Clint Capela of the Hawks says, “A Black person has a voice, and we’re all people.”
Capela, who grew up in a racist environment in Switzerland, has developed an understanding of African American culture since entering the NBA.
Clint Capela grew up in a Swiss setting where prejudice toward him and his family was the standard and an accepted part of society.
But it wasn’t until he moved to the United States eight years ago that the Atlanta Hawks center made an unexpected discovery about himself as a Black man.
Capela told The Undefeated, “My parents had to go through it [in Switzerland] since they were from Africa.” “When I arrived here, I realized it wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
“Everyone, including Black people, has a voice, and we’re all human.” And it wasn’t always like that when I was growing up.”
Capela, who was picked by the Houston Rockets when he was 20 years old in 2014, embarked on an unexpected adventure in a country plagued by racism.
He did not, however, embark on this voyage alone. Two African Americans, John Lucas – then a Rockets player development coach – and scout Brent “B.J.” Johnson, who died in 2020, were eager mentors.
Capela, who was moved to the Hawks in 2020, has had other moments of acceptance and belonging throughout his life, including playing for Elan Chalon in France. His six years with the Rockets, though, left a lasting impression.
Capela stated he made a remark about his race when he first arrived in Houston that irritated the team, particularly Lucas and Johnson. Capela excelled with the Rockets because of Lucas and Johnson’s efforts, and he began to feel pride in his Blackness despite living in a city that is 22.6 percent Black or African American, according to a U.S. Census Bureau study from 2021.
“I recall my first interview with Houston when I initially came to the United States,” Capela remarked. “I compared the differences between basketball here and basketball there, and I used inappropriate terminology to do it.” I had no idea what was wrong until it became a major issue. ‘You’re not meant to talk like that here,’ they remarked, pulling me aside.
“Racism had a significant impact on me, and I realized this once I arrived in the United States. Obviously, you think it’s normal when you’re over there [in Switzerland] because you don’t know any better.”
B.J. Johnson’s widow, Claudette Boyance-Johnson, recalled her husband’s and Lucas’ effect on Capela. During the NBA summer, Johnson was also recognized for promoting basketball in Africa. Johnson was instrumental in Capela’s excursions to Africa, notably his participation in the NBA Africa Game and Basketball Without Borders in Johannesburg in 2017.
“When Clint first came here, B.J. spent so much time talking to him and grooming him in the gym and on the court,” she added. “When Clint was small, [B.J.] used to say, ‘Clint was a baby.’ He spent a lot of time with B.J. and John Lucas.
“Clint accompanied us to Africa on several occasions. Clint’s time in Africa with B.J. most likely made him more at ease in his own skin, skin color, and identity. ‘You’re Clint Capela, you have to embrace who you are,’ B.J. said. You were fortunate to be born into this family.’
Capela agreed to watch the 1977 miniseries Roots, as well as films on boxer Muhammad Ali and rapper Tupac Shakur, which Lucas encouraged him to do. Capela rapidly became a lover of rap music and wanted Lucas to play Rick Ross during workouts after they spent time together at soul food restaurants at every stop on NBA road trips. Capela was anxious to study African American history, and the more he knew, the more proud of his heritage he grew.
“When I first saw Roots, I cried because I had no idea,” Capela added. “How can they simply separate a family?” What about the daughter? Bring her somewhere else and don’t see her again for the rest of your life. Yeah, I was speechless, and for the first time in my life, I felt genuine grief over it, about something I had no prior knowledge of.
“This is how I learned about American culture, about how Black people first arrived in this country, about how it should be, and that made me very proud.” It was perhaps the first time in my life that I felt truly proud to be a Black man.”
Philomene, Capela’s mother, went to Switzerland from her native Congo in 1993 and began dating an Angolan immigrant shortly after. Capela was born in May of 1994, but his parents divorced a few months later, and he never met his father.
Capela’s mother worked in a factory and had three sons. Capela didn’t have a particularly memorable childhood, in retrospect.
Capela stated, “She worked every day of the week.” “She was basically going up and down in industries.” At times, my brothers and I were the only ones at home. She would sometimes drop me off at a friend’s house where I went to school so that his parents could pick us up. So she was clearly doing everything on her own. I only recall her waking me up, dressing me, and delivering me to the location.
“She’d come after work to retrieve me from there after school.” You think it’s normal when you have one mother who does everything.”
Capela’s mother enrolled him and his two brothers in a boarding school in Geneva during the weekdays with the help of financial aid when he was six years old. Capela stated that they would spend their weekends with their mother and that he had been enrolled for around six years.
Capela had to mature faster as a result of going away to school at such a young age.
“All I wanted to do was be a normal kid who lived with his mother like everyone else,” Capela added. “It was stated to me that when I went there, I needed to be able to look after myself, be a good student, and not put too much burden on my mother.”
Schoolwork and living away from home were not the most difficult problems for Capela. Actually, it was the bigotry he faced as a dark-skinned African youngster surrounded by primarily white pupils and teachers who were unfamiliar with seeing individuals like him.
“I felt like I was the same as them,” Capela recalled, “but it was just tougher to connect with them, to be friends with them.” “Whenever the teachers assigned pupils to work in pairs, I was always the last one to finish.
“At the time, I didn’t know why.” I suppose it’s all a part of it. And you just don’t comprehend when you’re a kid like me. You must have heard the N-word a lot. Following that, I got into a fight, but the school did nothing to stop it. They never did, I suppose because it was never a problem they had to deal with. So, obviously, it was difficult for you because you don’t understand, because you’re one of the [few] Black people.”
Capela was a tremendous soccer fan when he was little, and he aspired to be a striker like legendary Arsenal striker Thierry Henry. Capela, who stands 6-feet-3 and is 12 years old, took his bigger brother’s advice and switched to basketball. Capela got enamored with the game and was inspired by NBA guard Thabo Sefolosha, who made history by becoming the league’s first Swiss player in 2006. He studied everything he could about him.
Capela was spotted at the age of 13 and sent to the Swiss U-16 tryouts, where coaches were struck by his height, athleticism, and developing talents. Racism wasn’t his only concern when he returned to Geneva following the tryout.
“Yeah, sometimes it was jealousy,” Capela said, “like, ‘Yeah, don’t get the big head,’ even though I wasn’t.” “I sensed a smidgeon of jealousy as well, so I had to learn how to deal with that as well.”
Romain Chenaud, the coach of French club Elan Chalon, was delighted by what he witnessed and persuaded Capela to join his team in France. Capela was well aware that Sefolosha was an Elan Chalon player. Capela was also aware that France had produced a number of NBA players at the time, including Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Joakim Noah, Ronny Turiaf, Mickael Pietrus, and Tarq Abdul-Wahad.
Capela took the offer swiftly and relocated to France to pursue a professional basketball career. Off the court, life became a lot easier because he was immediately surrounded not only by teammates but also by people who looked like him.
“You feel more involved,” Capela said. “Especially because over there, we all have the same aim of being pros and living off of basketball, so we go to school together, practice together, and attend games together.” “In France, there were a lot more people who looked like me.” They had a lot more African children who came from immigrants’ parents, much like myself. Obviously, we had a connection. And, obviously, I felt like I belonged there as well.”
During his 2013-14 season with Elan Chalon, Capela thrived on the court, averaging 10.2 points and 7.1 rebounds in 21.2 minutes per game. When he played for the International squad during the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit against the top American high school seniors, the 2014 French LNB Pro A Most Improved Player also wowed NBA scouts.
Capela is in his eighth NBA season and was a key part of Atlanta’s run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2021. This season, the 6-foot-11, 256-pounder is averaging a double-double (11.4 points and 12.6 rebounds) and 1.4 blocks per game for the Hawks (22-25), who have won five straight games heading into Friday’s matchup with the Boston Celtics.
His own country, on the other hand, is still very much on his mind. According to research published in Swissinfo in September, racism has persisted in Switzerland, with the coronavirus pandemic fueling discrimination and hate speech. According to Swissinfo, there were 572 documented occurrences of racial discrimination in Switzerland in 2020.
Capela wants to use his position to oppose racism in Switzerland as he grows older, wiser, more educated, and more confident in his voice.
Capela stated, “I’m still pondering what to do.” “Perhaps things for kids, just by giving back.” But I need to continue my education and consider doing something in the future.”
Marc J. Spears is The Undefeated’s senior NBA writer. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t done so in years, and his knees are still bothering him.
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