- At age 11, Bamba met Kevin Durant. “I was at his shoulder, and I was thinking, ‘Dang, how tall is this dude?’”
- He averaged 12.9 points and 10.4 rebounds a game this season, with a season-high of 25 points against Ole Miss.
- Texas opens the NCAA Tournament on Friday against Nevada; the Horns' next loss is likely Bamba's final game at UT.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Mo Bamba’s time in Austin is almost up. The burnt-orange star shot across the Texas sky, and only a fraction of the UT community got to know this engaging, convivial 19-year-old from Harlem, N.Y.
Whether Texas plays one game in the NCAA Tournament — starting Friday against seventh-seeded Nevada — or wins six straight, that’ll be it for Bamba, as far as UT is concerned. He’s off to NBA afterward, as he should be, frankly.
Blame the one-and-done setup that forces NBA-ready prospects to layover one year in college. Would Bamba have gone straight to the NBA if rules allowed it? “I actually think I would have,” he said. “Mixed emotions about it. I’d say 50-50.
“I would like to develop my game and play (in college),” Bamba added. “But at the same time, I would look forward going to the NBA so I can begin that journey and seeing what the grind is like.”
Although, as Bamba notes, “There’s nothing like college basketball. This time during March is very exciting.” And the buildup is amazing. After all, he got to visit places like Lubbock. “That wasn’t even the worst place,” Bamba shot back. “Ames, Iowa — by far. It was negative-14 degrees.”
Sure, the Horns would love to hang onto someone with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, one who led the Big 12 in rebounding and blocks. But teammates have enjoyed the complete person, one molded by two elite prep schools and a genuine curiosity about everyone and everything he comes in contact with.
“Unbelievable opportunity just to have this year with him,” freshman point guard Matt Coleman said. “It’s closely coming to the end, but I want to prolong it as long as we can.”
For those just tuning in Friday against Nevada, UT coach Shaka Smart said, “Hopefully they see the best version of Mo.”
That sprained left toe injury is a thing of the past. “Mo looks like Mo. He looks like the old version of Mo,” guard Kerwin Roach II said. “He looks 100-percent healthy. He’s jumping. He’s blocking shots. He’s screaming at you when he does block a shot. He’s healthy.”
Not many players announce their commitment via The Players’ Tribune. Not many walk into their first press conference and shake every reporter’s hand. Not many enroll in UT professor Leonard Moore’s AFR 317 class titled “Black Power Movement.” Not many ask the counselors to place them in an upper-level finance course. You know, one suited for future multi-millionaires.
Not many go to the head coach in December and essentially demand, “Coach me harder.” Not many would accelerate a trainer’s timeline to heal a sprained toe this close to being drafted.
No, there’s not many like Mohamed Bamba.
“He’s really a big kid,” Coleman said. “I look at him like he’s my little brother. He probably won’t say it in public, but he knows I’m the big brother.”
When the 6-11 Bamba and the 6-2 Coleman go out in public, fans want to take photos with the big guy. “Then I’m just there. They don’t even know I play basketball,” Coleman said with a laugh. “I’m his manager or something.
“He’s not your ordinary one-and-done,” Coleman said. “He knows it, but he doesn’t make it known.”
Cut in fourth grade?
Most UT fans got their introduction to Bamba via an out-of-nowhere story about his brother, Abe.
Texas landed the nation’s second-ranked recruit mostly because of Bamba’s relationship with Smart. Suddenly, who was this guy claiming to be Bamba’s brother rambling in a 22-minute Facebook video? Shot poolside, Bamba’s brother claimed Mo had received money and other benefits from Greer Love, his long-time advisor, a private equity investor in Detroit.
In reality, Love was someone who first met Bamba as a fourth grader in Harlem at P.S. 208, the Locke Magnet School for Environmental Stewardship. Love organized a fifth-grade basketball team and actually denied the fourth-grade Bamba a spot, if you can believe it. It’s a story that Bamba will never allow Love to live down.
“I didn’t really get a good excuse,” Bamba said.
Hey, even Michael Jordan got cut in prep school. “Not in fourth grade! I was crushed.”
Love eventually began to look after a group of 10 boys from Locke. Bamba wasn’t the only future college athlete, either. Eddie Lewis is now a freshmen receiver at Rutgers. Souleymane Koureissi is headed to play basketball at Richmond.
Bamba later asked Love to help guide him through the recruiting process. To make sure everything was done right, they enlisted the help of Rick Allen, a one-time Oklahoma State compliance officer who now runs the website InformedAthlete.com.
With rare lightning speed, the NCAA ruled that Bamba received no impermissible benefits. In a flash, the story was gone as the video “backfired,” Bamba said. He demurred when asked if he’s made peace with his brother. “You live and learn,” Bamba said. “It was his birthday the other day, and he’s somewhere around here. But I try to do my own thing.”
Bamba’s recruitment is topical again now that the FBI probe into college basketball has gone mainstream.
Neither Bamba nor Love said they were offered anything improper during the recruiting process. “I was never personally offered anything,” Love said. “I can’t speak for anybody else other than Mo or myself. Mo felt strongly the program should be able to stand on its own merits.”
Bamba laughs at the idea that some people would be shocked at college basketball corruption.
If offered money by a coach, Bamba said, “At first, I would ask them why do you feel like this would sway me to go to your school?
“I didn’t understand,” he continued. “I would hear these stories about guys getting cars. So-and-so got this and that, and it’s been dating back for years. Why do I have to be the guinea pig or the clean guy?
“One, I never wanted anything from anybody because I never had my hand out,” Bamba said. “I knew deep down if I took care of what I had to take of, the university would take care of me. Two, if I took care of things, I wouldn’t be in college too long. That was always in the back of my mind. As time went on, you saw more and more of guys getting in trouble. Man, this was just the right thing to do.”
Future beyond Texas
Bamba chose Texas in part because of what he termed the “platform” UT offers. He didn’t want to go somewhere and be just another name. He also wanted to follow in Kevin Durant’s footsteps.
When he was 11, Bamba first met Durant at the famous Rucker Park outdoor basketball court in Harlem. “I was at his shoulder, and I was thinking, ‘Dang, how tall is this dude?,’” Bamba said.
This season, Durant made headlines at UT by donating $3 million to the basketball program. As Durant gave an interview to two reporters, Bamba slid into the room and plopped down next to the NBA Finals MVP. “We’re building a nice legacy of guys that come from Texas,” Durant said, sitting next to his future pro colleague.
Bamba averaged 12.9 points and 10.4 rebounds this season. His best game was a 25-point outburst against Ole Miss. His 3-point shot developed as the season progressed, prompting Smart to tease reporters. “Some of you owe him an apology,” the coach said.
“I think there’s a chance he’s just a smidgen of what he’s going to become,” UT assistant coach Darrin Horn said. “My opinion, working with him every day, he’s got tremendous offensive potential.”
Bamba will likely be raining 3-pointers at the pro level soon. As for picking an agent, Bamba said, “There will come a time to start to figure that stuff out. But I’m more locked into the now. I actually haven’t thought about it much at all.”
He seems laser-focused on Nevada, to be sure. Bamba knows how he and the team performs in the NCAAs will help shape how he’s viewed long-term by fans.
Win or lose, he’s loved this short, productive stay with the Longhorns.
“It went from ‘platform’ to relationships. That’s what I love the most about this place,” Bamba said. “The platform you get and the relationships you get is directly correlated with each other.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.