Franck Kepnang's out-of-this-world dreams start on the basketball court
Oregon's 6-foot-11 center wants to go to space. First he's working his way into Dana Altman's rotation.
(Kepnang at the 2021 NCAA Basketball Tournament, GoDucks.com)
EUGENE — Shortly before landing to start his new life, a 14-year-old Franck Kepnang peered out his airplane window and marveled at New York City. He was traveling from Yaounde, Cameroon, and he viewed the city beneath him not with open-mouthed wonderment but rather a sense of belonging.
Kepnang has always had big dreams. He often thinks of humanity’s future off Earth. And in the Big Apple, he saw big opportunities.
“It felt like it was where I needed to be in that moment,” the Oregon men’s basketball sophomore said five years later.
In those years, Kepnang refined his English and learned American slang from reggae, jazz, country and rap music. He’s enrolled in college and has thrown himself into the nuances of Python coding, one day hoping to undertake a career with NASA or SpaceX.
He's got a mind that seeks perfection and an imagination which rivals his interstellar ambitions. He's also got a 6-foot-11 and 250-pound frame that could play a key role in launching this Oregon team to a destination it hasn’t been since 2017: the Final Four.
Dana Altman made a mistake.
You could see it on the Oregon coach’s pained face even before admitting it at the podium after the Ducks’ Sweet 16 loss to USC in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
After playing one minute in the first half, Kepnang ignited a late 11-0 run that brought the Ducks within striking distance. Eight minutes from the center wasn’t enough to push them over the edge in an 82-68 defeat.
“I’ve got to take my share of their responsibility,” Altman said, lamenting his decision to play Kepnang sparingly. “It’s March, hell, I should know my personnel.”
It was a brutally honest peek behind the curtains; a vulnerable moment for a coach who’s found repeated success by adapting to a revolving door of roster changes.
Known to relentlessly tinker with lineups until things click in the home stretch, Altman made a shrewd decision after center N’Faly Dante tore his ACL six games into the 2020 season. Altman rolled out a small-ball lineup, recognizing the strength of his roster lay in its quartet of two-way wings Chris Duarte, Eugene Omoruyi, LJ Figueroa and Eric Williams Jr. Oregon won 13 of its final 16 games and led the conference in made threes and steals per game.
But the Ducks were always smaller, and upsizing came at the expense of perimeter shooting. Against the Trojans’ 7-foot front line, the lineup that unlocked Oregon’s offense became its undoing.
It’s early, but the 2021 Ducks again tilt small. Led by a trio of double-digit scoring guards in Will Richardson, De’Vion Harmon and Jacob Young, Oregon continues to start a small-ball lineup predicated on generating a high volume of three-point shots.
Altman knows his team still needs a reliable post presence. A glass-eater down low. A rim protector. A lob threat off the pick-and-roll. Even if that player comes off the bench.
Kepnang loves taking things apart. He relishes any opportunity to scoop below the top layer of information to find out how something works. The intricacies captivate him.
His mother Hortense Tchuisseu — who remained in Cameroon when he left to pursue his basketball career in the U.S. — gave him a small remote control car for his ninth birthday and with it, unintentionally ignited his love for discovery.
He played with the car for a day and dismantled it the next. He toyed with the wires and figured out how to alter the controls. Soon enough he had the car driving backwards when he hit the button for forwards.
“Your creativity is the only limit you have,” he said.
His tenth grade intro to programming class at the Westtown School in Pennsylvania (where he finished his high school years after beginning at the MacDuffie school in Massachusetts) took his ambitions up a notch. His teacher, a member of the IT department, introduced Kepnang to the world of coding and soon brought him on as an assistant.
By his junior year, anytime a student had an issue with a school computer, they’d bring his way.
Once he gets his hands on something, he can’t let it go.
It’s a character trait his high school shooting coach Jonathan Guarente experienced first hand during early morning sessions. He’d often receive late night texts from Kepnang detailing the things he wanted to work on the next morning. He’d push Guarente himself out of bed and into the gym at 5 a.m.
“He’s just maniacal,” Guarente. “He’s insane.
He added: “What might take some kids three months, Franck gets in two weeks because he’s just going to be purposeful and relentless and practice it until he can’t get it wrong.”
Guarente saw a similar drive out of both Mo Bamba and Cam Reddish — who attended Westtown before beginning NBA careers — and, like many around Kepnang, see’s a professional career in his future. But it’s those who’ve worked with him closely that know well basketball is a means to an end.
“I tell him all the time, he doesn’t have to choose,” Westtown school head coach Seth Berger said. “He can play in the NBA, he can be an entrepreneur, he can even be a U.S. senator.”
It only took Berger one afternoon of the Kepnang experience at the PSA Cardinals EYBL coaches’ combine to know he’d found something special.
One of the final members left in the gym, Berger got his first glimpse of the player who would later become the heart of his program. The college coaches had all dispersed, but Berger remained and watched as the ninth-grade Kepnang dove for loose balls, made hustle plays on defense and enveloped the gym with his vocal presence.
“That’s when I knew he was a culture kid,” Berger said. “He was doing it there when nobody was watching. He didn't do it for show.”
Nursing a high ankle sprain, Kepnang was ruled out for the state championship his senior year. Berger caught him crying shortly after, not for himself, but crying for his team. Westtown went on to win even without their hulking center. Kepnang helped the team in the only way he could: from the sidelines.
“He was so loud,” Berger said. “He wasn’t just a cheerleader, he was telling kids what to do.”
Kepnang has been gone for nearly a year now, but Berger still notices the impact of his former player’s leadership.
“He’s the best culture guy you could ask for,” Berger said. “Kids started to see what he was doing. It wore off on them.”
Often, it’s the players with larger roles on the court which inherit those responsibilities. A star player. An upperclassman. A cerebral point guard.
Last season, Kepnang was none of those, yet after reclassifying and joining the team in late December, it was the freshman who became the voice of a Ducks team with multiple future NBA players and a wealth of upperclassmen. By the way he acts on the bench, you’d think he's the most dominant player on the court.
“Positive energy and bringing it everyday is a skill as much as shooting the ball or rebounding the ball,” Guarente said. “He’s a big, big dose of Vitamin C. He makes the team real healthy with his attitude.”
“If I can show that I’m all in,” Kepnang added. “Ultimately [my teammates] will have to be all in with me too.”
The yells of both excitement and anguish — often so loud they could be heard on television. The empathic chest-beating celebrations. The displays of intimidation, often occurring at midcourt during his teammates free throws, where knelt with his arms outstretched on either side of him, Kepnang glares down the court at his opposition while swaying back and forth.
“He’s not afraid to be himself and go all out,” Berger said.
His Oregon teammates use a single word to encompass the charismatic Kepnang: aura.
“It’s just in him,” guard De’Vion Harmon said.
“You just want to be around him,” Richardson, a senior, added.
With fellow 7-footer Dante still on the shelf as he rehabs his torn ACL, Kepnang’s become the Ducks’ outlet down low. He’s refining his touch and adding a repertoire of post moves. His physicality as a screen setter and roll man compliment the Ducks’ trio of veteran guards.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen him do is just slow down,” Richardson said. “Not being in such a rush when he catches it. When he slows down he will shoot 60% from the block. It should be pretty fun watching him.”
He’s more comfortable in the system, knows what shots to take and what shots he shouldn’t. He hauls in offensive rebounds, delivers emphatic putbacks and covers up for miscues on the perimeter defensively with his shot blocking prowess.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence that last year gave him,” Altman said. “He’s a work in progress, but man, he works.”
Kepnang is tinkering. He’s getting under the hood and figuring it out. The Ducks see potential in him, similar to all those years ago when Kepnang looked down from that airplane window.
He’s not going to be intimidated by the process of getting there. He welcomes it.
— Shane Hoffmann
Shane Hoffmann is a senior journalism student at the University of Oregon who will be contributing to The I-5 Corridor throughout the year. Follow him on Twitter at @shane_hoffmann