation academically, basketball-wise and with the family. When he gets here, we’ll be able to do whatever we need to do. My biggest concern is just what’s happening with the young man right now.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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