MOSCOW, Idaho – Jeff Brustad first noticed the super-athletic French Canadian months before at a showcase in Long Island. Djim Bandoumel had played organized basketball for only a small portion of his life, and his inexperience manifested itself in obvious ways.
Yet Brustad, the coach at Monroe College in New York, marveled at how Bandoumel gracefully blocked shots and played above the rim. So he asked the 6-foot-7 prospect with Nigerian roots to visit Monroe’s campus in the Bronx.
After weeks of persistent calls from Brustad, Bandoumel relented. He drove from Quebec City to New York City to work out for the coach.
Four years later, Brustad still hasn’t forgotten how Bandoumel made his entrance that first day.
“I think it was an 11 a.m. or noon workout and I’m standing in front of our school,” Brustad recalled during a phone interview. “And this kid pulls up in a car, gets out of the car and he is in a suit and tie. In the middle of Fordham Road in the Bronx, (he) gets out in a suit and tie.
“(He said), ‘Hey, Coach.’ Comes in (with a) big smile.”
The story, retold with pride by Brustad, captures Bandoumel’s persona to a T. Just as he was sincere yet charismatic at Monroe, he often carries the same earnestness and infectious smile onto the court in his second year at the University of Idaho.
The skinny 25-year-old forward acknowledges he plays his most inspired basketball for the Vandals when he’s the most at ease and upbeat. Teammates will see the senior’s face light up with a wide grin, and it will loosen them up, too.
“When he has that smile going, you can just tell that he’s on it,” said UI point guard Landon Tatum, who rooms with Bandoumel. “They always say when you play basketball, you’re supposed to have fun with it. You can always tell when he’s having fun, when he’s really smiling and really kind of jumping around. And I think that really helps out.”
Bandoumel (whose name is pronounced Jim BAN-due-mell) was born in Lagos, Nigeria. When he was 5, his parents – Mougadode, an accountant, and Zara Oumaissou, a nurse – moved the family to Quebec so he and his four siblings could have better educational opportunities.
Leaving Africa as a child wasn’t nearly as traumatic as the next major transition in his life – hopping across the border to play hoops in the United States with only a fleeting grasp of the English language.
“I worked hard, almost (24/7), to learn as much English as possible and be successful on the court,” said Bandoumel of his first months at Monroe after time at a vocational school in Canada.
He still struggles occasionally to find the right word to use during an interview or in school. But to show his progress with English, he pointed to an upper-level communications class that he’s taking this semester.
He has to give speeches in front of fellow students and the instructor, and “now I am comfortable with that,” he said.
Tatum noted that Bandoumel speaks English in their apartment, with a few exceptions. Every night he converses in French with his sister Isabelle via Skype. On the weekends he talks in one of two African languages he knows with his parents, who still live in Quebec City.
Bandoumel, a general studies major, chose Idaho largely because it accepted all his credits through an articulation agreement with Monroe. Although he was being recruited fairly heavily in New York – Sienna and Manhattan College offered him – Bandoumel knew his NCAA eligibility could be a question mark.
After high school he had gone to CEGEP, a trade school exclusive to Quebec. But once in Moscow, his Canadian education didn’t turn out to be the problem.
Bandoumel passed five of six classes his first semester at UI. The one he failed – environmental science – was necessary for his degree.
Without enough degree-applicable credits, he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA for the second semester as a junior.
“I was very frustrated by the situation,” he said while sitting on the bleachers of Cowan Spectrum earlier this week. “I find it a little bit unfair because I did very good as a student-athlete, even if I failed that class. A lot of people fail two classes and still play, but … I was unlucky.”
Bandoumel, by far the oldest player at Idaho, has started 20 games this season, averaging 9.0 points and 1.6 blocks per game.
He’s proven to be a valuable complement to Kyle Barone in the post, helping the Vandals (15-11) pocket four straight wins coming into tonight’s home finale with Portland State.
What Vandals fans see now – Bandoumel’s electric leaping and shot-blocking ability – were the first things UI coach Don Verlin picked up on while watching the then-freshman at Monroe in the national junior college championships in Hutchinson, Kan.
“That’s the reason we recruited him, because we didn’t have an athlete on our team like that,” Verlin said.
In his four years at Idaho, Verlin said Bandoumel is clearly the most athletic player he’s coached. Similar levels of athleticism run throughout his family – one of Bandoumel’s sisters is on the Canadian national volleyball team and another plays volleyball in France.
As for always trying to find enjoyment in basketball, Bandoumel learned that lesson while watching Magic Johnson on the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics.
He was only 6 at the time, but the image of Johnson’s ever-present smile while playing with Michael Jordan and other NBA stars stuck with him.
“It was pretty cool to see them having fun and having fun sharing the ball,” Bandoumel said. “… It’s a thing that I try to duplicate when I cross the line. I try to have fun all the time.”