Eastern Washington University player Colimon makes his way through tragedy, turmoil

SATURDAY, JAN. 21, 2012

Cliff Colimon of EWU, left, fights off a hand-check from Damian Lillard of Weber State in game earlier this month. (Christopher Anderson)
Cliff Colimon of EWU, left, fights off a hand-check from Damian Lillard of Weber State in game earlier this month. (Christopher Anderson)

Eastern Washington coach Jim Hayford likes to impart life lessons through basketball.

Cliff Colimon appreciates that, but doesn’t need any help with his transition game; he’s already lived it.

Death and illness in his family. Shuttling between high schools. Three college coaches in three years. A life spent hustling back on defense.

He found role models along the way; now he is one, mostly by example. The soft-spoken senior point guard is one of the keys to an encouraging start to the Hayford era in Cheney.

“We’re putting a ton of responsibility on him,” Hayford said. “He’s playing an enormous amount of minutes without a true point guard playing behind him.”

“He definitely brings the intensity on the court,” said teammate Jeffrey Forbes.

Colimon’s story began in Brooklyn, where, yes, the streets were mean. His father died violently when he was 4; he and his older brother were raised by their mother, Marie, a Haitian immigrant.

“She is the most unselfish person I know,” Colimon said. “She always put everyone first. “

Until she couldn’t. First came ovarian cancer, then a stroke that put her on disability. Cliff moved in with his grandmother in New Jersey and worked for playing time at basketball power St. Patrick’s in Elizabeth. Family issues and his grandmother’s illness forced his return to Brooklyn midway through his junior year.

That lasted just three months before he returned to Elizabeth and played public school basketball. He helped Elizabeth to an 18-10 record his senior year, but the chaos caught up with him in the classroom.

“I had bounced around too much,” Colimon said. “So I took the juco route.”

He met College of Eastern Utah coach Christopher Craig, “who saw a lot of toughness in me,” Colimon said.

Craig wouldn’t be the first.

In the fall of 2008, the lifelong Yankees fan found himself in Price, Utah, a transition of 2,000 miles. No Yankees. No Canyon of Heroes. Just canyons.

Culturally, Price wasn’t right. “Mountains and Mormons, a McDonald’s and a Wal-Mart, that was it,” said Colimon, shaking a head that still wears a Yankees cap.

But the basketball was good. Colimon played two seasons at CEU, helping the Golden Eagles to a two-year record of 50-16. For one year he played with guard and role model Darington Hobson, who’s now with the Milwaukee Bucks. They are still close, Colimon said.

“He was an inspiration,” Colimon said. “I’ve seen him work, and I was working just as hard.”

In Colimon’s second season, he led the Golden Eagles to third place in the national junior college tournament and drew the attention of then-EWU coach Kirk Earlywine, who cited Colimon’s speed. And toughness.

In the summer of 2010, Colimon moved to Cheney – “a cool college town” – to live his dream of playing Division I basketball. He and teammate Cliff Ederaine are roommates.

Last year, he averaged 10.4 points per game – second on the team – and set himself up to take the reins from departing guard Glen Dean. He finished the year on a high note, averaging almost 20 points in his last three games, including a career-high 27 in a loss to Weber State in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky tournament.

Two days later, Earlywine was fired. Another transition.

With just one year of eligibility, Colimon felt trapped. “I said, ‘I’ve got to leave,’ but then I knew there was no point in transferring.”

Soon the Eagles hired Hayford, who in 20 seconds can rattle off half a dozen things he likes about Colimon’s game, such as creativity, strength around the rim, a good pull-up jumper. And toughness.

“Pound for pound, he’s as strong a point guard as you’ll find, very physically tough,” Hayford said.

Together they’ve prospered. This year, the Colimon is fifth in the conference in scoring (15.1 per game) second in assists (5.4) and steals (1.9) and fourth in free-throw shooting (81.7 percent).

The relationship goes beyond the stat sheet. “I’m very coachable,” the 6-foot, 170-pound Colimon said. “But some of my coaches, they had me play as a robot – do this, do that. But Coach Hayford is giving me the light to just play, which is cool. And he tries to bring out every speck of basketball and how it’s involved in our everyday lives.”

That’s what Hayford wants to hear. “There’s a reason we all get into coaching,” he said. “I wanted to stay true to that so I’m glad he feels that way.”

Colimon is the leader of this team, mostly by example. “His actions speak for themselves,” said Ederaine, who still wishes one of those actions would be doing the dishes.

“I do need to speak up more,” Colimon admits, although Forbes says he has it just right.

“Cliff’s very tenacious about his game,” Forbes said. “But he knows what to say to certain guys and also what not to say to certain guys.”

Of course, those guys are also “close friends,” Colimon said. They share several classes.

After the season – and maybe a spring break trip back to New York, Colimon hopes to keep playing. He hopes for a contract overseas, and an easier transition to the next part of his life.

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