By Bryan Meler
Jean-Victor Mukama sat alone in the living room of the Toronto home he shared with his teammates Juwon Grannum and Adika Peter-McNeilly.
While his roommates battled in a losing effort for the Ryerson Rams men’s basketball team at Brock University, Mukama watched them on a live stream off his TV, which served as the only light source in the house he was isolated in. “I felt guilty,” says Mukama, thinking about how he could have helped them win. Instead of waiting for the game film to be posted online, Mukama called the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) offices, asking that they send him a copy immediately. “I wanted to find ways to help.”
Mukama had to sit out of the 2016-17 season in order to focus on school, after his GPA fell below a 1.67, the basic academic requirement for any Ryerson student-athlete on a varsity team. “We let him be himself,” says Rams head coach Roy Rana. “He didn’t need to have his hand held…he needed a dose of reality.”
At home, Grannum could see how much it bothered Mukama, who wasn’t smiling as often, but never dared to complain. But with the Rams on the court, Mukama took care of himself. Not only academically, as he worked toward his child and youth care degree, but by watching past games. “We’re around each other more than our actual families,” says Mukama “I felt like I was failing my teammates by not playing…I wanted to make sure I could help, that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes once I got back.”
Two years later, Mukama is still working toward his degree, but he’s also getting ready for what will be his last playoff run as part of the Rams, this time as one of their three co-captains.
In his fifth and final year of eligibility, Mukama is also playing on an athletics scholarship by maintaining at least a 2.67 GPA. “I never want to go back to being in that position,” says Mukama. “Now, we have unfinished business.” Mukama is entering the playoffs after a career-best season, having led his team to a 21-2 regular season record behind his 18.4 points, while snatching a team-high 7.4 rebounds per game. He has the same goal as every player on their roster: To win a national title.
“He’s the tie that would bring us all together”
The Rams have come close, medaling in each of the last four years in the U SPORTS Final 8 tournament, while winning silver in the past two. To Mukama, it’s simply one game at a time, but it also signals the end of an era. He’s one of two players still on the roster from when their four-year run began. “It really does feel like the end,” says Grannum, who became a Rams assistant coach after playing between 2012-17. “He’s the tie that would bring us all together… He was our little brother.”
To Mukama, he understands how it could mark the end of an era, but he doesn’t want to think about that right now. “We have a winning culture, that’s what Ryerson does,” says Mukama. “Whatever happens, we’re working for the future.”
Grannum credits Mukama‘s growth to his ability to keep everything in perspective. It’s a journey that’s put a face to the many off-court factors that play a role in the life of a student-athlete. “He continues to share his story. His resilience of taking time off and returning to the team has inspired a lot of people,” says Rana. “I think he’s a great role model.”
Last year, the Rams were without another of their star players in Keevon Small, who also had to sit out to focus on his academics. Small’s presence was missed as the Rams fell short in the national tournament final once again. But along the way, Mukama made sure that Small stayed focused on what he had to do. “Biggest advice [Mukama] gave me was about mental toughness,” says Small. “He’d say ‘What happened to me, is a lesson for you’.”
The player-coach persona is one often attributed to Mukama. Grannum says that Mukama is great at sharing his point of view, especially when guys get mad about playing time. Now known for his offensive prowess, he first made his mark with the Rams by coming off the bench as a defensive stopper. It’s how Mukama helped the Rams secure their first provincial title in 2016, coming up with a steal with 10.1 seconds left, and then hitting a free-throw to make it a two-possession game.
Along with the tape he watched, those experiences prepared him for his current role of being the team’s closer down the stretch. “He’s never afraid of the moment,” says Tanor Ngom. The seven-foot-two Senegalese centre calls Mukama his role model, both on and off the court, after he helped him adjust to life at Ryerson, having moved to Canada in 2017 after stints in Spain and Germany. “He was the first guy to take me under his wing,” says Ngom. “He showed me the city, taught me slang, I’ve never had that anywhere else I’ve played before.”
Ngom now regularly uses the word “fam”, something he picked up from Mukama, who would reportedly yell at him, “Fam what are you doing,” when he would mess up. “It means family,” says Ngom. “JV is a brother…He’s always been there for me…He doesn’t let anyone pick on me…one time, he dunked on someone after they tried to get in my head.”
When Grannum worked by himself as a student maintenance worker at Ryerson in 2015 and 2016, he’d himself counting away the hours. But when working alongside Mukama, he would “get lost in time.”
From changing light bulbs, cleaning up trash to moving around cabinets, it didn’t matter, Mukama had a smile on his face. He also made sure that whoever he worked alongside had one too. If Grannum seemed tired, on the verge of taking a snooze after lunch, Mukama would be there with his phone in hand, recording another Snapchat video. “He’s like the paparazzi, he never misses good moments,” says Grannum. “I’ve been a victim many times.”
Mukama says he does it to get people out of their comfort zone. Small calls him “The Snapchat King”, especially if they go out—noting that “Drunk JV is the same as sober JV,” because he’s always trying to have a good time.
If there’s another crown that Mukama wears among his teammates, it’s in 1-on-1.“That’s what I do,” says Mukama, who modelled his game after Kevin Durant, with guard-like handles and range that goes beyond the three-point arc. Small and Grannum both can’t remember anyone who’s beat Mukama, except for maybe Manny Diressa, who graduated last year with a 50-point showcase to his résumé.
Mukama says that he’ll play any Ryerson student in a game of 1-on-1 for a chance at his OVO gym bag, which he uses on the road. It’s a level of confidence he holds after playing his entire life, while having represented Team Canada for the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.
“One time, he dunked on someone after they tried to get in my head”
But no matter the stage, if there’s an opportunity to hoop, Mukama will take it. When he had to sit out during the 2016-17 season, it opened up another opportunity: to play intramural basketball. The time frame is on Mondays from 8-10 p.m., coincidentally the same time as the Rams men’s basketball practice.
But if practice ended even a bit early, the men’s team would go and watch Mukama play. “I remember one time, he dropped 40 or 50. It was just too easy,” says Grannum, laughing. It’s a memory that’s shared among teammates, one that joins others such as Mukama posterzing a fellow Ryerson student. Word quickly caught on, as the gym filled up with students.
Among those were the Rams, encouraging him to put on a show. “I wasn’t even part of the team, but guys were literally racing down to see me play. That meant a lot,” says Mukama. “It just speaks to the type of connection and culture we have.”