Bruno Fernando had just arrived at the University of Maryland in 2017 when he met a few strangers in the lobby of his apartment building. He had a team and a scholarship, and within months would appear headed toward prominence and, eventually, an NBA career. But he was thousands of miles from his parents and siblings, his home and his culture.

And so, an introduction arranged by a mutual friend, brought only by a link to their native country of Angola, ended up lasting a couple of hours.

“We just got comfortable like this,” Fernando said, snapping his fingers.

Ethiene Mbakassy, one of the fellow Angolans who came that day to meet Fernando, organized the get-together because he had a childhood friend who played high school basketball with Fernando at Montverde Academy in Florida. Mbakassy, who was joined by twins José and Adão Mayamona, said he and the others quickly integrated Fernando into their group. They got along well and shared a desire to work toward their goals.

“We knew from that day we would be very close friends,” Mbakassy said.

Nearly two years later, Fernando has stayed close with Mbakassy and the others. They talk nearly every day and are part of a six-person group chat, which also includes the Mayamona twins, Yanick Tomás and Isaías Trindade. For most home games, Fernando gives his four tickets to the friends so they can watch Maryland play from behind the team’s bench, often surrounded by parents of other players.

Fernando’s parents have never been to the United States and haven’t watched him play in person since he left home at 15. Fernando has visited Angola twice, once in 2016 and again last summer. That’s part of the reason his friends want to be there to watch Fernando play: With their parents an ocean away, they lean on each other.

“It’s always good to have someone to support you,” said José Mayamona, whose twin can rarely come because he attends school in Pennsylvania. “We feel like we have kind of the right to support him, being that he doesn’t have his parents and we’re his close friends here.”

Tomás, a 25-year-old finishing his master's degree, is older than the others. He offers guidance and tells them to stay focused. Mbakassy said he and Fernando look toward the future and motivate each other.

But they also just hang out like the college students they are. Fernando said they’ll play NBA 2K or go out to eat, usually choosing Brazilian steakhouses where they can speak Portuguese and eat cuisine similar to that of their home country, a former Portuguese colony.

When he’s with these friends, Fernando said, he can briefly step away from English, basketball and America.

After a trip home for the holidays, Tomás said he updated Fernando about what had changed in their hometown of Luanda, the capital city on the coast of the southwestern African nation. During the trip, Tomás saw a couple players from the basketball club where Fernando played, and he just missed the rivalry game between two prominent teams.

Angola’s national team has won 11 of the past 15 continental championships, which take place every two years, but the nation has never produced an NBA player, according to Sports Reference. Fernando could be the first. After testing the NBA draft waters last summer, the 6-foot-10 forward returned to College Park for his sophomore season. Heading into Saturday’s game at No. 6 Michigan, Fernando is averaging 14.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks and has recorded seven straight double-doubles.

Mbakassy jokes that when he sees Fernando “it’s like I’m seeing him for the first time every single time because he’s way too tall.” The friends love sports, especially basketball and soccer, and they know what Fernando’s future likely entails. Naturally, after Fernando plays, they talk about the game, but they also understand that he at times needs a reprieve from the sport that consumes much of his life.

“It’s nice because I can get away from basketball sometimes when I’m around them,” Fernando said. “We don’t even talk about basketball much. They’ll ask me a couple questions, but they understand when I’m feeling like talking about basketball or not.”

Those who aren’t close to Fernando “like to only talk about basketball and say that he should go to the NBA and put pressure on him,” Mbakassy said. “He can’t relax.”

As Fernando has emerged as one of the best players in the Big Ten, other Angolans in the community have noticed and supported him, excited by how Fernando could make history for their country at the highest level of this sport. A delegation from the Embassy of Angolan in Washington recently attended a game.

But Mbakassy and the others have been with Fernando from the start of his time in College Park. They’re the ones with whom he shares a group chat and the ones who wait for him after games, when the arena has emptied and Fernando returns to the court. They all leave Xfinity Center together, dropping Fernando off at his apartment. And sometimes they come inside to hang out and talk for a bit, just as they did when they first met.

Read more: