Clint Capela: From foster care in Switzerland to the NBA

The Atlanta Hawks center has come a long way and, after coming back from an injury lay-off, is ready to continue his amazing journey.

By Ken Browne ·

Clint Capela's inspiring story isn't finished yet.

Far from it.

The boy born in Geneva to a Congolese mother, who grew up in foster care homes and made it all the way to the NBA was never going to let a few knocks keep him down.

A couple of seasons ago Capela was dunking on lobs from James Harden and Chris Paul and putting up the kind of numbers that had him in the reckoning for best big man in the league.

In 2017-18 Capela, Harden, and Paul led the Houston Rockets to the Conference Finals only to lose in game seven to eventual NBA champions Golden State Warriors led by Steph Curry.

Last season the Swiss centre averaged 13.9 points, 13.8 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 assists in 32.8 minutes for Houston.

At one point the Rockets were 42-3 when Harden, Paul and Capela were together in the lineup, and his teammates had high praise for Clint:

“Y’all know the record when we all play together, and I’ll tell you it’s not because of me and James,” Paul said. “Clint is really the X factor. He opens up so much for us.”

But things move fast in the NBA and and when small became the new big at the Rockets, Capela was traded in February 2020 to the Atlanta Hawks.

Bad luck, injuries and the Covid-19 outbreak meant that he didn't play for ten months, but the 'Swiss Bank' has bounced back in 2021.

In his first three games of the new year with the Hawks Capela has played at least 30 minutes and had 16 points, 16 rebounds, three steals and two blocks against the Cleveland Caveliers on 2 January.

From foster care in Geneva to the NBA

His resilience is no surprise when you look at where he's come from to get where he's at.

Clint Capela has come a long way, and there's much more to come.

Capela’s mother, Philomene, left the Congo to find her way to Switzerland through Italy in 1993 to follow her dream of becoming an actress, she met a man from Angola along the way who would become Clint's father.

But Clint would never get to know him, he left the family when his son was just a few months old.

Struggling as a single mother, Capela and his two brothers were taken in to a group foster care home.

Clint was six.

Sport was always an escape, and he started playing football.

“All of us kids always had family problems and issues, but the only thing that would bring us together was playing soccer,” Capela said, as reported in The Undefeated.

“We would be outside every day, pretending we were on a famous football ground. Every Champions League game, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we would watch on TV and it would bring us all together. It was a common bond, and would make us all very happy and excited. This is why I love soccer so much, because it did so much for me growing up.”

He worshipped Thierry Henry at Arsenal and dreamed of playing professionally as a striker. By 13 a young Clint was already 1.90m (6' 3") tall and his height made him a prolific goalscorer, particularly with his head.

But that height and athleticism would take him so much further.

Started playing basketball at 13

His older brother Landry had already started playing basketball and convinced Clint to come along and give hoops a chance.

“I was hesitant at first,” Capela says, smiling to The Undefeated interviewer.

“But once I got on the court with my brother, the game came naturally to me. I decided to dedicate myself completely to the game, and from then on I never stopped. Some of my footwork, though, I got from my soccer days. So, again, soccer helped me, even in basketball.”

But in his new love he found a new hero: Thabo Sefolosha.

Sefolosha became the first Swiss national to play in the NBA when he joined the Chicago Bulls in 2006. When Capela fell in love with basketball Sefolosha was at the top of his game.

“Whenever I would take the bus, I would always see the sports newspapers on the stands and see reports on Thabo,” Capela said.

“Every day it would say he did this and he did that, and I thought to myself, man, maybe one day I can have that chance. I started looking him up to see what path he took, how he got to where he wanted to go.”

Following Sefolosha's path

Little did a young Clint know that a parallel path to Sefolosha's would open up for him.

The kid who didn't play an organised game of basketball until he was 13 was sent to Swiss national U-16 tryouts.

“I had a great few days in those national team trials,” Capela said. “I was really athletic and fast running down the floor and was really able to show off my skills."

A born natural, Capela's talent was too big to hide and French club Elan Chalon's coach Romain Chenaud spotted it straight away.

Imagine a young Clint's excitement when he was invited to try out at Chalon - the same club that Sefolosha pplayed at before he went to the NBA.

At 15 Capela went to France and the rest is history.

“I didn’t have to tell Clint much, but I always told him to work hard. He’s been doing that,” Sefolosha tells Stefano Fusaro.

“I’m very proud of what he’s done. He’s continued to improve every year. I think my journey to the NBA motivated him and showed him that it was possible to achieve his dream. He is developing into an excellent player.”

On June 26, 2014, Capela was selected with the 25th overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets.

Hakeem Olajuwon mentors Clint Capela

On his arrival in Texas a Hall of Famer was waiting to help.

The Rockets legend and Olympic gold medallist at Atlanta 1996 Hakeem Olajuwon spent a lot of time with the team and helped the Swiss centre build up his game.

“His work ethic isn’t a surprise. He had to work for everything he wanted while growing up,” Olajuwon said. “He is the real deal. He has improved every day he’s been here, and he still has a ways to go.”

Capela and Nigerian-born Olajuwon have a lot in common, one of them being that the two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP also started in soccer.

“To be able to exchange words with him is something I never dreamed about,” Capela has said.

“My first year, it was incredible to get advice from one of the best to ever do it. Now I know him, and he’s always giving me advice about my game, about what I can add. It brings me great comfort that I can talk to him, not just about basketball but about life as well.”

Dear Mama

So what was the first thing Capela did with his rookie salary?

He paid off mum's debts.

“My mum means everything,” Capela tells Fusaro.

“She went through so much. When she put us into foster care, it was really tough for her. She was taking care of all of us by herself, working seven days a week. She was always so busy. Today I realize all she had to do to help give us the best life possible.”

“She had taxes to pay for 20 years, so I took care of it. Taxes from insurance, home and social help,” he said.

One season in the NBA left his mother debt-free.

“It just made me so proud to tell my mum that she didn’t need to work anymore,” Capela said.

“Now she can be happy and do what she wants. Now she gets to go back to Congo to visit her parents and her sisters, then comes back and spends time with me here in Houston. Giving her that freedom is something that I have dreamed about for a long time.”

When Clint Capela went to Africa

But success never made him forget his home, or his African heritage.

“I come from African parents; I grew up in an African vibe back home in Switzerland,” Capela said.

In 2017 he jumped at the chance to join the NBA Africa Game, an exhibition game in Johannesburg, South Africa, aimed at promoting the sport and the league.

Team Africa, featuring NBA players and alumni that were born in or had parents born in Africa, played Team World, featuring NBA players from the rest of the world.

Capela was proud to be part of Team Africa with Senegal's Gorgui Dieng, German/Gambian Dennis Schroder, Congolese-Spanish player Serge Ibaka, Cameroonian Joel Embiid and Capela's inspiration Thabo Sefolosha.

"Playing the NBA Africa Game 2017 was really a wonderful experience," Capela told NBA Africa afterwards.

"One of the most exciting in my life, especially to go there, to travel there, I never really had a chance growing up. Especially with the NBA, all the fans that were there, the way that everything was organised."

"We really had the chance to hang out with the kids there, see where they were living, how they were living, enjoy the time, we got to play some soccer, dancing, it was really amazing."

The future

When you look back at where Clint Capela has come from, it's obvious that there's still a long way to go.

Born in 1994, his career is really only beginning now as he heads into his prime, and a few injuries or being traded by Houston are not enough to hold him down.

Capela has bounced back and is ready to prove what he can bring to a team like the Atlanta Hawks, who were crying out for a player like him.

His leadership, defensive abilities, dunking, the rebounds, the blocks, the steals and his reading of the game will bring much to a young and talented Hawks team.

Clint Capela is just getting started.