PHS Alum Mbusa Enjoyed the Experience of a Lifetime, Playing for Uganda in World Lacrosse Men’s Tourney
OUT OF AFRICA: Princeton High alum Paul Mbusa meets up with PHS classmate Emma Rosen in late June at the 2023 World Lacrosse Men’s Championship in San Diego, Calif. Mbusa, a member of the Tiger boys’ lax program for all four years of high school, went on to play club lacrosse at Vanderbilt University. He played for the Uganda squad in the world tournament, producing a career highlight when he scored a goal in a 13-5 loss to France in Pool B play.
By Bill Alden
After getting injured skateboarding as a middle schooler, Paul Mbusa decided it was time to direct his energy elsewhere.
“I said I don’t want to do this anymore,” said Mbusa. “I am going to pick up lacrosse. I picked it up in the eighth grade. I really enjoyed it and I stuck with it.”
Mbusa went on to play for the PHS boys’ lacrosse program from 2009-13 and then competed for the Vanderbilt University men’s club lax team. Taking a hiatus from the sport after college as he got into yoga in recovering from an injury, Mbusa picked up his stick again to play in a men’s league in New York City.
In late June, Mbusa, whose parents came to the U.S. from Uganda in the 1980s as political refugees, enjoyed a memorable experience in the game as he earned a spot on Team Uganda and competed in the 2023 World Lacrosse Men’s Championship in San Diego, Calif.
In reflecting on his path to San Diego, Mbusa, 28, pointed to his PHS experience as a key step.
“Princeton High was a fun time, it really solidified my love for the game,” said Mbusa, who initially played midfielder for the Tigers and ended up specializing on defense as a longstick midfielder. “A lot of my friends were on the team. I really enjoyed it with the coaching staff there. It was nice. Just understanding the game that was my biggest area of progress. I only played in high school, I never did any travel teams or anything like that. I made JV captain my sophomore year. I just really stuck with it and loved being there playing the game.”
Mbusa’s experience at Vanderbilt solidified his affection for the game.
“The Vanderbilt club lacrosse was probably one of the best organizations I was part of at the school,” said Mbusa. “The team culture was just really good. Everyone was there to have a good time, everyone helped each other out. It was actually a nice way to meet older people on campus and pay that back in the future when I was a veteran.”
In addition to having fun, Mbusa honed his skills on the field for the Commodores.
“I developed as a player for sure,” said Mbusa, noting that the team played in the Southeast Lacrosse Conference (SELC) of the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA) and faced such foes as Georgia, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia Tech, and South Carolina.
“We also did some other stuff outside of our intercollegiate league. There was a local box league that we participated in. It was a lot of traveling and bonding. One of the freshmen once said after a loss that ‘it really sucks when we lose, but this is the most fun I have had on any team I have been a part of.’ We just had a good time, we were there for the love of the game.”
Recovering from a shoulder injury in his junior year, Mbusa took up yoga and focused on that rather than lax after graduating from college.
“I started doing yoga as a form of rehab and therapy; that became my new athletic passion after lacrosse,” said Mbusa, who moved to New York City. “That really improved my athleticism; it really helped bring my shoulder back. I saw that as a way to transition out of the competitive sports that lacrosse offered. It was moving into a less organized form that I could continue to do every single week that wasn’t going to beat up my body. In a reverse twist of events, picking up the yoga actually made me far more athletic than I had ever been before. There is a men’s league here in the city; I signed up for that after a year living in the city. I started playing again and I fell back in love with the sport.”
As he got back into the sport, Mbusa connected with the Uganda Lacrosse Association.
“I was there in the summer of 2018 and I had been messaging the team saying, ‘hey guys, I am going to be in town, I would love to practice with you guys,’” said Mbusa, noting that Uganda played in in both the 2014 and 2018 world tournaments. “I thought it would be a really cool experience. There is a program called Fields of Growth that was responsible for a lot of the early work in the Ugandan lacrosse organization.”
Keeping in touch with the Ugandan program, Mbusa earned a spot with its national team for the 2023 competition.
“I played with them last summer; I was practicing with them,” said Mbusa, who found out that he made the team this January. “I wasn’t able to make it for the whole tryout. They gave me express tryout due to the logistics of going back and forth.”
But Mbusa hit a bump in the road, injuring his shoulder twice while snowboarding over the winter, jeopardizing his chances of playing in San Diego.
“I am thinking, oh my gosh, my shoulder is never going to work again, I thought there was absolutely no way I could play lacrosse,” said Mbusa. “I was a little bit down after that because I wanted to play in this tournament very, very much. I came home to New York in March and they asked me ‘are you going to be able to play?’ I said I am going to do my physical therapy and am going to do the best I can and I am going to be able to play.”
Over the next two months, Mbusa underwent an arduous program of therapy and training.
“I opted to not do surgery; the surgery would have been a six-month recovery,” said Mbusa. “I had a physical therapist I was working with who also works for some NBA and NFL players at Reload PT in New York City. She was confident she could get me going. I was dedicated to get in shape to play in this tournament. It was also a lot of work on my own with many of my friends that were also in the men’s league or in the city who wanted to come out to practice with me. I would do that with them and I got some workouts from the coach.”
That work paid off as Mbusa got up to speed in time to play in the tournament. Once in San Diego, Mbusa worked on developing bonds with his Ugandan teammates.
“I didn’t know them that well. There were a few guys that I had met the previous two times I had gone there and fortunately I was rooming with one of them,” said Mbusa. “It was a lot of new names, a lot of new faces and a large age range. Our youngest player had just turned 16 right before the tournament and our oldest guy was probably 35 with five kids. We had a week of practicing before the games, there were two-a-days every day.”
Unfortunately, the injury bug bit Mbusa again as the squad prepped for the tourney.
“On the first day, I actually pulled my groin in our training session,” said Mbusa. “I was out for an additional two-and-half days, which was very frustrating. I was really hoping to maximize my time and get used to the team but it all worked out because there were other roles I could fill, like coaching other people.”
Mbusa had the time of his life when he scored a goal in a 13-5 loss to France in Pool B play on June 24. Having initially played in the midfield, Mbusa switched to longstick midfield to bolster the Uganda defense and his tally came on a blast from his pole in an unsettled situation.
“We were playing this game and I go in and I am playing defense, we save a shot,” recalled Mbusa. “I go to switch off for a shortstick middie but before you do that, I always have got to look back to see if the ball is available and if I am available and I am wide open. They pass me the ball and I just run it and this guy is not going to be able to catch me so I go for it. Whenever you are taking the longstick, nobody really anticipates that you are going to shoot. I play shortstick and I have got the handle so I am going to go up the field. I was really excited, that was really nice.”
That moment proved to be a highlight for Mbusa as his time on the field ended when he ruptured his achilles tendon warming up for Uganda’s pool play game against Denmark.
“We were doing live game situations, I set up top and we were working it around and I just took a step and it felt like somebody stepped on my ankle,” said Mbusa.
“I turn around and say, ‘what are you guys doing?’ I am upset because I think one of my teammates just stepped on me and I look around and the nearest guy is six, seven feet away. I tried to stand up and I couldn’t stand up, and my coach comes running on the field.”
Even though Uganda went 0-7 in the tournament, finishing 30th of 30 teams in the competition, Mbusa
believed the squad improved by leaps and bounds.
“Our team got better every single game; it was an incredible thing to watch,” said Mbusa, noting that Uganda played its closest game in its finale, falling 7-5 to Denmark in the 29th place game. “I don’t know if I have seen that happen before with any other team that I have been on. It was 48 hours in between games and we are getting better, and 24 hours between some other games and we are getting better.”
For Mbusa, competing in San Diego was one of the best things that has happened since he picked up a lacrosse stick.
“It was just an absolutely incredible experience,” said Mbusa. “It was great for me, coming from where I thought that my competitive lacrosse career might be over and then being able to represent Uganda on the world stage.”
Looking ahead, Mbusa is hoping to get other chances to represent Uganda on the world stage.
“I am going to stick with the men’s leagues that I am in here in New York City,” said Mbusa, who works as a software engineer for the NBA. “I want to come back for the world games. I have got unfinished business. I am going to look into everything I can. We are going to know by the end of the year if lacrosse (Sixes lacrosse) is going to be played in the 2024 Olympics.”