Photo | Scott Donaldson
The story of how Kayo Goncalves found his way from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to the University of South Alabama is topped only by the story of his life since his arrival in the U.S. The Jaguars basketball player, who loves his time on the court, has taken full advantage of his time away from the court as well. Along the way, he said, he has grown in a number of ways.
Basketball has been the constant and the tool Goncalves has used to get the life he currently leads, the changes he has experienced and the life he sees for himself beyond college, even beyond the game itself.
Starting at the beginning, at least the beginning of his college basketball story, is the best place to begin telling his story.
“The player director of Midland College [in Texas] was in Brazil for vacation. He had some connections and ended up watching one of my basketball games there,” Goncalves, a 6-foot-8, 215-pounder in his second season with the Jags, said. “He recruited me to go to Midland College. From Midland College — I spent my first year there — I went to Southeastern Oklahoma State. … I played two years there, graduated and entered the transfer portal, where [South Alabama] Coach [Richie] Riley found me and recruited me and I love it here.”
Arriving in West Texas to play college basketball wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Goncalves was just barely 17 years old when he arrived and he did not speak a word of English. There were also cultural changes and differences in the style of play on the court to which he had to adapt. None of those came quickly or even easily.
“The culture shock was unbelievable,” he said. “When I got here I could not speak English at all, so it was a very tough six months to adapt and learn the language. I had to adapt to the culture as well — the food, the people, the culture, everything. To go from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to West Texas was quite a shock.”
He learned on his very first day in the U.S. he was no longer in Brazil. A teammate invited Goncalves to dinner and asked some friends to join them.
“He invited a couple of basketball girls to go and eat with us in town,” Goncalves said. “Going back to my culture, we [kiss] on each cheek. That’s not very acceptable in West Texas. When the girls arrived at the burger place one immediately extended a hand to shake my hand. I said, ‘Hey, I’m Kayo.’ I grabbed her hand and pulled her hand and went to do the two kisses on the cheek and the girl felt out of place, she didn’t know what to do and at the time I remember [thinking], ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ I tried to explain but I couldn’t speak English at the time. My friend is busting his butt laughing. It was just very, very awkward. He explained that was my culture and then he made me do the same to the other girl.”
Goncalves had a redshirt season at Midland, a year spent as much learning the language and his new surroundings as much as the U.S. game itself. After a season at Midland, he transferred to Southeastern Oklahoma State, where he played for two seasons and graduated. He decided to transfer and was recruited by Riley, who signed Goncalves to a scholarship offer to play at South Alabama.
Last season, Goncalves played in all 28 of the Jaguars’ games, starting 27 times. He averaged 9.9 points and 5.9 rebounds a game while making 81 3-point attempts, second-best on the team and the Sun Belt Conference. He averaged 2.9 3-pointers a game. This year, in 15 games — the Jags are 10-5 overall, 0-2 in Sun Belt games — Goncalves is averaging 7.5 points and 4.3 rebounds a game and is one of the team’s better defenders. He is also one of the few players left from the previous team as Riley signed several transfers, reshaping the Jags’ roster.
“It was like a redo, just like last year,” Goncalves said of all the roster changes. “We had a bunch of new guys coming together. It was pretty much the same thing. … We had to buy into the same mindset. It was extremely easy to adjust to the new guys. They are phenomenal people, phenomenal players. We just try to get together on the court, but that’s just normal considering how many new guys we had coming together.”
He said he likes the American game and is happy to have had the experience to play in the U.S.
“The speed of the game here and the athleticism of the players, from early age to high school, everything, is extremely different,” he said. “Guys back home are gifted skill-wise, but not as much athletically and having respect for the game. [In Brazil], you usually have people who are more athletic in other sports like soccer, volleyball, but the basketball here is phenomenal.
“I feel like the adjustment was hard, especially the first year. I turned 17 when I was in the U.S., so I was extremely young, and I was at a junior college that had a lot of players who came from high school or were transfer players, so I’m playing against players who are 20, 21 years old. My body still was not very developed.”
Away from the court, his development has been monumental as well, he said.
“I’m an extremely different person,” he said. “I have the same core, the same base, but now I think I have more tools in my box, if I can say that. When I got here, I was 17 and a little chubby. I added muscle, put on some weight and I grew more inches. I run faster and I jump higher and I worked on my shot. I’m a very different player than I was before.
“And as a person, I’m the same way. I got to experience different cultures, I’ve learned a new language, I studied, I got a mathematics degree and I think that changed my way of thinking. Even here I’ve experienced so many different things and cultures. I was in Texas and Oklahoma and now, here in Alabama. So I travel a lot and I’ve been able to experience a lot of different things and when you experience different things like that it gives you more resources and you grow from it.”
Asked what he likes most about his time in the U.S. and its culture, Goncalves said, “It’s safe, really safe, compared to different countries. It’s easy for you to get things here. You work and get money and you have a lot of buying power over here … compared to back home where you may have to work two jobs to make it. I like the culture. I like how big the United States is and how you have the mountains and the beach and snow and you have all these national parks and all these places you can go in the same country. South America is not the same. It’s a little easier to go from country to country, but in the United States you don’t have to go to another country to experience different cultures and different things.”
He said he enjoys traveling and during the summer he hiked Mt. Rainier in Washington state. His travels have not taken him home for the past three years as COVID-19 issues involving international travel, as well as his basketball and school schedules, have kept him in the U.S. “It has been tough, missing family and friends and not going back to my home country. But I’m here for a reason,” he said.
Another reason he is happy in the U.S.: “Back home you have to make a decision. Either you’re going to go to college or you’re going to play professional basketball. You’re either going to play basketball at a high level or you’re not going to study or you’re going to study and not play basketball at all. You cannot do both things at the same time. I feel like it’s the same thing in Europe, and that’s why you have a lot of players from there come over here to play because you can study at a high level and you can play at a high level as well.”
He is currently studying art, seeking a second degree and working to improve his basketball skills.
“I want to play professional basketball; I will play professional basketball,” Goncalves said. “After my long career and I finally retire, I just want to maybe have my own business, make a lot of money and chill. I want to travel a good bit. I’d like to have my own business, but after basketball. Before that, I’m going to play this game until I can not.”
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