Originally posted on www.courant.com by Dom Amore
STORRS — The UConn team stayed behind in the Virgin Islands for a free day after playing in the Paradise Jam.
But assistant coach Karl Hobbs was on the move. "Gotta chase it down, man," Hobbs said, as he boarded a plane for Miami and brushed past passengers in the aisle on Nov. 20, 2012.
Hobbs was going to check out a tall, skinny player at Archbishop Carroll High, Amida Brimah, a player few knew much about. The staff had invested a lot of effort in highly touted Noah Vonleh, but he had committed to Indiana earlier that month. They'd gotten a tip that Brimah was worth a look.
"We needed a 'big,'" coach Kevin Ollie said. "If someone told us about a big guy, if the dude could rebound, chew gum and walk, we would go see him."
Hobbs got to Miami and was intrigued. "When he stepped on the court, I said, 'Wow,' and I snapped a picture."
The height was there, the spirit was rare, and, Hobbs said, "I've got to see this kid again."
Hobbs watched Brimah play two more games, and saw him getting better before his eyes.
"He reminded me, the second time I saw him, of Emeka Okafor," Hobbs said, "in terms of how much better he had gotten over a short period of time. That's when I told Kevin, 'Whatever you're doing, you've got to make a trip to Florida and see this kid.'"
Ollie had seen Brimah briefly during the previous summer, but was not focusing on him. Next, associate head coach Glen Miller went to Miami.
"I saw him play a few minutes," Miller said. "He had this incredible motor. He ran to the bench on timeouts, he ran to the locker room at halftime, he ran to get water for his teammates. His effort was relentless. He didn't look that raw to me. … I texted Kevin, 'sign him up – ASAP. Sign him yesterday.'"
A handful of schools had shown interest, like Georgetown (according to Brimah), South Carolina, Florida International. "Coach Miller came to watch me play a game," Brimah recalled, "and after the game he followed me everywhere. 'I want you, we want you here.'"
He grew up playing soccer in Ghana, had very little experience in basketball and played only briefly in the AAU circuit, perhaps the reasons Brimah was under the recruiting radar. It's worth noting this week, with many of the top-rated 2014 recruits making their choices, that rankings can be just a number, a snapshot of a player who may be moving, improving rapidly.
"I don't remember him being 'out there' all that much," Miller said. "It comes down to finding players and making evaluations. Jim [Calhoun] did that here for years — there are a lot of players out there. You've got to find them."
Ollie went to Brimah next, and it didn't take long to make it a unanimous decision.
"I fell in love with him the first five minutes," Ollie said. "His passion is what gravitated me toward him. We look for three things, character, can he understand teammates? … can he cheer for his teammates?' We all saw the same things. … He's an incredible talent. I just love his passion."
Brimah came to UConn the week of the game against Louisville and committed right away. UConn had its "big," but Brimah was a three-star recruit, not generally rated in the top 100, or the top 200 for that matter, which drew a bit of snark from recruiting followers.
But now that Brimah is wearing the Huskies' uniform, as he will Sunday against Boston University in the second game of the 2K Classic at Gampel Pavilion at noon, it's easy to find people who are glad the Huskies have him.
"We heard we got a kid who was 7-foot or 6-11 and weighed about 200 pounds," Shabazz Napier said, "and we thought, 'We got another skinny big guy.' He blocks a shot now and then in practice and you feel lousy when it happens. We're just glad he's on our team."
Through games against Maryland, Yale and Detroit, Brimah has 14 blocked shots, and he has changed many others and deterred guards from the lane, as the Huskies hope he will do against the Terriers' talented guards, D.J. Irving and Maurice Watson Jr., in this game. The Huskies are among the NCAAleaders with 26 blocks as a team.
"It's great to have a shot-blocker," Ollie said, "who can erase some of our mistakes when we have a breakdown."
Brimah is picking up the necessary refinements in footwork quickly, and has started to show an effective jump-hook shot with either hand. He's averaging 17.7 minutes, 5.3 points — he's 7-for-9 from the floor — and 2.0 rebounds. He did not like basketball at first, he said, but now he cannot learn enough about the game. He walked into Ollie's office on Saturday morning and asked if he could have the guards throw the ball up high for him.
Brimah could be the next in a line of UConn shot-blockers, including Okafor, Hilton Armstrong and Hasheem Thabeet. Thabeet came to Storrs for a pickup game and worked with Brimah over the summer. Brimah, though, is not just a guy who gets in the way. He runs hard, moves with "fluidity," Hobbs says, and where big men can often be shy or laconic, always seems to be high-energy and ready to joke with teammates — reminding Hobbs of an old high school teammate.
"That smile and that personality," Hobbs said, "it reminds me so much of Patrick Ewing. That's what he was like."
"[That energy] is rare," Napier said, "but when you have it, it's spectacular."
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