Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, March 2, 2012 | 2:05 a.m.
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- UNLV prepares for its final chance to get things right on the road at Colorado State
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- 2011-12 UNLV Men's Basketball Schedule
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Brice Massamba, the senior center on the UNLV basketball team, brims with intimidation. Maybe it’s his size: 6-foot-10, 245 pounds. Or that thick black beard. Or the glare from his dark eyes in the thick of a game.
His teammates tell us to relax because Massamba is easygoing and quick to lighten tense situations with a joke.
“Brice is like a soft little teddy bear,” says his roommate, Oscar Bellfield , UNLV’s senior guard.
“Unless he gets mad.”
That’s when Massamba seethes. He showed it last week with about seven minutes remaining in UNLV’s 68-58 victory against Air Force. Massamba was tripped underneath the Falcons’ basket while the rest of the players raced to the other end of the court. It wasn’t clear until the replay that Massamba was a victim of tangled legs versus a deliberate effort to trip him. Massamba and the Falcons player, Chase Kammerer, were looking testily at each other when Massamba thought he heard a derogatory remark from the Falcons bench.
With that, Massamba confronted Kammerer and had to be restrained. He was called for a technical foul. The tension in the arena was palpable, players standing up, coaches appearing ready to intervene. Rebels coach Dave Rice pulled Massamba, who already had four fouls, off the floor.
That technical foul may be one of Massamba’s lasting memories of playing at UNLV, but probably not for the obvious reason. When Massamba plays his final home game Saturday against Wyoming at 7 p.m. for Senior Night, Massamba will be able to proudly walk on the court at the Thomas & Mack Center knowing he has the respect of his teammates.
It showed at Air Force when everyone else stepped up to compensate for Massamba’s absence on the floor.
“We played our best basketball of the day for the next few minutes,” Rice said later. “What I said (to the team), is it shows the respect that our team has for Brice because they had his back.
“Even though we played very good in the first half, we played at a higher level (after the incident). I attribute that 100 percent to the fact that our guys believe in Brice and they have his back.”
UNLV’s other seniors — Bellfield, sharpshooter Kendall Wallace and forward Chace Stanback — each bring something different to the team. Bellfield is the team leader, Stanback is one of the leading scorers, and Wallace is the only player on the roster with a championship ring (from UNLV’s 2008 Mountain West Conference tournament championship). Massamba, at least until his breakout season this winter, had a relatively average career in being a big-body underneath. Some nights he was serviceable; other nights he wasn’t.
But Massamba has developed confidence under Rice, the team’s first-year coach, averaging 6.2 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, and at times being a focal point of the offense on the post. He shed about 10 pounds during the offseason and views his role as a reward for his hard work — he’s started each of the 30 games he’s played in and is averaging 19.1 minutes per game.
“I’ve got my confidence back and everyone is believing in me,” Massamba said. “The team is believing in me and giving me the ball, and I’ve got confidence in myself to perform. I knew this was my last (season), and I wanted to make the most out of it.”
After all, it’s the end of his six-year basketball journey in the Las Vegas Valley.
When Massamba came to Southern Nevada from Sweden in 2006 to play at Findlay Prep, he left his family to follow his basketball dreams. He had limited command of the English language, no friends or family and could have easily let homesickness derail his aspirations of earning a college scholarship.
But he immediately formed a bond with the players in the Findlay program — they stay in a house in the Anthem area — and felt so comfortable in Las Vegas that he decided to attend UNLV. He’s one of three from the powerhouse program, which is funded by UNLV booster Cliff Findlay, to sign with the Rebels.
“That was my family for two years. I didn’t have anyone else except for the team and the coaches,” Massamba said. “You live for the players, so they become your family. If you need something, you can ask them.”
Massamba considers former Findlay players such as Jacques Streeter (UTEP), Jorge Gutierrez (Cal), Deividas Dulkys (Florida State) and UNLV’s Carlos Lopez his closest friends, and is frequently spotted in the stands at Findlay home games. He even traveled with the team a few years ago to the ESPN national championship tournament.
“I look at him like I look at my son and daughter. He is a lot bigger, but he is family,” Findlay coach Mike Peck said. “He’s one of the all-time greats for us as a person. He’s got a great sense of humor and he’s not afraid to laugh at himself. He’s just a carefree, loving guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
That laid-back personality has helped define his legacy at UNLV. Although his contributions frequently didn’t show up in the box score, he’s always had a team-first attitude and understood his role.
“I always try to be a leader out there,” Massamba said. “Sometimes you just need a laugh when you are down. By making (my teammates) smile, they don’t think about what’s going wrong and it gives them confidence.”
Massamba said he gets his sense of humor from his older brother, Darly Massamba, who also played college basketball in the United States, and who has been influential in Brice’s career. Brice Massamba developed his passion for basketball as a child following his older brothers to their practices.
“I got to practice with my brother’s team and just fell in love with basketball,” Massamba said. “My brother always made me laugh, and he jokes around a lot. That is where I get it from.”
By the time Brice Massamba was in sixth grade, he already stood 6-foot-3 and was able to dunk a basketball. Fittingly, Darly Massamba will be Brice’s escort during the Senior Night ceremony — his parents will come from Sweden for graduation.
Darly Massamba, 31, recently retired from a professional basketball career overseas, a goal the younger brother has for himself after the UNLV season. It’s a goal that might have been considered unrealistic until his breakthrough performances this year.
“He has been a big part of our success this year because of his reliability,” Rice said. “He knows he is a senior and he wanted to give everything he had.”