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TJ Bamba, wise beyond his age

Jun 16, 2021

Tijani "TJ" Bamba is 19, and already has seen so much of the world. Bamba, a guard on Washington State University's men's basketball team, was born in a dangerous part of the Bronx, then sent to West Africa to study the traditions of Islam and finally moved to Colorado during high school. His experiences with change and hardship have given him a certain toughness, and wisdom beyond his years.

Bamba spent the first seven years of his life in the Bronx. While sports were always his passion, he had other concerns on his mind.

"The Bronx is real dangerous," Bamba said. "I had to grow up looking over my shoulders for no reason. Like I wasn't even in the streets, but you never know what's coming. It just teaches you to be super aware." 

When Bamba was just 7 years old, his parents sent him to Senegal. He enrolled in a boarding school with a curriculum centered around the teachings of Islam. His parents wanted him to become familiar with the language and the Quran so he could one day pass that knowledge on to his family. Bamba was on a plane soon enough, accompanied by his grandma, who was with him during his first two months in Senegal. 

"Once that two months was up, she just told me it was time for me to be on my own," Bamba said. "And that's when I had to grow up. I really grew up so early in my life. I had nobody down there with me. I didn't know often what was being said to me, or done to me. It was real hard. But it was worth it."

In Senegal, Bamba studied the Arabic language and Islamic teachings. He was at the boarding school for more than three years, returning home for a couple weeks each year. 

"We were just taught how to become young Muslims you know, better men," Bamba said. "That's really why I got sent out there, just to get introduced to a different culture and see how it is in Africa."

By high school, Bamba was back in the United States. He spent two seasons playing basketball for Kipp High School in the Bronx, but Bamba said he wanted to attend a school with a greater focus on athletics. 

Bamba credits playing basketball at Abraham Lincoln High in Colorado with making him the player he is now.

"I feel like Colorado really taught me how to play basketball to a certain extent. New York is all fast paced, one style of play," Bamba said. "But then going to Colorado, it taught me how to play with pace, make certain reads. It made me polish up my game. I think it really taught me the game of basketball, and how to truly become real good at it."

Bamba recently made another move, to Pullman, where he's a Cougar now, but he still carries the experiences from Senegal and the Bronx with him.

"I definitely pray before every game," Bamba said. "I ask for protection, guidance, just praying that whatever happens, that Allah would keep me out there so I can be myself. But what really prepares me is who I do it for in my life. I lost two childhood friends. … I lost them to gun violence in the Bronx, and they just push me to be great. I owe it to them to be great, you know. I don't just do this for me. I gotta live life for them, do the things they never did."

As he pursues a career in basketball, he said he's confident that whatever life throws at him, he will be able to make the best of it. A lot of that belief is because of what he's been through already.

"I feel like I can do anything in life after going through all this," Bamba said., "It was really hard then, but it's worth it now."