Menaul School is sort of the United Nations of prep academic institutions in these parts. With students from many countries, the venerable private school campus is as eclectic as it is diverse.
China is one of the most heavily represented nations at Menaul, with roughly three dozen students.
There are four Chinese nationals just on the Menaul boys basketball team, including the school’s tallest athlete.
His name is Michael Ou (pronounced “oh”), and from the soles of his feet to his sharply cut black hair, he stands about 6-feet-9.
He is far from a novelty act; the kid can ball.
“Without being biased,” said Menaul coach Gary Boatman, “I think he’s one of the better players in the state. He would make any program better.”
From the land of Yao Ming comes Ou, a sophomore at Menaul who just arrived in this country in July, following the lead of a friend from Guangdong, his province in China, who recommended Menaul.
“I want to come to America to play basketball,” he said in his English, which is still quite rough, but, Boatman said, improving.
Ou might be New Mexico’s tallest player. At bare minimum, he is possibly the state’s most fascinating newcomer.
Menaul Skyped with Ou before he was admitted. Boatman said he was asked to sit in because Ou was also interested in basketball.
“American basketball is better than China,” Ou said. Yao may be his country’s most famous hoops ambassador, but Ou fancies himself after Kevin Durant. “I want to come here.”
Ou is averaging about 20 points and nine rebounds this season for the 9-5 Panthers, who are on the road tonight at Santa Fe Waldorf. He’s not lacking ballhandling skills, as he sprouted 4 to 5 inches just in the last year and can play a guard or wing. Ou lights up as he mentions the solitary 3-pointer he’s made this season.
“He’s got a quick first step. Reminds me of James Worthy,” said Menaul assistant coach Victor Gonzalez.
With 2½ seasons in front of him, it’s far too early to know if Ou has next-level abilities. There is enough, Boatman contends, to draw interest.
His immersion into American society is just as interesting as Ou’s basketball.
Three other Panthers – seniors Korvin Wang and Sam Lao, and sophomore Kyrie Hu – also play varsity basketball at Menaul. Boatman said Menaul has sister schools in Asia, helping to facilitate the arrival of new students here.
Lao and Wang were similar to Ou when they arrived at Menaul and now can serve as a bit of a crutch for him.
“If there’s any confusion or questions, he’ll often come to us and ask about it,” said Lao.
Learning English remains a work in progress for Ou, he said.
“My English is not very good,” he said, smiling. Consider this unintentionally hilarious exchange between Ou and Boatman as the Journal sat down with them. Boatman sometimes intervened to assist Ou in responding to questions.
“Do you understand me?” Boatman said, looking at Ou.
“Say again?” Ou said.
But Ou is fervently committed to understanding the language – and his new surroundings in New Mexico, where he often takes in Lobo basketball games.
“He’s a great kid,” said Menaul teacher and coach Josh Baca. Ou lives with Baca, part of Menaul’s host family program.
“I was expecting a 16-year-old to be trouble, but he’s not at all,” Baca said. “All he wants to do is make the coaches happy.”
As limited as his vocabulary is, Baca said, Ou is developing a sense of what’s being said to him.
“He enjoys living away from the dorms, so he can acclimate a little better,” Baca said.
Often, Wang said, the players will speak Chinese to each other when they’re on the floor together during a game. For his part, Boatman said he’s had to adjust his own mannerisms. But his new arrival has, he said, been a welcome addition, personally and professionally.
“When he starts understanding,” Boatman said, “he’s a tough matchup.”