Mohamed Bamba’s Reach Still Expanding
If there is one thing Mohamed Bamba hasn’t done up to this point, it’s make a decision without putting some thought behind it. And, that’s not going to end anytime soon, because taking his time is part of the plan.
Speaking with Bamba, though, isn’t exactly like that. He’s quick, articulate and intelligent. He doesn’t pause to answer or wait for the words to come out. Communicating is natural, and by his measure, it’s a skill that he may expand on in life after basketball.
Bamba said psychology intrigued him at first, but he thinks he’s more suited for the marketing or business field – anything that allows him to connect with people, really. But as noted, he doesn’t rush into decisions, so he’s not entirely sure yet.
“I’m thinking about what is really going to help me down the line, because nothing may help me immediately, depending on how this whole basketball thing works out. A lot of people say that a strong suit of my character is just me bonding with people, and I think that in those fields, that is a characteristic that is a must-have.”
The 6-foot-11, 215-pound Harlem, New York, native is rated the fifth-best prospect in the class of 2017 by ESPN. Bamba is one of two top-five players still undecided about where he will play collegiately, but his list is down to four schools – Duke University, University of Kentucky, University of Michigan and University of Texas. That decision, he said, is going to take some more time, and he will wait for the NCAA Tournament to conclude and for rosters to settle.
Bamba’s brother, Sidiki Johnson, who played for the University of Arizona and Providence College in his day, has been through this process, and relishing the decision process was his biggest piece of advice for Mo. So far, so good for little brother, and narrowing his list to four was something he particularly enjoyed.
“There’s a stigma about the recruiting process, that it’s very stressful and whatever else, but honestly, this is just a blessing. I got to see my family come together and help out with this,” said Bamba, who’s of Malian descent, but grew up in Harlem.
“Obviously, it’s going to come to an end eventually when I pick a school. It’s something that I will never be able to do and live again in my life, the recruiting process. You only get one time, and I want to make sure I pick the right place where I can make the most impact possible, not just on the basketball court, but in school.”
When Bamba cut his list to four, he eliminated the likes of Syracuse University, University of Connecticut and Harvard University. His test scores satisfied requirements for admission into the Ivy League school, which created a circle of irony for him now. This past year, Bamba wasn’t present for the USA Basketball Men’s Junior National Team October minicamp. Why? He was studying for the ACT.
For months, Bamba remained hopeful he would be included on the USA Junior National Team roster for the 20th annual Nike Hoop Summit, and that wish came true. He will don the USA jersey in his second competition with USA Basketball on April 7 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon.
This past July, Bamba won his first gold medal with USA Basketball at the 2016 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Valdivia, Chile. He averaged 7.0 points and 6.6 rebounds per game through the USA’s 5-0 run to gold.
“It honestly meant the world to me. To be able to represent something that is much bigger than just me, and to represent our country – it means a lot. I get to represent not only myself and my family, but all of Harlem and for our city – New York City. It’s just awesome. It’s beyond me.”
Bamba became a fan favorite in Chile. No, really. Just about everyone loved him. Signs in the stands read his name and fans chanted “Bamba, Bamba, Bamba!” whenever he made his mark on the game. He laughs thinking back on it.
“I don’t know what it was. I, for sure, wasn’t the best player on the team and I wasn’t playing like the best player. I mean, we had Markelle Fultz on that team,” he said.
“It must have been my last name because it has Spanish origins, but the crowd really loved it. It picked up in the first couple days, because it was like three or four kids really chanting my name. And then, as the tournament went on, it went from like four to 14, and then 14 to 40, and then 40 to half the arena. Whenever I did a warm-up dunk, they’d lose their minds and go crazy.”
Bamba rattled off another lasting memory from that trip – a story about the players’ adjustments to being there, and the bond the USA team built while out of their element. Culture, education, perspective – those aren’t just words to him. Culture, education and perspective are Mohamed Bamba.
In the first week of March, Bamba and some of his Westtown School (Pa.) senior classmates embarked on a 10-day trip to China, where they provided help and ran clinics in various communities. On day one of the trip, suited head to toe in gray Nike tech fleece, Bamba was seen bent over, filling bags of coal to be used for heat.
“That was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life, as far as just traveling and seeing a new world.
“The culture is so very different. Just the way people lived was different, and that’s something I really enjoyed. As a New Yorker, you’re kind of overwhelmed when you don’t have everything, but it was great.”
At 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-8 wingspan, Bamba was surely the tallest and longest person doing much of anything. Although, he’s that way just about everywhere, and Bamba’s wingspan, which could be longer at this point than when it was officially measured by USA Basketball last July, is matched by only four NBA draft picks in recorded history.
Incredible? Yes. Imagine the faces of high school basketball opponents, from Pennsylvania’s Friends Schools League, which Westtown won for the fourth year running. Bamba’s squad was 32-2 in 2016-17, and the Moose won their second consecutive Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association state title.
“I learned a lot about not only my teammates, but myself, and how much winning means to me and how much I hate losing,” he said.
“There’s two types of athletes, to me – athletes that love winning and athletes that hate losing. I categorize myself as somebody that despises losing as much as I love winning. I can’t stand losing.”
That’s the Harlem in Bamba. That’s where he gets his toughness, and not the suburbs of Philadelphia, where’s lived for the past three school years.
“Obviously, it’s not the safest place in the world, but that kind of gives me that edge. Playing in those parks on those blacktops, that’s where it started.
“It gave me my handling skills, believe it or not. Growing up, if you didn’t know how to handle the ball, you weren’t getting picked up to play,” he added, laughing.
His handles will definitely have a new home in the fall – where is yet to be determined. There’s one thing for sure though, and it’s the culture and personality of Mo Bamba that will be leaving a lasting impression wherever he goes. He’s an 18-year-old who speaks multiple African dialects and has spent his spare time researching alums and players from the schools on his list.
“There are a lot of guys that are one-and-dones, and they didn’t get the full college experiences, but they love their school so much. I want to have that same love for the place I choose,” he said.
That’s why coming to find that one place has taken so long for Bamba, who continues to sift through the messages to, “find that one different voice.” When it comes to that all-important time, something makes you think this athletic wonder will have no trouble fitting in. And, you better be on your toes, because the tallest person in the room may just walk up and talk to you, too.
“I just want to go to a place where I could meet different people that have something growing off from themselves, whether that’s alumni networking or whatever else. I want to get somewhere to meet new interesting people all the time.”