The Next Great NBA Big Man Took the Road Less Traveled
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the best player in college might be the brightest.
By Matt Foley
The NBA’s next unicorn streaks down the court for an easy two-handed dunk. In five seconds, the newest Texas Longhorn flies from defending a pass on the opposite baseline to flushing the ball through his team’s hoop.
As the start of conference play propels college hoops into high gear, astute fans are no doubt familiar with the names of high-scoring star freshmen like Trae Young (Oklahoma), Marvin Bagley III (Duke) and Collin Sexton (Alabama). But one prospect quietly barreling down his own path toward guaranteed millions is Young’s Big 12 Conference rival, Mohamed “Mo” Bamba. The Texas Longhorns do-it-all center was a hot ticket coming out of high school last summer, and while he’s not as advanced a scorer as his aforementioned peers, former Indiana University head coach Tom Crean says Bamba’s boundless potential makes him one of basketball’s most intriguing prospects. “There’s going to be a learning curve of really understanding what he’s capable of,” says Crean. “But I would pay to watch Bamba.”
Had he signed with Duke or Kentucky, Bamba would have been just another prized recruit, likely given less responsibility and freedom to flourish on the court.
Bamba’s size (height: 7 feet; wingspan: 7-foot-9) and athleticism open any conversation about why the star center will be a top-five pick in next summer’s NBA draft. At age 19, Bamba handles the ball with ease and possesses a soft midrange jump shot — much like his idol, Kevin Garnett. And while some scouts have questioned whether Bamba can develop into a truly gifted scorer, Texas head coach Shaka Smart realized that there was more to the young man than meets the eye. After a disappointing 11-22 season in Smart’s second year with the Longhorns, Texas landed Bamba — a player who can transform a program and whose interests go beyond basketball. That duality has led some to call him “different,” a label that used to bother the big man. “I thought it was lame,” Bamba tells OZY. “There’s a stigma of being a basketball player, that we’re not concerned with academics … but being forward-thinking is one of my strongest features.”
Bamba was born in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, the son of Ivory Coast imimigrants who separated when he was 7. Lancine Bamba, a cabbie turned private driver, taught his son the value of hard work, while Aminata Johnson focused on raising Mo and his older brothers, Sidiki and Ibrahim. “Ibrahim was always pushing me to work harder,” says Bamba of his days on the Harlem blacktop. “I couldn’t shoot the way he wanted me to shoot, so he would start yelling and I’d curse at him.… But when I saw Sidiki play in college, I was like, ‘Man, that’s what I want to do.’”
Sidiki played a few games for Arizona in 2011 before transferring to Providence College, where he played 13 games and then dropped out. Soon the street life caught up with Sidiki — he’s serving a four-year sentence for robbery at Mohawk Correctional Facility. Mo, meanwhile, with the help of his father and Greer Love, a private equity investor who began tutoring him in fourth grade at an after-school program, managed to escape the inner city.
For eighth and ninth grades, Bamba attended Cardigan Mountain School, a boys’ boarding school in New Hampshire focused on academics and personal growth. He excelled, earning a full scholarship to Westtown School in Pennsylvania. “It was kind of like choosing a college,” says Bamba, reflecting on his decision to steer clear of New York. “We played a national schedule, and it was the perfect balance of basketball and academics.… I really lucked out with Westtown.”
Westtown lucked out too, winning back-to-back Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association titles with Bamba’s help. As a senior, he was named a McDonald’s All-American and the No. 3 recruit by ESPN. Still, picking a college wasn’t so easy. He scored 30 (out of 36) on the ACT and felt drawn more by Wall Street than promises of a shoe deal. In the end, he looked at it like a business decision: “You walk around New York City and see a bunch of grads with their alma mater hats on,” he explains. “They could be the founder of a startup or a Goldman Sachs executive. I want to have those connections in my pocket.”
Bamba chose the University of Texas at Austin — in part because of his relationship with Shaka Smart, a bond forged when he played for Team USA and was coached by Smart. But there was another reason to be “different”: Had he signed with Duke or Kentucky, Bamba would have been just another prized recruit, likely given less responsibility and freedom to flourish on the court. In Austin, the opposite is true. “He’s going to make a huge difference,” says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. “Not only on the court, but he’s going to improve an already really good culture there with the kind of person he is.”
On June 29, Ibrahim Johnson posted a rambling 22-minute Facebook video calling for Bamba’s suspension for accepting illegal gifts from Greer Love — who has ties to the University of Michigan, a finalist in Bamba’s recruitment. The rift apparently started after Johnson offered to become a sports agent and represent his brother when he goes to the NBA — an offer Bamba declined. The NCAA quickly cleared Bamba of any wrongdoing. Three months later, Johnson was arrested for fraud in Iowa.
In his season debut, Bamba scored 15 points, with eight rebounds and four blocks. At present, he’s averaging 11.8 points, 10.4 rebounds and ranks second in the nation with 4.4 blocked shots per game. Still, Smart knows that the young athlete still has a long way to go. “Adversity is a great teacher,” the coach told reporters at a recent press conference. “You learn from it.” In November, Bamba missed one game after suffering a concussion and was held to three single-digit scoring nights in four games that followed. But it’s outings like his December 29 game against Kansas that has NBA scouts drooling. Against the No. 11 Jayhawks, Bamba’s 22 points, 15 rebounds and 8 blocks nearly notched a triple-double.
Last spring in Chicago, Bamba spoke with disarming eloquence about his post-basketball career goals, his love of analytics — he attended MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last spring — and the tribulations of processing teenage stardom. “Wherever I go, there’s an elephant in the room,” he tells OZY, acknowledging the gawking passers-by that his presence draws. “There’s a Mo Bamba in the room … I’m just trying to embrace this whole experience.”