“Mo trusts Greer,” said Shaka Smart, who coached Bamba during his lone college season at Texas. “Greer has been a real rock for him in terms of stability and guidance in some aspects of his life. But in other aspects of his life, Mo is incredibly self-sufficient: ‘I’m good. I don’t need help with this.’”
Growing up in Harlem, Bamba shared an apartment with his mother and three siblings. (His father moved out when Bamba was 7, but they remain close.) They lived across the street from public housing, which Bamba’s mother discouraged him from visiting. Bamba’s parents are from the Ivory Coast, and he recalled getting into scuffles with other boys.
“The children of African immigrants were always getting hazed,” he said.
But the courts at the projects had the best hoops, so Bamba evaded the watchful eye of his mother. He caught the attention of the neighborhood, though, eventually becoming somewhat of a local legend who would inspire a rap anthem, the viral “Mo Bamba” song by his friend Sheck Wes, before his first professional game.
Bamba built his legend as he began to shoot baskets at P.S. 208, where Love, then a 26-year-old investment banker, was volunteering on the weekends.
Love had gotten involved through New York Cares, a nonprofit that pairs volunteers with organizations looking for help. He wanted a break from his 80-hour work weeks, he said, and the school needed someone to run a clinic for 60 or so children a couple times a month.
“They would roll out 20 basketballs,” Love said, “and it was basically, ‘Hey, just make sure nobody kills each other.’ ”
Bamba and Watkins were among the boys who showed up, and Love soon hatched the idea of tryouts for a fifth-grade team. It remains a source of friction that Love cut Bamba at tryouts. Love said it was because Bamba was in the fourth grade. But so was Watkins, and he made the team.