UTICA, N.Y. - After a tough few months for the Utica College men's basketball team, the death of freshman forward Chris Bamba on Tuesday is the toughest thing the team has faced.
With the death of Kobe Bryant, an idol to many on the team, followed shortly thereafter by the coronavirus pandemic and social justice issues currently gripping the nation, head coach Sean Coffey said his players have been through a lot recently, but nothing could prepare them for this.
"It's uncharted territory for me as a coach and the first big loss for some of these guys," Coffey said on Wednesday via Zoom video chat. "They're just so close. He was only with us for a year, but most guys feel he was here for three."
Bamba, 18, died via drowning after swimming with friends in the Rondout Creek in High Falls, New York near his hometown of Kingston.
According to the Ulster County Sheriff's Office, at about 5:40 p.m. on Tuesday, first responders including police, fire and EMS agencies were dispatched for a water emergency. The preliminary investigation suggested that Bamba became distressed in the water and despite rescue efforts from several people, was unable to reach shore.
Divers from Ulster Hose and the Sheriff's Office in-water rescue team eventually recovered him and attempted unsuccessful resuscitation efforts. Bamba was pronounced dead at the scene.
The investigation is ongoing, but preliminary indications are that the drowning was accidental.
"It's been my toughest 24 hours as a coach," Coffey said. "It's almost like one of your own kids. You forget what your life was like before your son or daughter was born, it's kind of hard to even imagine our program without him."
According to Coffey, Bamba came from humble beginnings. Initially on his radar due to connections in the Kingston area, since Coffey is originally from nearby New Paltz, he said Bamba may have been one of the first in his family to attend college.
Bamba took the opportunity to attend college and play basketball, and made the most of it. He placed on the Dean's List twice in his freshman year with a 4.0 GPA his first semester and a 3.8 his second semester.
"He had so much going for him," said Coffey. "He was an extremely quick-witted kid, always had a smile, always had a ton of energy. He just fit in immediately. He fit our campus perfectly, and our locker room perfectly. Just a terrific kid, a terrific person."
On the court, Bamba appeared in nine games for the Pioneers in his freshman season, having his best game, an 11-point outing against Cazenovia on November 22. Coffey was expecting the 6'7" forward to take major leaps and become an integral part of the lineup in the coming years.
"He was going to be a great player," Coffey said. "He was a freak athletically. Being 6'7" and able to move the way he did, he could just jump out of the gym. That's the hardest part, the what-ifs. Just where his trajectory was going, [it was] so high so it's really, really difficult to swallow at this moment."
After informing players of Bamba's death individually, the Pioneers gathered together via video conference Wednesday in order to discuss and grieve the loss. Coffey is hoping they will be allowed to attend funeral services, but with the ongoing pandemic, is unsure if that will be possible.
He said that he would like to do something to honor Bamba's memory and his jersey number 5 when everyone is able to return to campus.
"I don't want him thought of as just the kid that had that tragic accident," said Coffey. "That's one of my biggest fears for him because he was so much more than a tragedy."