Adolphe Coulibaly; A Different Road to the Final Four

Lost in the celebration of last year’s National Championship and several national awards was perhaps the most heart-wrenching and inspirational story of the 2006-07 season. For many fans of Lord Jeff basketball, it may have been a case of “out of sight, out of mind,” but for the close-knit community surrounding the team, the harrowing story of a teammate was never far from thought.

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Adolphe Coulibaly ’08 came to the United States from the Ivory Coast at the age of 16 to get the best possible education and play basketball at a preparatory school. After a brief stint at a school in Virginia, Coulibaly enrolled at Saint George’s School in Newport, R. I. He developed into one of the finest players in the Independent School League and was tabbed a two-time All-Conference player. His athletic talent, combined with his strong academic performance, meant Coulibaly was a strong candidate for an Ivy League roster, and in the fall of 2004, he enrolled at nearby Brown University.

After a year at Brown with mixed success on the court, where he averaged just a dozen minutes per game, Coulibaly decided to transfer to Amherst, where he could pursue a liberal arts education.

The move was great for the 6’5” swingman, who played in every game during his first year on the Amherst team. The Lord Jeffs went to the Final Four that season, but came away with a pair of losses in the national semifinal and consolation games. Motivated by the disappointing weekend , the team worked extremely hard in the off-season, and ended up being ranked third nationally entering the ’06-’07 season.

Coulibaly seemed primed to take a leading role on the team last year and scored a career-high 16 points in a season-opening rout over New York City College of Technology. Things were going well for Coulibaly and the Lord Jeffs, who cruised to a 10-0 start heading into the season’s first installment of the Amherst-Williams rivalry on Jan. 5, 2007.

That New Year’s Day, Coulibaly had received a call from his mother, Jacqueline, to say she had suffered a broken foot at home in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and would need surgery to fix the injury. Jacqueline, a nurse by trade, had a history of high blood pressure and was a diabetic, but she took good care of herself. She told her son she was feeling fine and that she hoped 2007 would be a good year for both of them. Tragically, this was the last time the mother and son would have the chance to speak.

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Just hours before the Amherst-Williams tip-off and Jacqueline’s surgery, the mother of two suffered a heart attack and passed away. At around 4:30 p.m., Adolphe’s father, Jean, called to inform him of the news. The elder son was left with the difficult task of breaking the terrible news to his younger brother, Matt, a soccer player at Wheaton College outside Boston. Adolphe recalls that it was “one of the most difficult things [he] has ever had to do in [his] life.”

Within days, both Amherst and Wheaton had arranged for the brothers to fly home for the funeral. It would take a few weeks before the boys were ready to return to the States and for Adolphe Coulibaly to get back on the court and in the classroom. Returning to each place posed its own set of problems. “After missing a month of my junior season and all of the NESCAC games, there was not a lot of time left,” explains Coulibaly, “but I wanted to get back on the court for my mother and also for my teammates. I knew what I was up against, but I also knew that playing basketball would help my healing process.”

Returning to classes was especially difficult for the political science and French double-major, since for weeks after his return, Coulibaly says, “I wasn’t able to study, because I couldn’t deal with the fact that my mom was gone.” But the same feelings for his mother that seemed to be holding Coulibaly back ultimately set him free. “I was able to overcome those rough times, because I promised her that I would succeed in life, and I also know that she is still watching over me from above.”

On March 9, 2007, Coulibaly took another step forward in his healing process. In the NCAA Tournament’s sectional semifinal round, Amherst found itself with a 20-point lead late in the game. Head Coach David Hixon ’75 took the opportunity to get Couliably back on the court for the first time in more than three months. A raucous crowd at LeFrak Gymnasium rose to its feet and saluted No. 15.

Coulibaly recalls, “That night was simply amazing. It shows how much the fans appreciated what Goldie and I went through.” (Matt Goldsmith ’08 returned from a season-long injury that same night.) “I wanted to be on the court for my mom, and it was even better, because my brother was there in the stands. For every second I spent on the floor, I knew that my mom was proud of me.”

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The unfortunate reality is that the final minute of Amherst’s victory over Stevens was Coulibaly’s last chance to play, that year. The team that had developed in his absence went on to run the table through the NCAA Tournament and win the program’s first national championship. Before the national title game, Coulibaly asked Hixon for a chance to address the team, in what was a very emotional moment. “He thanked the team for the support they had given him during such a difficult time, and said he knew his mom was up there, looking down and that we would do well today,” recalls Hixon.

Missing the chance to play a role on the court in the team’s title run has pushed Coulibaly to one of his best summers of basketball ever. In early summer, Coulibaly was selected by the Ivorian Basketball Federation to attend a training camp in Sacramento, Calif. for the national team. After a month, he was selected to represent his country in the African Games in Algeria. As a starter and co-captain, Coulibaly helped lead the Ivory Coast to a sixth-place finish in the tournament. Coulibaly got to scrimmage against a group of NBA players at the training camp, and he gained valuable experience at a high level of competition.

A lot has changed in Coulibaly’s life during the past year, but his experiences have motivated him to work harder heading into this season. “First of all, I want to have a great season to honor my mother,” shares Coulibaly. “I want her to be proud of me in every aspect of my life, especially during my senior year. After going through what I went through, I certainly don’t know what life reserves for me, but I am sure of one thing: I will not let anything get in the way of my success. I am motivated to reach my goals because I know I will always have my mom by my side. Life is a short journey on Earth, and I think we should all take advantage of every moment so we won’t have any regrets.”