MILWAUKEE -- As the Milwaukee Bucks' defensive stopper, Luc Richard Mbah a Mboute can't afford to get star-struck. Not when he spends so many of his nights trying to contain the other team's best player.
That's about to change. Despite his disappointment after Milwaukee was ousted in the playoffs by Atlanta, the prospect of attending the World Cup in South Africa next month has Mbah a Moute smiling like a little boy and bragging about the Cameroon national team's chance to advance.
"I've never been, so this will be my first time," he said. "You can see how excited I am."
While many NBA players want to get as far away from the sports world as they can in the offseason -- Bucks veteran Jerry Stackhouse said he planned to "find some salt water" as soon as possible -- Mbah a Moute can't wait to root like a fan for his home country's team on African soil.
"Oh, man. Soccer is like religion in Africa," he said. "So for them to have the World Cup on their own continent is something big, huge. People just are thrilled. Everybody's excited about it. And you have a lot of good African teams now, so everybody's excited about African teams to go far into the tournament. It'll be fun to be there in that atmosphere."
Growing up in Cameroon, Mbah a Moute spent most of his childhood playing soccer before taking up basketball. Switching sports eventually brought him to the U.S., first at a high school in Florida, then to UCLA, and finally to the Bucks as a second-round pick in the 2008 draft.
He has become one of the NBA's leading defensive specialists. But Mbah a Moute never lost his love for soccer.
"I played soccer until I was 14, before I started playing basketball," he said. "I'm always a fan, that's my first love. I stay true to it, and I'm always going to love it."
His Twitter page is filled with just as many thoughts about his favorite soccer team -- Spanish league powerhouse Barcelona -- as it is about basketball. In a recent interview with a local sports radio station, he talked about soccer instead of basketball.
Now Mbah a Moute will spend June following Cameroon's Indomitable Lions while trying to catch a few other teams, perhaps the U.S., England and Brazil, along the way. And sounding every bit like a fan, Mbah a Moute insists Cameroon is going all the way.
"I'm thinking we're going to the final, so I might be there all the way until the final," he said, smiling.
Cameroon features several players with high-profile European experience, including Samuel Eto'o, a star striker for Inter Milan, and steady midfielder Alex Song, who plays for Arsenal.
Conventional wisdom says Ivory Coast or Ghana are the most likely African teams to make a long run in the World Cup this year, but Mbah a Moute believes Cameroon is being overlooked.
"Cameroon is ranked higher than all those other teams, Ivory Coast and Ghana and whoever else," he said. "They have good teams, too. That's why everybody's pretty much excited about African teams and what they're going to do in the tournament."
His trip to Africa won't be all soccer-related; he'll also host a youth basketball camp.
Then he'll spend the rest of the summer working on his own game, trying to develop his offensive skills while continuing to embrace his role as a defensive specialist.
"One of my goals is hopefully to be Defensive Player of the Year one day in my career," he said. "In order to do that, you've got to take on the best. That's what you've got to do. I've got to continue to work on my game, you've got to try to watch as much tape (as possible) to kind of know those guys, see what they're doing. Because guys develop, guys get better. Kevin Durant's not going to be the same player next year, so I've got to try to be a better player as well."