Bulls’ Cristiano Felicio overcame prep school nightmare to achieve NBA dream
The Brazilian’s journey took a turn after CCSE Academy founder was arrested for abusing players
SACRAMENTO, California — Chicago Bulls center Cristiano Felicio prefers to focus on the positive when he returns to Sacramento. California’s state capital was a steppingstone in the Brazilian’s amazing journey from undrafted free agent to summer league long shot to finally making it to the NBA. Lifelong friends were made here. But the 25-year-old Felicio tries to block out the nightmare of when he briefly played in an area prep school program for a man who went to prison for abusing the players.
“My story can motivate people not to give up your dreams, to keep fighting, to keep working to get where you want it to go,” Felicio said.
Francis Amiteye Ngissah, the president and CEO of CCSE Preparatory Academy, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Dec. 17, 2014. Ngissah, who was 24 at the time, pleaded guilty to 19 charges, including six felony counts of causing corporal injury to a child, six felony counts of false imprisonment, three misdemeanor charges of child molestation, three misdemeanor charges of child abuse and one misdemeanor charge of battery.
Ngissah founded CCSE Preparatory Academy in 2012. The CCSE Prep School Twitter account announced in February of that year that training camp would start in July. The school closed after Ngissah’s arrest in January 2013. The kids in Ngissah’s basketball program were a mix of American and international players — from Russia, France, Brazil and Canada — who lived at his home in Roseville, California, a suburb of Sacramento.
Ngissah reportedly forced some of the players to stand in the corner for long periods of time while their hands were zip-tied behind their backs and clothespins were placed on their nipples as punishment, according to the Roseville & Granite Bay Press Tribune.
Felicio, one of the students at CCSE Prep, told The Undefeated that Ngissah did not abuse him physically.
“To me, personally, he didn’t do anything,” Felicio said. “I just found out about that when the players came forward after nobody wanted to be there anymore.”
Felicio grew up in Brazil and played for a professional team called Minas Tenis Clube from 2009-12 before coming to Sacramento. He wanted to earn an American college basketball scholarship and play in the NBA. Keith Moss, CCSE’s first coach, said Ngissah successfully recruited Felicio to join his program for his senior year.
All 10 players were on scholarship for the estimated $15,000 tuition and room and board. The players lived in Ngissah’s six-bedroom home in a middle-class neighborhood with two players assigned to a room. Teachers came to the house to work with the students. Moss said the two-story home had a big backyard, swimming pool, putting green, barbecue grill and an indoor sauna. The players, who ranged in age from 15 to 20, practiced at a local gym.
“Cristiano needed a nontraditional school in order to get him eligible to play in college,” said Moss, an assistant coach at San Jose State University and St. Mary’s College before coaching at CCSE. “And that is where Francis got his claws into the kid, so to speak. He was just a con artist. He would tell you these great big ol’ stories, and people just believed him. Whoever he got a hold of in Cristiano’s circle believed it.”
Little is known about Ngissah’s background before he opened the academy.
Moss said Ngissah was a “master talker” who had a way of getting people to believe him.
“You could talk directly to him in the middle of the night and he would convince you it was day,” Moss said.
Capital City School personal learning teacher Amy Gordon said Ngissah originally put the players in CORE Placer Charter School. Gordon said Ngissah reached out to her in October 2012 about teaching his players in the independent studies program for which she worked. Gordon said Ngissah told her the players needed an independent studies program because they had an “aggressive travel schedule.”
Gordon said she and Ngissah met shortly afterward and he had passports for all his international players and paperwork from the parents stating that he could make medical and educational decisions for them, which was needed for enrollment. She said CCSE initially seemed legitimate.
Gordon said she told Ngissah that the Sacramento City Unified School District program would offer a math and an English language support teacher for free as well as visits from her to ensure the players were progressing with their studies. She also said she told Ngissah that he had to hire two tutors, which she says he never did, to teach the players daily. While Gordon had her reservations about Ngissah, whom she now views as a con artist, she said she was tricked in part because the house had a classroom in it.
“Francis was supposed to provide tutors,” Gordon said. “He had all these grand plans that he obviously couldn’t afford. It never materialized. That was the big problem that I had to keep copying him [on email] throughout.”
Moss helped Ngissah recruit players, but he said he quit coaching the team before the start of the season because he was not getting paid. Dave Garcia, a former Sacramento City College player and travel basketball coach, took over the program. Garcia, now an assistant coach at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
“I really saw the writing on the wall with Francis,” Moss said. “But it really came down to him not paying me after all the kids got there. I was supposed to be on a certain salary and he stopped paying me. I can’t work for free.”
Before Moss quit, he approached local AAU coach Nathan Stephens about becoming an assistant coach. Stephens declined after getting “bad vibes” about Ngissah during a practice that Stephens conducted in Moss’ absence.
“[Ngissah] said, ‘Listen, I don’t want to do any more of these drills,” Stephens said. “I want to play full court. I want to play a game with no rules. If they want to travel, if they want to throw elbows, I want to see how they react to that sort of stuff. This is supposed to be a prep school. Next-level basketball.’ This was absolutely ridiculous.
“He actually did it. I sat back and watched. It was bizarre. The guys didn’t want to participate. It was a really uncomfortable environment. It wasn’t a good school at all.”
According to Sacramento Fox 40, neighbors also grew suspicious of Ngissah. He told them he graduated from Harvard, that his father was a judge and his uncle was the police chief of Roseville. None of that was true.
Former CCSE guard John Murry said everything was amazing when the players first arrived at the prep school, from the schoolwork to the basketball to the way they were treated off the court.
“It was perfect,” Murry said. “We were going to school. Going to practice. It was normal activity for a prep school. I liked the consistency and how we were being treated as basketball players at 16, 17 years old. The teaching was legit. Everything was legit.
“We got to the class at the beginning part of the day. Then we would go to lunch and then practice and then do homework. It felt like we were in college.”
Murry said CCSE played in only two tournaments before December 2012. He said it was obvious to everyone during those handful of games that Felicio, who was 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds at the time, not only was the team’s best player but also had NBA potential.
“Cris was nice. He was older. (Felicio turned 20 in July 2012.) I felt at that time he should be in the NBA already. He controlled all the boards and scored, and I controlled all the scoring,” Murry said.
According to Murry, the CCSE program took a turn for the worse when the second semester arrived in December. Murry said problems began when players didn’t get fed regularly. Murry said Garcia stopped coaching the team. The games stopped and there was no gym access for practice.
Murry said he recalled Ngissah threatening the international players by saying he would do something to their passports or visas.
“[Garcia] gave us a warning saying, ‘Instead of telling y’all every single detail, I would rather you just get out of here,’ ” said Murry, who ended up playing in college at Austin Peay University. “All of the sudden food became a problem. Our teacher was doing all that she could getting us a record for class. But she wasn’t coming over to the house anymore. At that point, we had to do what was best for us.”
Felicio was by far the most physically imposing player on the team. Ngissah stood about 5-foot-6. Murry said the punishment Ngissah gave to the players was often based on whether he could intimidate them. Murry said Ngissah never physically harmed him or “Big Cris” because they were “older and smarter and he knew better.”
“With Cristiano, it was more mental abuse,” Stephens said. “[Ngissah] had their passports that he tore up and burned right in front of them and said, ‘Welp, you’re not leaving now.’ ”
Murry said he and Felicio learned about the abuse after their younger teammates told them what happened.
“He would discipline and say this is what was supposed to be done. But he would take it overboard,” Murry said. “I’m not sure the specifics of who and what. He never really messed with me and Big Cris like that. But he would always try to take advantage of the younger foreign kids because they didn’t [understand] at that time and they were younger.”
When asked about the physical abuse some of his teammates received, Felicio said: “I didn’t see any of it. But I wish I had so they wouldn’t have had to suffer as much as they did. It is kind of unfortunate what happened.”
Gordon said she began sensing that there was a “major problem” in November 2012 when kids were suddenly having anger issues. She tried to talk to the players about how they were being treated but said none would offer any details.
“One young man almost did tell me, but he didn’t,” Gordon said. “I kept trying to talk to him. That was right around Thanksgiving. But he just clammed up.”
After CCSE played in the two tournaments, there weren’t any games scheduled. Murry said he was the second player to leave, as he went home to Indianapolis around Christmas 2012.
Moss said he got a call from some of the CCSE players, including Felicio, on Christmas Eve. They said Ngissah was nowhere to be found and he had left them without food. After Moss failed to reach Ngissah, he said he picked up the kids and took them to Christmas dinner at his sister’s home in Sacramento.
Moss said the kids mentioned nothing to him about any physical abuse by Ngissah at the time. They also were in good spirits after the meal and wanted to go back to the house afterward.
“One of the kids called me and said, ‘Yo, Coach, can you help us? We have nowhere to go on Christmas Eve,’ ” Moss said. “There is no food. He locked the pantry. It was 5 o’clock on Christmas Eve and I was like, ‘F—, you can’t have those kids in that situation.’ I told my wife and she told me to go get them. There were five of them left and all the kids came over to my sister’s house.
“We fed them. Nothing of physical abuse was told to me until after the fact. It was more about they didn’t have food. Francis disappeared. Stuff like that. I tried to call him and reach him, but I couldn’t get a hold of him. That night after Christmas Eve, I asked them if they wanted to stay at my house or go back. They said, ‘No, we are OK. We’ll go back to the house.’ I went back to the house to bring them food on Christmas. And after that is when it really started falling apart.”
Felicio said he wanted to depart the program after hearing stories of Ngissah’s physical actions and seeing him get confrontational with two players in early January 2013. Gordon said she called Ngissah to check on the players on Jan. 7, 2013, and he said that only four of them were left, including Felicio, after several decided not to come home after Christmas holidays.
“I was like, ‘This is bad. Something horrible is happening.’ It was supposed to be this wonderful opportunity. This elite program. Yet everyone is leaving,” Gordon said.
Worried about the players and wanting to check on their well-being, a nervous Gordon received permission from Ngissah to pick them up on Jan. 8, 2013, to take them on a “field trip.” But that was a story she made up to get them out of the house. Gordon called Marissa Williams, another teacher who worked with the CCSE kids, and asked her to meet them at Gordon’s house. After the starving kids ate a meal, they started opening up about their nightmare.
“I almost chickened out several times, but I had to get them out of the house,” Gordon said. “I just have to get them out of the house. I walked in. I had a conversation with Francis saying that we probably would have to withdraw the kids from the school because he failed to produce his tutors. But I am here today, and instead of showing them a video, why don’t I take them on a field trip and I will bring them back later?
“He said fine, and I took them and that was it. I called Marissa and said, ‘I think I kidnapped them.’ I took them to my house. I didn’t know where to take them, but I wanted to take them somewhere safe where the kids could talk to me. And I fed them because they were starving. There was never any food in that house. They ate tons of mandarin oranges, grilled cheese quesadillas, anything I could throw at them until they would stop eating.”
Gordon said she learned that Ngissah stole the passports of the four remaining players and allowed one of their visas to expire. She said Ngissah lied to one player by saying if he went to the police he would be arrested for breaking the law and told another that if he talked he wouldn’t renew his passport. She said one boy had bruises from a recent altercation. Gordon said the players told her that Ngissah brandished a handgun that instilled fear in them.
“They knew he should not have been doing it, but they were terrified,” Gordon said. “They thought something horrible would happen to them if they said something. I knew on some level that something like that was happening. But I kept thinking, ‘No way he is hurting them.’ They are all pretty big guys.
“How is that possible? It was hard to hear.”
Felicio committed to play at the University of Oregon in December 2012. Gordon confirmed Felicio’s story that he didn’t endure some of the same physical harm from Ngissah as his teammates and she believed it was because of his size and Oregon commitment.
Cristiano Felicio Signs with Oregon pic.twitter.com/sRWJRs0y
— CCSE PREP BASKETBALL (@CCSEPREP) December 6, 2012
“That is consistent with what they told me,” Gordon said. “He was smaller at the time but still really a big guy. And he was also, in my opinion — and I’m not an expert in the mind of a sociopath — it was thought that he was going to Oregon. He was going to bring more legitimacy to [CCSE] and surely attract more boys to come in to the program in the future. It didn’t make sense for him to go after Cris.
“The other boys told Cris what was going on [in December]. And in the end before they came to live with me, they were all sleeping in Cris’ room so Cris could protect them at night, because Francis wouldn’t go there.”
Gordon said that once she and Williams got the stories from the kids they called Child Protective Services, which told Gordon to go to the Roseville Police Department immediately. Felicio said Gordon and Williams took him and three of his teammates to Roseville Police, where they reported the abuse. Gordon said she escorted the players there. Felicio and his three teammates ended up staying with Gordon afterward and didn’t return to the house.
“[Ngissah] made it seem like a great opportunity when you’re offering something like that to someone who is just looking for a leg up,” Gordon said. “They trusted him. I think about their moms all the time and what it must have been like to learn what was happening to their babies, because they’re still babies at their ages.”
Police arrested Ngissah on Jan. 8, 2013, on suspicion of child abuse involving cruel corporal punishment and willful cruelty, battery and false imprisonment.
“I knew it wasn’t safe to be there anymore,” Felicio said.
Gordon contacted Stephens, who added Felicio and two teammates to his Youth Basketball Academy AAU team in Placer County outside of Sacramento. Stephens said Felicio showed to be an elite talent while playing for him from January to May 2013. Gordon also said that Felicio was “very guarded” about what took place at CCSE and also spoke broken English at the time.
“It was so far from what he is as a person that he has absolutely tried to block it out,” Stephens said.
Stephens, however, did say that Felicio spoke loudly with his game.
“I was trying to get in as many games as I could,” Stephens said. “Sometimes we would play in two or three tournaments in the Bay Area. We didn’t lose a single game. … In AAU, there wasn’t another guy like him. He moved like a guard. He was the same size at 6-9 but didn’t have quite the weight he has on him now. But he was really athletic.”
Oregon was excited about Felicio’s size and talent and needed him, as the Ducks had lost four frontcourt players from their previous season. But in August 2013, the tough luck continued as the NCAA decided not to clear Felicio to go to Oregon because he had signed a professional contract when he played with Minas Tenis Clube in Brazil before coming to Sacramento.
Felicio returned to his native Brazil to play professionally for C.R. Flamengo from 2013-15. Felicio entered the 2015 NBA draft and told Stephens he was receiving interest from the Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs. But when 60 names were called during the draft, none of those players was him.
“I thought I’d get to the NBA quicker than I did because I tried to go through college and it didn’t work out and I had to go back to Brazil for a couple of years,” Felicio said. “Then I didn’t get drafted. … My family kept me in it because they [believed] in me the whole way. I never was going to give up because my family believed in me since day one. They kept me motivated. My coaches back in Brazil kept me motivated to get me to this point. They put in my head that I can be in the NBA.”
Said Gordon: “I watched the original draft when he didn’t get drafted, and my heart sank. But I kept saying that this wasn’t the end for him because he was such a hard worker.”
While Felicio was in Brazil, on Dec. 10, 2014, Ngissah pleaded guilty to 19 charges involving the abuse of his former players, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and had to register as a sex offender. He also pleaded no contest to five felony charges related to identity theft, forgery and other fraudulent activity.
Murry said that he and his old CCSE teammates were “happy” about the news.
“For someone to do something to people like that and they are doing nothing to you and you are doing it for no reason, you deserve what you get. I ain’t going to say we rejoiced. But it was justice,” Murry said.
Gordon said that she and another former player read statements at the sentencing hearing.
“I was really happy that he was registered as a sex offender,” Gordon said. “While his fraud hurt people, and I understand that, but to me hurting a child is inexcusable. There definitely was some relief to have some closure. One of the young men and I read statements at the sentencing. That was more emotional than I thought it would be.”
After Felicio impressed the Bulls during two summer league games, they quickly signed the free agent on July 12, 2015, and offered him an invite to training camp. Felicio finally got the big break he was yearning for when the Bulls decided to keep him on the roster for the 2015-16 season.
“He’s a wonderful kid,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It’s kind of a crazy situation how he got here. It was almost a favor for him to play on the summer league team a couple years ago. I remember looking out the window of my office a couple of years ago and I see this big kid kind of lumbering around and I didn’t know who he was. The plan wasn’t to play him. But he showed great instincts and had great feet. He ran the floor well, especially for his size. So as the summer league went on we played him more and invited him to training camp. He was excellent, and he got the last spot on the team. He’s really had good moments for us the last couple of years.
“Take advantage of your opportunity however it comes. For Cris coming in not knowing the language well, he looked kind of intimidated first time we saw him, but he earned that spot. No doubt about it.”
Felicio fondly remembers Bulls general manager Gar Forman telling him he made the roster before a preseason finale against the Dallas Mavericks in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Oct. 23, 2015.
“He came up to me before the game and told me I was going to make the team,” Felicio said. “That was probably the greatest moment for me during this journey. I didn’t cry, but I was smiling a lot, even on the bench as the game was going on.
“Some of the players looked at me and said, ‘Why are you smiling so much?’ I was the only one that knew that it happened before the game. At some point, I’m sure they figured it out. But it was great for me to hear that before the game just to know that all the work I’ve put in has been worth it.”
Felicio has been with the Bulls ever since. He made $1.39 million his first two NBA seasons before signing a four-year, $32 million contract with the Bulls on July 6, 2017. He has averaged 4.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 13.9 minutes per game as a reserve.
“I love the organization,” said Felicio, a Brazilian national team member who played on the country’s 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic team. “I love the training staff and the coaches. They talk to me a lot. They teach me a lot. I have grown as a player since the first day I stepped in the practice facility. It has been fun for me. I had to work a lot to get where I wanted to be. But I’ve learned a lot, and I’m pretty sure I will learn a lot more.”
Felicio’s old teammates and Sacramento friends constantly let him know they are proud of him and also remind him about how blessed he is now. Murry and Stephens say they talk to Felicio regularly.
“I’m real proud,” said Murry, who has played professionally in Canada. “I was telling him the other day that he is in a blessed situation. He kind of gets down sometimes, which is natural with winning and losing. But it’s always a blessing. We could be where we were at five years ago and still be there going through the same thing. But God blessed us.”
“Every time I talk to him I tell him I love him,” Stephens said. “He has a heart of gold. I tell him how proud of him I am. When I coached him in AAU, someone came in and was asking questions about how good he was. And on YouTube I said, ‘This guy is going to be in the NBA.’ It was a strange journey for him to get there.”
Gordon attended Felicio’s Bulls road games at Sacramento and against the Golden State Warriors this season, and her two young daughters call him “big brother Cris.” Gordon said Felicio did realize his dream despite the tough road. “It makes me cry. I am so proud of him and his success. I don’t know if I have the words to describe it even still.”
Felicio can never erase what happened off the court in Sacramento. But he still keeps in touch with his former teammates, coaches and support system from his CCSE days. The appreciation and affection he has for Stephens and Gordon was obvious when he visited with them in the stands after a loss to the Kings last week.
“It is a little sad, but coming here brings me more good memories than bad memories,” Felicio said. “The family I lived with gave me a place to stay. They worked with me. I still needed to study. All they did for me, I’m still grateful for it. Every time I come here I see the trainer, the teacher, even the kids that were with me that time.”