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Yotio's journey made of the finest Ivory

Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Updated: Sunday, February 15, 2009 16:02

UCF freshman forward Jean Michel Yotio loves a challenge on the basketball court. He is accustomed to diving onto the floor from his high school practices at Montverde Academy. He doesn't mind playing rough, and any player rushing into the paint for what they think will be an easy basket better think again - Jean Michel will be waiting for you.

"I am not scared to take charges from anybody," he said. "No matter how big you are, I will take you."

But Yotio didn't earn this toughness on the basketball court. He's had challenges charging toward him for his entire life, starting with his humble beginnings 5,000 miles away from Orlando.

Yotio grew up in the largest city of Africa's Ivory Coast: Abidjan. He was forced to deal with tragedy at the age of 7, when his father contracted an illness and died. He might have been cured in other areas of the world, but Yotio said that there was just not enough good, high-tech medical care in the economically strapped country to save him.

Yotio's mother, Dougrou Madelaine, was left by herself to raise him and his six siblings.

Life went from tragic to downright scary for Yotio and most of the Ivory Coast in September 2002 when demobilized troops in the northern half of the country started a mutiny that escalated into a full-scale rebellion and voiced the ongoing discontent of Muslims in the north who felt they were being discriminated against by the Ivorian government.

The troops launched attacks in many cities, including Yotio's home city of Abidjan.

"It was really scary because people would start shooting each other in the morning," he said. "At night, you would be sleeping, and you would hear people shooting outside. The next morning when you wake up, you would see a dead body in the streets, and cars burning."

The country's economic difficulties worsened, and with education not being a big priority in the country, Yotio turned to sports as a career.

He began playing soccer, like most of the youths in the Ivory Coast. He said he was really good at soccer and his mother wanted him to pursue that career, but he got turned on to basketball at 14.

He said that he would be ridiculed and laughed at by other teenagers who thought there was no future for anyone playing basketball in Africa.

"We don't have enough money and supplies, so basketball is kind of dying in my country," Yotio said. "… I always dreamed to come here and play basketball because that was the dream of everybody in Africa: Just come to the United States and then from that point, make it a life, go to school or play sports."

Yotio said that he knew that basketball was the sport for him when he would stay awake, many times until 5 a.m., to watch NBA basketball and one of his favorite players, the Chicago Bulls' Ben Wallace.

Yotio said basketball didn't come easy to him at first, but as he continued to play, he progressed quickly. After Yotio's freshman year of high school, his coach, Musa Adamu, told him that it was time that he try to compete in America.

Adamu, who had gained some American contacts from his time as part of the Nigeria national basketball team, began showing pictures and videos of Yotio to many high school coaches, including Kevin Sutton at Montverde.

Sutton decided to recruit Yotio while he was still in the Ivory Coast, and liked what he saw. On Feb. 23, 2005, Yotio left his family to attend Montverde Academy.

"At first, I was very excited to come here because this is the dream of everybody, to come to America," Yotio said. "Then, as soon as I got here, I realized I was by myself. I had no parents here, and that was scary because I don't even know anybody."

Not only did Yotio not know anyone in America, he couldn't communicate with them either.

He said that the English language is taught in schools of the French-speaking Ivory Coast, but school is not a big priority for many kids, who basically decide when or if they want to go to school.

On his second day at Montverde Academy, Yotio was talking to a friend in French when a girl approached them and said "Hi." Yotio had to ask his friend what the girl said because he didn't understand her.

Yotio said it took a lot of hard work, but Sutton and his wife, Beth, who agreed to be Yotio's host parents, helped him learn the language and in time, made the United States feel like home.

Yotio spent most of his sophomore season at Montverde learning more about the game, hoping that his time to shine would come soon. But that time would come after a string of events that severely tested Yotio's will.

In the summer of 2005, Yotio's oldest brother informed him that his sister, D'ri Odile, had died. Yotio said the only thing he wanted to do was go home to attend the funeral, but the trip was too expensive, so he was left to grieve in the U.S.

Yotio's inability to return home left him feeling depressed, but he said he heeded the words of his mother, who told him several times to not give up.

Then, while preparing for his 2006 junior season in which he was slated to have a spot in Montverde's starting lineup, Yotio felt some pain on the left side of his chest. He figured it was just the effects from one of the physical practices he endured at Montverde. But the pain grew increasingly worse, making it hard for him to breathe or even move.

Yotio went to a hospital during the week that he was supposed to be starting his junior season, and got some devastating news: He had blood clots that were affecting his heart and lungs, and were threatening his life.

"It was hard, because as soon as I went to the hospital, the doctor told me to my face, 'You can't play basketball anymore,' " Yotio said. "Don't even say that to me. Even if it's true, don't say that in front of me. That's was my dream. That's why I'm here."

Yotio said he cried when he heard the diagnosis and couldn't bring himself to tell his family back in the Ivory Coast, who were hoping that he would find enough success in America to support them.

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