Texas Big Man Mohamed Bamba Is the Next Big Thing in Basketball

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagNovember 8, 2017

Hillcrest Prep's DeAndre Ayton #0 in action against Westtown School's Mohamed Bamba during a high school basketball game at the 2017 Hoophall Classic on Saturday, January 14,, 2017, in Springfield, MA.. Westtown School won. (AP Photot/Gregory Payan)
Photo courtesy of University of Texas Athletics Photography

The most popular course at the University of Texas is 10 minutes underway, and already, someone is dancing in their underwear.

Not in the aisles of auditorium 112A, but on the projection screen that faces approximately 250 students in the heart of the Austin campus.

The video for "Get Right Witcha"—a song by the rap group Migos—is a part of today's curriculum for "The Black Power Movement," a history course taught by Leonard Moore that sometimes evokes heated debate about race, politics and societal issues.

Moore asks students how they feel about the song's lyrics, which reference hollow point bullet shells, the recreational use of the drug Percocet and men "dismissing" women after sex.

"There's a half-naked woman dancing in the middle of the desert," Moore says as he points at the screen. "Seriously, why is there is a half-naked woman dancing in the desert?"

A few students snicker, while others shrug off the words and images as "entertainment."

"If I can make millions doing that, I'm doing it," one male says.

Moore grimaces and shakes his head. He calls the video "an embarrassment" and says it fuels the negative stereotypes many people have about African-Americans. All it takes is one lyric, one picture, one moment, the professor notes, for someone to form a flawed perception.

"A perception," Moore says, "that's far from reality."

Seated about 10 rows from the front of the auditorium, Mohamed Bamba listens carefully.

For the 6'11" freshman, the message hits home.

There is little dispute that Bamba—a projected top-five pick in next summer's NBA draft—is one of the top prospects in college basketball. He boasts the speed and coordination of a guard, a soft touch on his mid-range jumper and, most impressively, a 7'9" wingspan that puts him in an elite class when it comes to deflecting passes and blocking shots.

The rest of the narrative surrounding Bamba, however, is where the truth could easily be distorted.

People in Bamba's inner circle, for instance, are aware he was educated at two elite boarding schools in the Northeast, scored a 30 on his ACT and had a letter he wrote to President Barack Obama published in Newsweek. Yet outsiders could hear about Bamba's family history and conclude he's more like his older brothers, Sidiki and Ibrahim, both of whom are in prison.

Bamba's friends know that his mentor, 35-year-old private equity investor Greer Love, has been a key figure in his life since the fourth grade. But strangers watching the ESPN scroll last summer may have assumed the situation was shady when the NCAA announced it was investigating the relationship.


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Bamba hasn't been shy about discussing his plans to leave Texas after one season to enter the NBA draft, which could create a narrative that his current focus is money and fame—not growth and development.

Strolling through campus on a sunny afternoon in September, Bamba shrugs when discussing his varying reputations. Much like that rap video in his Black Power class, the perceptions are often the opposite of reality.

"I'm sure there are people out there—people I've never met—who have already formed a negative opinion of me," Bamba says as he swings open the door of the athletic dining hall, holding it so a female student can pass through. "Hopefully, by the time I leave here, they'll realize I'm the opposite of what they probably think."

Indeed, as excited as he is about starring on the basketball court, Bamba is even more energized by the opportunities—by the pedestal—the sport could one day give him off it.

   

DURING THE FIRST week of July, just one month after arriving on campus, Mohamed Bamba asked coach Shaka Smart to summon the Longhorns to the Frank Erwin Center for an impromptu meeting.

Texas' newest—and most important—player had something to say.

"Basically," guard Elijah Long recalled, "Mo wanted to let us know that he was going to be OK. And that we were going to be OK."

The Longhorns certainly had reason to be worried about their season—and about the mentality of their most talented teammate. Not to mention his availability.

Mohamed Bamba has bonded quickly with his new Texas teammates since he confided in them over the summer that any allegations of wrongdoing on his part were false, as the NCAA eventually found.
Mohamed Bamba has bonded quickly with his new Texas teammates since he confided in them over the summer that any allegations of wrongdoing on his part were false, as the NCAA eventually found.Courtesy of University of Texas Athletics Photography

Earlier in the summer, Bamba's older half-brother, Ibrahim "Abe" Johnson, had moved from New York to the Austin area. According to multiple people close to the family, Abe hoped Mohamed would use his influence to get him accepted into graduate school at Texas, where he would take classes that would eventually enable him to become his brother's agent in the NBA.

When Mohamed said he couldn't help, Abe became furious and attempted to exact revenge by "snitching" about his brother's relationship with Love, the Detroit-based private equity investor who helped advise Mohamed during the recruiting process.

In a rambling, 22-minute video filmed poolside and posted to Facebook, Abe accused Mohamed of receiving impermissible benefits from Love that ranged from $200 a week in cash to televisions to vacations to a California king-sized bed. Abe also indicated he'd contacted the NCAA about the alleged wrongdoing.

"He's not going to play this year," Abe said during the rant. "I'm not going to lie to you. I exposed that kid."

Abe's plan didn't work, as he clearly lacked a strong understanding of NCAA rules. Love and Bamba had met nearly a decade earlier—way before he'd shown any signs of becoming a basketball star. So there was a "pre-existing relationship" that passed NCAA muster.

Love also said he'd contacted two former Division I compliance officers years earlier, once it became clear Bamba would be a Division I prospect, to make sure the two weren't doing anything to jeopardize Bamba's eligibility.

"We had nothing to hide," Love said. "We didn't have anything to worry about. We'd done everything possible to be in lockstep with NCAA compliance."

The NCAA agreed. After re-examining Love's relationship with Bamba once again following the release of Abe's video, the organization announced on July 11 that there was no evidence of wrongdoing and that Bamba would indeed be allowed to play for Texas this season.

Although he never feared a negative ruling, Bamba said he was disappointed the situation caused such a public stir.

Greer Love tutoring a young Mohamed Bamba in math.
Greer Love tutoring a young Mohamed Bamba in math.Photo courtesy of Greer Love

"That was my family, my brother," Bamba said. "It sucked. It sucked a lot. But growing up in Harlem, you experience way tougher times than that. I started thinking about all of the people going through worse things, and I said, 'I'm OK. I'm going to be all right.'

Still, many fans and media members saw the salacious headlines the day Johnson's rant became public and either assumed it was all true or at least felt compelled to address the accusations before the investigation had run its course to form an opinion.

"The Mohamed Bamba story checks all of the boxes of the cliches you'd associate with this type of thing," Scott Van Pelt said in his monologue on ESPN on June 30, adding, "I just feel badly for him here, because this is all gross...and he's just a kid."

Fans posting in internet chat rooms and message boards of other Big 12 schools concluded that something fishy must've happened for Bamba to pick struggling Texas over his other finalists, Kentucky and Duke.

Anyone who has ever crossed paths with Bamba personally, though, realizes he's about as genuine as they come. Much of that can be attributed to Bamba's father, Lancine, who moved from Africa's Ivory Coast to a low-income stretch of Harlem, New York, in 1996.

Barely able to speak English, Lancine got a job as a cab driver. Within a year, he had been robbed at gunpoint by a group of three teenagers. He quit the next day and started driving limos and hotel shuttles for the New Yorker Hotel on 34th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. These days he works for Uber, often shuttling passengers throughout the city in his black Suburban from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Lancine says he's never consumed alcohol and never smoked cigarettes or marijuana. He dresses immaculately when he's going out in public—"He'd probably wear a suit and tie to a football game," Mohamed says—and he prides himself on hard work, even though his long hours robbed him of time with his son during his formative years.

Mohamed with his mother, father and half-brother Abe in happier times at his high school graduation.
Mohamed with his mother, father and half-brother Abe in happier times at his high school graduation.Photo courtesy of Lancine Bamba

"Mo used to always say, 'Papa, I don't want you to drive cab no more. You never have time for nobody,'" says Lancine, sitting on a leather couch in his one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. "I say, 'I have to work to make sure we not poor. When you poor, you have problems. Make sure you don't have problems when you grow up.'"

Frustrating as it was for Lancine—who separated from Mo's mother when Mo was seven—to not be able to spend more time with his son, he was thankful that Greer Love stepped into the picture when his son was in the fourh grade.

While Bamba was performing well in the classroom, his life outside of it was far from ideal. With his parents separated, Bamba shuttled back and forth from his mother's home in Harlem to his father's place a few blocks away. Meanwhile, as Lancine tells it, Mo's older half-brothers—who have a different father—were constantly getting into fights and other sorts of trouble.

Sidiki Johnson played in just three games as a freshman at Arizona before quitting the team and transferring to Providence, where he lasted just half of a season in 2012-13. Currently an inmate at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, New York, Sidiki is halfway through a four-year sentence for second degree attempted robbery and third degree robbery.

"You follow me and not those guys," Lancine recalls telling Mo back then. "They don't have the same blood."

More and more throughout his seventh-grade year, Bamba would notice kids his age in the streets, dabbling with drugs and gangs, skipping school and falling prey to the environment. One day he went to his father and said, "Papa, I have to get out of New York City. If I stay here, it's not going to be good."

Luckily, Bamba had been introduced to Bill Mitchell, who helped run the Boys' Club of New York near Bamba's home in Harlem. The associate director of the independent school program, Mitchell helped place underprivileged youth at prestigious boarding schools throughout the Northeast.

When Bamba was offered an opportunity to attend the Cardigan Mountain School—an all-boys boarding school in Canaan, New Hampshire—for the eighth and ninth grade, he didn't hesitate to say yes.

Lancine Bamba with his son Mohamed before he outgrew his father.
Lancine Bamba with his son Mohamed before he outgrew his father.Photo courtesy of Lancine Bamba

"I needed the change desperately," Bamba said. "It was completely self-driven. Those were important years of my life. When you're 13 or 14 years old in New York, you can only go one of two ways. All of my friends were older, and I saw them hanging with the wrong crews. I saw the alley they were going down.

"And I thought, 'I don't want that to be me.'"

   

WHEN MOHAMED BAMBA arrived at Cardigan Mountain School for his eighth-grade year, he was asked to hand over his cellphone. Such devices weren't allowed. Neither were earrings, blue jeans or candy.

Students only had access to email and Skype for an hour each week and had to be in bed by 10 on weeknights. They couldn't have food in their dorm room, and a suit and tie was required for the mandatory chapel session each Thursday. Khakis and a collared shirt were to be worn to class on MondayTuesdayWednesdayFriday and Saturday.

Yes, there was school on Saturday.

On a campus filled with 251 sixth- to ninth-grade boys, Bamba said he was one of only a handful of African-Americans among a student population largely composed of white, Chinese, Korean and Hispanic students. Along with courses such as ancient history and advanced math, Bamba was taught the proper way to cut a steak, tie a tie, shake a hand and address superiors.

"Stuff I wouldn't have been taught in Harlem," he chuckles. "Everything about Cardigan was hard. The main thing for me was getting over the culture shock. Looking back on it, I wouldn't change it for the world.

"My classmates were the sons of doctors and lawyers and CEOs. I was blown away every time I met their parents. I'd ask weird questions you normally wouldn't think to ask: 'What did you major in?' or 'Is there any advice you have?' That kind of stuff. You're around that success so much that you want to be like that. You want that success for yourself."

When many of his classmates returned to their hometowns and resumed public school education, Bamba wanted to continue with the boarding school approach.

Mitchell, the former Boys' Club executive who'd helped him nearly three years earlier, placed a call to Steve Tulleners, the associate director of admissions at the Westtown School, a private boarding school just outside of Philadelphia, and alerted him that Bamba was going to apply.

"There's a basketball aspect here, too," Mitchell told Tulleners. "But don't look at him as a basketball player. Look at him because he's a great kid."

While his basketball skills and wingspan attracted the best college programs in the country, his respectful manner and willingness to fit in won the hearts of administrators at Westtown High School.
While his basketball skills and wingspan attracted the best college programs in the country, his respectful manner and willingness to fit in won the hearts of administrators at Westtown High School.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Even though Westtown is establishing itself as a basketball power—2016 NBA lottery pick Georgios "George" Papagiannis spent a season there, and Duke commit Cam Reddish is currently a senior—the school does not offer athletic scholarships. Instead, grants are based on family income and need.

From the first moments he visited campus, Bamba made quite an impression.

"A lot of kids at that age don't make eye contact or give you a firm handshake," Westtown Director of Admissions Nathan Bohn said. "[Mohamed] actually stepped toward me and greeted me eagerly with a handshake and struck up a conversation. I thought, 'If he's already doing that at this age, the rest is going to be easy for him.'"

Tulleners and head basketball coach Seth Berger had a similar opinion of Bamba after talking with him as they toured the campus.

"I don't know if he's going to end up at North Carolina [for basketball] or Harvard [for academics]," Berger told Tulleners. "But that guy is going to be something special."

Bamba qualified for a full tuition scholarship. And while he had his share of visits from some of the most well-known coaches in the nation, the Quaker school's emphasis on treating everyone as equals meant Bamba wasn't treated much differently than any other student. 

"John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Shaka Smart, John Beilein … we had coaches flying in from all over the country to meet with Mo," Tulleners said, "and none of the students here even realized it."

Instead, faculty members buzzed about the paper he wrote about environmental injustice in Harlem, or about the way he made their toddlers feel special when they approached him for autographs, or about what happened when Co-Director of Athletics Michele Linder reached to shake Bamba's hand after presenting him an award before a game.

"I'm sorry," Bamba said as he spread open his long arms and leaned toward Linder, "but you're going to have to give me a hug."

"Mo is either going to be a Hall of Famer or a senator," Tulleners said. "I realize that statement carries a lot of weight. But he's likable, he's bright and he understands how to navigate a political community."

Bamba certainly has an "it" factor that causes him to generate attention without even trying. 

Nowhere was that more apparent than at the 2016 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Valdivia, Chile.

Bamba was far from the top player on a squad that featured 2017 No. 1 NBA draft pick Markelle Fultz and projected 2018 No. 1 draft pick Michael Porter Jr. Bamba averaged a pedestrian 7.0 points and 6.6 rebounds off the bench through the USA's 5-0 run to gold. Still, native fans treated him like he was the star of the team. Bamba's cheering section grew bigger and bigger each day and probably topped out at 300 for the championship tilt. "Bam-ba! Bam-ba! Bam-ba!" they chanted while holding up signs that read "Bamba for President!"

After the game they surrounded Team USA's bus and begged for autographs.

"The obsession they had with Mo was completely unrelated to basketball," said Smart, the coach of the team. "The effect he had on those people was unbelievable."

Smart knows about that effect all too well.

He felt it that summer, too.

    

WHEN SHAKA SMART answered his cellphone on the morning of May 18, the voice on the other end told him to gather his assistants in an office before tapping the "speaker" button.

Smart obliged—and then, just for a moment, his stomach dropped.

"Mo started off talking in a somber voice," Smart said. "He was trying to set it up like he wasn't coming. He likes to play practical jokes."

The rib didn't last long, as Bamba informed Smart and his staff that he was committing to Texas because he "wanted to be a part of a championship."

Bamba said one of the reasons he chose the Longhorns was the opportunity to be a difference-maker instead of "just another guy" at somewhere like Kentucky or Duke. Texas finished just 11-22 overall last season and last in the Big 12 with a conference record of 4-14. With Bamba joining a cast of returnees such as Andrew Jones, Kerwin Roach Jr. and Eric Davis Jr.—not to mention newcomers such as high-profile point guard Matt Coleman and Tulane transfer Dylan Osetkowski—the Longhorns are confident they can reverse their fortunes and reach the NCAA tournament.

Bamba said he arrived on campus in May weighing about 205 pounds. He's already up to 220 thanks to a steady diet of meatball sandwiches from Subway, burritos from Chipotle and late-night chicken fingers from Cane's. After every workout he drinks two Gatorade chocolate protein shakes to replenish the calories he lost.

Those who have seen Bamba play see someone with the fluid movement of a guard with the ability to block shots thanks to his 7'9" wingspan.
Those who have seen Bamba play see someone with the fluid movement of a guard with the ability to block shots thanks to his 7'9" wingspan.Courtesy University of Texas Athletics Photography

On the court, Bamba won every sprint involving post players during a recent workout. And his outside shot—supposedly his biggest question mark—hardly looked suspect as he was swishing three-pointer after three-pointer.

Smart wants Bamba to become more of a vocal leader. After chastising forward Jericho Sims for not working hard enough during a drill, Smart turned toward Bamba, who was watching from the baseline.

"You tell him next time!" Smart said. "Don't make me do it each time!"

Bamba has made no secret of his intentions to enter the NBA draft after his freshman season. The website nbadraft.net projects his as the No. 4 overall pick.

"I want to be one-and-done," Bamba says between bites of mac and cheese during a post-practice dinner at Black's Barbecue in Austin. "I want to be the No. 1 pick. I think of this as career-hunting. If you're a freshman and you get a chance to get a job at a top company, you're going to take that job."

Whether he's the first pick, the fourth pick or, heck, one of the top 20, Bamba will soon have enough money to spoil himself and also his family.

If he so chooses.

Lancine said the last time he saw his son, Mo put his arm around him and said, "You took care of me, Papa. One day soon, I'll take care of you."

But what about Abe, the brother who tried to sell him out? According to reports, he was arrested on forgery charges in Iowa on Oct. 9 and remains jailed in Polk County. What about Mo's mother and sister, who have moved back to Harlem? What about Sidiki when he gets out of prison in two years? Bamba refuses to utter a negative word about any of them.

"Family is family," he said. "That will never change."

Nearly 1,700 miles away, back at Westtown in Pennsylvania, Tulleners said he feels for Bamba—and his family, too.

"Their story," Tulleners says, "is an example of the unbelievable pressure that somebody like Mo carries and the expectations that he brings. I know that Mo feels that pressure. His family feels that, too. It's everybody. It's a high-stakes game. There's a lot out there for them. Navigating this under a microscope like this is really, really difficult to do."

If any player—especially a freshman—is equipped to handle the pressure, it's Bamba, who is eager to use his talents to impact the Longhorns on the court and, eventually, create a pedestal to benefit the world off it.

"I see him as a Dikembe Mutombo-type," says Mitchell, the former Boys' Club of New York leader who steered Bamba toward boarding school all those years ago. "This is a special kid. Millions of people are going to know his name one day, whether it involves basketball or not."

Perhaps then, with Bamba, there won't be any confusion between perception and reality.

They'll be one and the same.

   

Jason King is a senior writer for B/R. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King's work has received mention in the popular book series The Best American Sportswriting. In both 2015 and 2016, King was tabbed as one of the top five beat writers in the nation by the APSE. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR

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