Adjehi Baru begins new journey
The celebratory phone calls from Adjehi Baru went out to the world.
Charleston coach Bobby Cremins received the first one. Then Baru dialed his legal guardians in Richmond, Va. He later called his uncle in France to spread the good news.
Three years and a day after Baru first set foot in the United States, coming over from the Ivory Coast to pursue basketball and an education, the nation's ninth-ranked center for the 2011 recruiting class received quite an anniversary gift when the NCAA informed the school Thursday that it had cleared him to play.
Cremins cited what he called "extenuating circumstances," given what Baru faced in the Ivory Coast, that allowed him to gain eligibility after his academic record had been questioned. He arrived in America and soon found himself in search of proper living conditions and schooling before his talent thrust him into the competitive, high-stakes world of college basketball recruiting.
Perhaps improbably, despite strong interest from Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia Tech, Baru landed at the College of Charleston along with his newfound American brother, Pat Branin. When ESPNU's No. 59-ranked recruit passed on offers from the big boys and chose a Southern Conference school, the hopes of a program that came within one win of an NCAA tournament bid last season were raised.
For all the attention Baru is receiving as the highest-ranked recruit in school history, the 6-foot-9 big man prefers privacy and his headphones on campus. What does he listen to? "Any type of music except country music," Baru mused, tuning out the noise and commotion around him. "I don't want anyone trying to get a miracle from me because if you work hard, you get something," Baru said. "If you don't, you get nothing."
If the 19-year-old Baru's vision for the future sounds strikingly perceptive, consider how far he has come.
Last spring, when he walked into Cremins' office during an impromptu visit to campus with the Branin family, Cremins didn't even know who he was. "The minute I saw Adjehi, I grabbed him and said, 'Can he play?'" Cremins said. "I had no clue. I didn't know anything about the background or anything."
The white-haired coaching veteran had heard all the stories of how Houston with Hakeem Olajuwon and Wake Forest with Tim Duncan happened upon program-changing big men. Now here was Tim and Jennifer Branin, along with their three children and Baru on their way back home from spring break in Florida, stopping off for a meeting with the coach.
Tim had called and said Cremins had played in a celebrity golf tournament group with his brother, but the coach forgot all about it. His initial reaction upon hearing Baru's unique story was more memorable.
"'The Blind Side,'" Cremins said, referencing the book and film about an African-American child from a broken home being taken in by a white family and developing into a top college football recruit. "This is my 'Blind Side.'"
Baru had come to the United States in October 2008 on the recommendation of the Ivory Coast's basketball federation, the approval of his mother and the help of his uncle in France. But alone in search of the American dream, he initially couldn't help but feel used.
The first high school Baru briefly attended was called the Center of Life Academy in Miami, which he now simply refers to as "the bad school." The basketball players who played there, many of whom were from out of the country, ultimately faced eligibility concerns in college due to questionable academic credits. He didn't enjoy his subsequent stint at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., or living with his host family near there.
Baru wasn't even starting for his AAU team at that point, but despite his limited English, he struck up a conversation at a tournament with a player from another team, Pat Branin. Upon learning Baru was unhappy with his living conditions, Tim Branin invited him to stay at the family's house in Richmond about two weeks later. Baru felt nervous about it at first, but ended up finding a second family.
"We weren't seeking out a child from the continent of Africa to come here," Tim Branin said. "When he came here, we realized this kid doesn't want to leave.
"The unusual part was he didn't want to leave, so we knew there was trouble. We really couldn't say 'no.'"
Said Jennifer Branin: "His prior situation was unfair and just sad. Here's a kid in the country alone. It was terrible to hear about. He needed a family. He needed a mother, father, rules and stability. It's what he deserved."
The one thing they asked of Baru was that he would become part of the family, which included the Branins' three teenaged children. He washed dishes, folded clothes and took out the trash without being asked, setting an example for the Branin kids. "At first we thought it was because he was new, but it never went away," Tim said.
Not only did the Branins read with Baru and go through Rosetta Stone software with him to help with his English, but they also paid his tuition to attend The Steward School, where Pat studied and played on the basketball team. In order to enroll Baru, the Branins became his legal guardians.
Tim put Baru through basketball drills and got him access to a gym at a neighbor's house, and the two would stay up late watching NBA games together. Baru not only became a close teammate to Pat, but also an older brother.
Baru simply calls Tim and Jennifer mom and dad. "They really do care," Baru said. "They didn't try to treat me different as they treat their son and daughter."
What Baru still has difficulty doing is opening up about his childhood in the Ivory Coast. When he was 8, his father, who he is named after, passed away. Baru said he's unclear on the circumstances of his father's death, saying only about the single mother who raised him, "She'll give me really what happened when I grow up."
Baru speaks with his uncle nearly every day and keeps in contact with his mother, who he said approved of him playing basketball beginning at the age of 12 but was more concerned that he received a good education.
When Cremins made the trip to visit Baru and the Branins in Richmond, he marveled at the home where the player had his own room overlooking the swimming pool. "What I saw was a loving family," Cremins said. "I saw him washing dishes. His manners were perfect. I was truly amazed. I love everything I saw."
By then, Baru had impressed colleges who spent a summer tracking his progress playing AAU basketball. Cremins might not have known anything about Baru when they first met in Charleston, but he now recognized how the forward played with such energy, could use his length on defense and run the floor like a guard. At The Steward School, Baru had averaged 13.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5 blocks as a junior while carrying a 3.54 grade point average.
The rest of the nation took notice as well, with a who's who of college coaches finding their way to the Branin house. North Carolina's Roy Williams, Maryland's Gary Williams and Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg all made visits, with Kentucky's John Calipari showing interest later in the process, as well.
But despite being the mid-major, Charleston had the upper hand because Cremins knew that Baru and Pat Branin were especially close and wanted to be recruited together. He decided to offer scholarships to both the top-100 recruit and the 6-1 brother who was receiving a little Division I interest and very much wanted to play on that level. "Is he good enough to play here right now? No, but he's helping us," Cremins said of Branin's skill level.
I thought we might lose him to an ACC or SEC school, but he was just so determined to come here. There was something about him and Charleston.” -- Charleston coach Bobby Cremins, on Adjehi Baru
Baru said he would have signed with Charleston even if Branin hadn't been able to go with him. It all came back to that first unofficial visit he took to the school, as the warm weather there reminded him of the Ivory Coast and Cremins came off as both a coach and a father figure. Both Cremins and Tim Branin said they encouraged Baru to go through the recruiting process before committing. But coming from a West African nation, Baru indicated his perception of the college basketball hierarchy probably differed from those of other top recruits.
"Roy Williams was at our house, but [Baru] can't equate a North Carolina to Charleston or Kentucky," Tim Branin said. "He didn't have that kind of feeling of 'I got to be a Tar Heel.' He based his feelings on the environment and the coach."
In recruiting Baru, Cremins revisited his own past. He is the son of Irish immigrants who were prideful of their heritage, but rarely discussed the troubles they faced in their homeland. Cremins, who went on to coach in the Final Four, understood when Baru was quiet about his time in the Ivory Coast.
"He did not want to talk about personal stuff," Cremins said. "He just doesn't like that. I had to ask the Branins a lot of questions. He was very quiet, but he just kept on saying, 'I really like Charleston, I really like Charleston.'
"I thought we might lose him to an ACC or SEC school, but he was just so determined to come here. There was something about him and Charleston."
Baru said he gets embarrassed and doesn't like talking about the situation he faced in the Ivory Coast. Whatever he told the NCAA about the unrest in his hometown of Abidjan as a result of years of civil war, it was compelling enough to get him cleared despite his stint at Center of Life Academy nearly making him ineligible.
Charleston could definitely use his talent after the Cougars lost their top three scorers from last season and top returning forward Willis Hall missing the season with a knee injury. Cremins said Baru still has work to do offensively and needs to adjust to playing a higher level of competition. For now, Baru has found peace with his family and Charleston's small-town charm.
"I love Charleston," Baru said. "I love the city. I love the weather. Everybody is nice here. I love the coaching staff and Coach Cremins. I'm so happy here."
Said Tim Branin: "He doesn't see it as he has to go somewhere to be great. In his inner person, he believes he's great. Take my word for it. He is a quiet, quiet soul, but he has a strong inner being in there."
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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