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After summer ordeal, Christmas brighter than ever for USF’s Russel Tchewa

The 7-footer’s basketball career blossomed last season, then was derailed in the summer.
USF 7-foot center Russel Tchewa (54) fist bumps a fan after the Bulls ' 77-70 victory Monday against Hofstra at the Yuengling Center. The triumph gave the Bulls their first four-game win streak in two years.
USF 7-foot center Russel Tchewa (54) fist bumps a fan after the Bulls ' 77-70 victory Monday against Hofstra at the Yuengling Center. The triumph gave the Bulls their first four-game win streak in two years. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 22, 2022|Updated Dec. 23, 2022

TAMPA — After a fairly pedestrian first half, “Big Russ” got wound up as the critical seconds wound down.

With 1:31 to play Monday night against Hofstra, USF men’s basketball behemoth Russel Tchewa grabbed an offensive rebound and pivoted his 7-foot body in the lane for a turnaround layup to give his resurgent team a four-point lead. Eleven seconds later, with the Bulls up by three, he snagged a missed Hofstra free throw.

A minute or so later, with the Bulls’ lead down to one, Tchewa sank another soft layup. He then sealed the outcome by grabbing a missed Hofstra basket and drawing a foul with four seconds to play, sinking both ensuing free throws to cap a 77-70 victory.

“It wasn’t that easy for me (Monday),” Tchewa said, his French accent dripping with bouillabaisse richness. “I missed a couple of shots around the basket, but I just stayed the course, stone-faced, the whole game, and I knew I was going to get (going).”

As his peers might put it, “Big Russ” has been balling.

Monday’s performance at Yuengling Center (13 points, eight rebounds) extended a stretch in which the Bulls and their 280-pound junior center have concurrently flourished. In the last five games, Tchewa (pronounced CHEE-wah) has sank 68% of his shots (23-for-34), averaged 8.2 rebounds and sabotaged opposing offensive schemes with his positioning.

The Bulls (7-6) have won all five.

“He’s the best ball-screen-coverage big man in the country,” sixth-year USF coach Brian Gregory said. “We have multiple ball-screen coverages, and he’s the best at it. In this day and age, there’s nobody better than him.”

In his third year at USF, 7-foot junior Russel Tchewa is evolving into a force at both ends of the floor. "He's the best ball-screen-coverage big man in the country," sixth-year Bulls coach Brian Gregory said.
In his third year at USF, 7-foot junior Russel Tchewa is evolving into a force at both ends of the floor. "He's the best ball-screen-coverage big man in the country," sixth-year Bulls coach Brian Gregory said. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Hence the reason Tchewa’s radiance these days would illuminate a full campus block. Finding yourself in a groove sure beats finding yourself in limbo.

Preceding this prosperous winter was arguably the most harrowing summer of his 22-year-old life.

“It was really awful,” he said.

Stranded at home

Tchewa’s physical enormity is complemented by other equally fascinating dimensions. At his core, he’s a renaissance man who happens to rebound.

Born in the west-central African country of Cameroon and educated for part of his youth in Italy, he speaks four languages (English, French, Italian and Cameroonian English, an English dialect). One of five siblings, his father’s an electrical engineer. At Texas Tech, where he spent one season before transferring to USF, he majored in math. Earlier this month, he earned his bachelor’s degree in communications.

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“Sometimes, he’s too smart,” Gregory said. “Smarter than me.”

Two summers ago, he returned to his native country — with nary a student-visa complication — for his first extended quality time with family in nearly a half-decade. His initial plan this past summer was to remain in Tampa, but he asked to return home when his father, Samuel Tchamadeu, became ill with COVID-19.

Tchewa made it to his sprawling hometown of Douala (population of nearly three million) on May 6 with no logistical glitches, turning in all required paperwork with the U.S. Embassy in Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital city. Before his scheduled return on June 11, he planned to compete with the Cameroon National Team, which was playing in an International Basketball Federation (FIBA) qualifying competition.

As that team began its travel plans, Tchewa discovered his student visa had been flagged.

“I made a mistake on my visa application,” he said.

“So basically, they asked me where I was born and where I’m staying. So I said I was born in the U.S. and I stayed in Cameroon. It was supposed to be the opposite. But I made a mistake because they asked that question more than five or seven times. So I was confused.”

That seemingly benign error begat a summer of trepidation.

Tchewa scurried to correct the application and get it through proper channels but heard nothing regarding approval. A month became two, then three. Suddenly, his graduation schedule was being jeopardized; Tchewa took some courses online, though connection issues and the five-hour time difference made things tricky.

Grocery bills also ballooned as the bustling household — which featured visiting relatives almost daily — suddenly had a 280-pound athlete to nourish regularly.

“At some point, my parents would say, ‘Hey Russ, when are you going back? You eat all the food,’” he said with a chuckle.

Meantime, his basketball development came to a screech. While the Bulls went through an eight-week summer workout program, Tchewa didn’t even have access to an open gym.

“He had nothing, nothing,” Gregory said. “He sent videos of (him) running in the mud and on the dirt, trying to stay in shape.”

As the summer lingered, Gregory solicited the help of USF’s Office of International Services, as well as state and local congress members, or anyone with any bureaucratic pull.

“It was really, really frustrating because I was waiting for a long time,” Tchewa said.

Finally, right at the dawn of September, fortune pivoted.

“It was 4:35 (a.m.),” Tchewa recalled. “I’m a big-time morning guy, so I love to wake up in the morning. So every (morning at) 4:35, I’m just awake. And I just checked my phone, and I saw my coach sent me a message: My visa application had changed from ‘processing’ to ‘administrative processing.’ So that means they are looking for it now.”

Later that same morning, he learned the visa had been approved. Tchewa made the four-hour drive to Yaounde for the visa and returned to Douala for his flight back to the U.S.

He landed at Tampa International Airport on Sept. 3, the day of the USF football team’s home opener. Bulls assistant Larry Dixon was there to greet him. His first American indulgence upon returning?

“Chipotle,” he said with a robust laugh.

“The first thing I did was give him a big hug, because I was so happy to see him,” Dixon said. “It was just a joy and excitement because of the whole ordeal. We didn’t didn’t know if he was going to get back.”

USF center Russel Tchewa (54) and coach Brian Gregory share a moment after the Bulls' victory Monday against Hofstra. When Tchewa became stranded in his native Cameroon over the summer due to student-visa issues, Gregory exhausted myriad on- and off-campus resources to get Tchewa back to the U.S.
USF center Russel Tchewa (54) and coach Brian Gregory share a moment after the Bulls' victory Monday against Hofstra. When Tchewa became stranded in his native Cameroon over the summer due to student-visa issues, Gregory exhausted myriad on- and off-campus resources to get Tchewa back to the U.S. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Finding his old form

In a sense, Tchewa’s just now getting his sea legs under him. The performances he recently has pieced together probably would’ve manifested themselves earlier were it not for his extended absence. He averaged 11.6 points and seven rebounds in the final nine games of the previous season, and the hope was the momentum would spill into the summer and fall.

“But we’re just now getting (that momentum) back,” Dixon said.

“All it was was getting in shape and getting balance and getting his timing back. Because again, he was over there (in Cameroon) running and doing some stuff, but he wasn’t playing and getting his everyday workouts.”

At least that beaming, broad grin never lost its midseason form and will widen as winter segues into spring. Tchewa has begun his masters program, and though he formally earned his undergraduate degree earlier this month, he won’t participate in a commencement ceremony until May — so his family from Cameroon can attend.

Meantime, there’s Christmas. He’ll spend it with the sprawling collegiate family he feared he may never see in person again.

“Coach BG (Gregory) was calling me every day, he was trying to get me back,” Tchewa said. “He called everybody, congressmen, he did his best. I really, really appreciate what he did for me.”

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

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