STORRS — Amida Brimah was walking to school one morning, towering over the other students, when he heard a man call to him.
"He didn't know if I was tall," Brimah said, "he wasn't sure. He was really tall. But when he came up close to me, he saw I was taller than he was."
Brimah didn't know it just yet, but his days as a striker on the local soccer team, and his days in Accra, Ghana, were about to end and the journey to UConn had begun. The man, Nana Baafi, who has become his guardian, told him, "You are wasting your height playing soccer."
"And that's when I came here," Brimah said.
Now 6 feet 11 and learning basketball at a pace that is surprising his new coaches, Brimah, an incoming freshman, can become the next big thing at UConn.
"He's really long," said former UConn center Jeff Adrien, who was working out with Brimah and other big men Tuesday morning. "If he works at it, he can be the next good center to play at Connecticut."
The thought of leaving home, leaving his parents and sisters behind in Ghana to come to America at age 16, might seem intimidating. But youngsters are raised differently in Ghana, Brimah explained.
"Back home, they raise you to be alone," Brimah said. "Even though your parents love you and everything, they raise you, especially if you're a boy, to be like a man as soon as possible. They teach you to cook. From the age of 5 you wash your own clothes — they don't give you a lot of clothes. You don't use a machine, you wash with your hands. So when I came here, it was easier."
Both of his parents are college educated. Brimah's father, who works in the construction business, studied in England. Amida Brimah speaks English, French and four African dialects. He plans to study hospitality management at UConn.
After Baafi, who had played and coached in the United States after leaving Ghana, convinced him to give basketball a try, Brimah trained in Ghana and developed a love for the game. He also saw how good he could be. Soon, he headed to the Miami area to play high school and AAU basketball. There was some culture shock:
"The culture is different," he said. "How they talk [trash] here, if you talk like that back home, it's disrespectful. When I first got here and guys would talk to me like that, I got mad. I had to adjust to it."
He did not play much at first and eventually changed high schools. But after his junior year at Archbishop Carroll, Brimah began turning heads at a tournament in Indiana and the Florida Fall Festival, where UConn coaches began to notice.
"Amida was one of the most passionate basketball players I saw during the entire recruiting period," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said, "and I fell in love with his passion for the game."
Brimah, in only his third year of organized basketball, led Archbishop Carroll to a 26-5 record, averaging 16 points, 11.7 rebounds and 7.2 blocks. Schools got involved late. Brimah visited LaSalle, South Carolina and UConn, and the Huskies closed the deal during his official visit in January, when he watched the UConn-Louisville game at the XL Center. "The coaches here were all very nice," he said. "And they care about their players, especially education-wise."
After basketball season, Brimah gave the high jump a whirl before graduating. "In Ghana, they do it with just regular ground," he said, "and it hurts when you fall. And the metal [crossbar] doesn't move, so you get hurt on that. I didn't like it."
But he joined the track team and ended up clearing 6 feet, 2 inches, fourth in the state. It's just another indication that Brimah, though wiry at 215 pounds, is the kind of versatile athlete Ollie is seeking for his fast-paced, ball-movement style.
Brimah arrived on campus in late June and he is on his own, with Baafi back in Miami. He has been working with associate head coach Glen Miller. Also in the group are Kentan Facey, the freshman from Jamaica and New York, sophomore Phil Nolan and, on Tuesday, Adrien, who finished last season with Charlotte in the NBA. It is all but certain that Enosch Wolf will not be back, so minutes in the post are available.
Brimah is a shot-blocker, but he is working on footwork and spacing.
"He has a terrific motor," Miller said. "His work ethic is right up there with the best of them. He's got some definition to his offensive game, a nice go-to move to begin with and he picks up things quickly. For a guy who has only been playing basketball three years? Wow."
Big Man On Campus
Adrien, who captained the Huskies in 2008-09, played in Spain before working his way back to the NBA. He played in 52 games with Charlotte, starting five, averaging four points and 3.8 rebounds in 13.7 minutes. "It was a good year," he said. "I learned a lot, I played more than in past years. Right now [my career] is on the right track, and hopefully it will continue to be on that right track. Now, I've got to get ready for this season, so these guys are helping me, too."
Adrien, 6-7 and more than 240 pounds, gave UConn's young and wiry bigs, Nolan, Brimah and Facey, a taste of the burlier frontcourt players they will be facing. After the workout, Adrien headed to Glastonbury, where he is running a summer basketball camp for kids 8 to 16, which ends Friday.
'New Chapter' For Wolf
It is all but certain Wolf will not return to UConn to play as a walk-on. The 7-1 center, who was taken off scholarship after the legal and campus review process stemming from his arrest last February, tweeted this week "excited to begin a new chapter." Wolf told The Courant he can't say what that 'new chapter' is just yet, but will elaborate soon. He will likely sign a pro contract in Germany; if he were to transfer to another school, he'd almost certainly have to sit out a year. … On the injury front, Omar Calhoun, who had surgery on both hips, is recovering on schedule but needs four more weeks of rehab. He will not be playing in the Greater Hartford Pro Am. The staff is proceeding cautiously with Tyler Olander, recovering from the broken foot. He is unlikely to play in the GHPA.