On an unseasonably warm December afternoon, I sat at an empty table in the catacombs of the TD Arena. A few bodies shuffled through the desolate hallways, nodding at me in recognition. The sporadic bouncing of basketballs and screeching of rubber soles on the polished pinewood from the distant court echoed through the otherwise silent space. The vacant arena — home to the College of Charleston men's basketball team — presented a vivid contrast to any game night, when the volume is high and an empty seat is an oddity.
Down a nearby corridor, a towering figure emerged in the distance. It paced slowly down the bare hallway, and it wasn't until the silhouette grew nearer that I determined the immense physique belonged to Adjehi Baru. At 6'9", 225 lbs., the freshman center certainly maintains an intimidating persona on the court. However, as I would quickly discover, Charleston's budding basketball star is a gentle giant with a promising future.
Baru, a native of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, has been touted as one of CofC's highest-ranked recruits in team history. Many universities, most known for their prominent basketball programs, were clamoring for the young star. Baru had interest from Ohio State, Kentucky, and North Carolina — all of which are currently ranked in the top 10 nationally — but he chose CofC. He cited the beautiful weather and the historic city itself as major reasons for this decision, but the presence of celebrated head coach Bobby Cremins surely played a large factor in his commitment to the Cougars.
For Cremins, the feeling of admiration is mutual. "He's very respectful, he's a gentleman, and he's very, very bright. He's everything you want in a kid," Cremins says. "He's been on an incredible journey already." Baru's trip to America didn't come without a few hiccups. After brief bad experiences in Maryland and Miami, Baru ultimately chose to live with the Branin family of Richmond, Va., who welcomed him into their home after he struck up a conversation with their son, Pat, at a basketball tournament. "He found a great situation with his new family in Richmond, and he truly appreciates that," Cremins says.
Baru prefers not to discuss his past. The succinct summary of his voyage from Africa to America came courtesy of his new coach.
Unlike most foreign players, Baru was taken in by the Branin family and went to school in America for education, not basketball. "Most good players from overseas will go to a basketball school, and some of them happen to be very good academic schools," Cremins explains. "But Adjehi did not go that route, so he needs time." He labels his young, blossoming center as more of a scholar than a basketball player at this point. As a student at the prestigious and private Steward School in Richmond, Baru received top-tier schooling. On its basketball team, which competed in a rather uncompetitive 1A division, he was a standout star. Now, studying international business at CofC, he continues to learn, both in the classroom and on the basketball court. With college stars eligible to enter the NBA draft after only one year in school, many athletes are choosing to trade in their diplomas for incredibly alluring paychecks. But Baru is devoted to his education. Even if he does decide to enter the draft early, he says he will take classes in his free time to earn his degree. "I will graduate," he says emphatically.
With all the talk surrounding his high ranking out of high school and aggressive recruitment by some of the nation's best college teams, one may question whether or not a great burden has been placed on the true freshman. Any time spent with him would quell that curiosity, as the colossal underclassman is as cool as a cucumber. "I don't feel any pressure," he says in his demonstrative, bass-filled accent. "I don't listen to those kinds of things. I just do my job on the court."
Averaging 8.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, Baru's contributions expand beyond the stat page. Fans and coaches alike have taken notice of his great hustle and high intensity. During home contests, cheers of "Roooo" fill the arena when he checks into the game or has a big play. The ever-modest Baru, though, confesses that he is not necessarily a fan of the attention shown to him. "When I play, I don't really listen to anything around me. I just close my ears and stay focused on the game." In any case, he appreciates that his opponents may not have as keen of an ability to block things out. "It's a good student section," he says. "They do a good job."
For Coach Cremins, Baru's passionate play is both a gift and a curse. "Sometimes he's a little impatient. I want him to be more patient," Cremins says. "He plays with a lot of energy, and when he started, he was fouling too much, so we worked on that." Cremins, aware that no player is without faults, has resounding faith that with a little tweaking here and there, Baru will become even more of a force on the court. "He's still a long way away from where he's going to be, and in a year or two, he'll be a different player."
Until suffering their first home defeat Dec. 30 at the hands of George Mason, a tough Colonial league competitor, the Cougars were undefeated at the TD Arena. But this is another aspect of the game that does not get in Baru's head. "For me and my team, we don't just want to be undefeated on our court. We want to be undefeated the whole season," he says. "We started the season really good, but now we have to keep it up."
The holiday season was not good to the Cougars, as they dropped three out of four games from Dec. 20 through Jan. 5. However, Baru and his teammates don't hang their heads defeat. After their hard-fought battle with then-fourth-ranked Louisville, Baru explained how the team took the nationally televised game as a learning experience. "We backed down a little bit from the pressure," he admits. "They were good, I give them credit for that, but we should have won that game." Following the close loss to Louisville, the Cougars defeated Coastal Carolina on the road before dropping their next two games to George Mason and Wofford.
As January rolls on, the Cougars' struggles continue. Most recently, the team suffered a bad loss at home on Jan. 12 to a weak conference opponent, UNC-Greensboro, who snapped an 11-game losing streak with the win. Any athlete, especially one playing for Cremins, knows that you cannot harp on a loss, and Baru echoed his coach's locker room lessons: "After one game, we have to get ready for the next. A loss is a part of the game and a part of everyday life, but you have to get over it and think about tomorrow."
Practicing what he preaches, the talented freshman rebounded from a handful of disappointing performances with the best game of his young career against Elon on Jan. 14. With 18 points, 12 rebounds, three steals, and three blocked shots, Baru recorded his first ever double-double and earned the College of Charleston's Student-Athlete of the Week award. To Coach Cremins' delight, his young star had neither a single foul nor turnover in 28 minutes of play during the 63-44 victory.
This particular relationship between coach and pupil is still a new endeavor for both Cremins and Baru. Nonetheless, you can tell that the two have already garnered great respect for each other, and all signs point to a long journey filled with success for both parties. The duo speaks very highly of one another — almost like a pair of lifelong friends. Sensing the closeness, I asked Baru about a secret only a friend would know, a mystery that has plagued Cougar fans for the past four seasons: "Who cuts Coach Cremins' hair?"
Laughing, Baru was hush-hush on the coach's famous flop of white hair. "Really, I don't know. I don't know if it's his wife. I don't know if he goes to his haircut place. I don't know about that one. I might ask him that myself, actually." Patience, Adjehi. All good things come with time.