Kenyan girls basketball team mourns death of young teammate in mall shooting

Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo SportsSeptember 26, 2013

In the hours before terrorists murdered Nuriana Merali inside a Nairobi shopping mall on Saturday, she had been running sprints and teasing her coach to end a junior varsity basketball practice.

"You didn't run us enough," the 15-year-old told John Coffino.

Under the Kenyan sun, Nuriana was laughing harder and harder, running faster and faster. "I'll always remember her in that moment," Coffino told Yahoo Sports by phone from Nairobi.

Coffino comes out of Division I assistant jobs in the Northeast and the professional minor leagues from upstate New York to New Mexico to Texas. Basketball had bounced him from the States to Qatar to Kenya, where he had come this year to coach an African boys academy of raw, giant teenagers.

Soon after, Coffino was offered the chance to make some extra money coaching the girls at an international high school in Nairobi. Before these girls – before this tough, little point guard named Nuriana finally led them to a victory – never had the coach been moved to tears watching his players celebrate. They changed that for him, the way this journey to Africa has changed him forever.

The girls had gone winless a season ago, had never previously been taught plays to run and they lost 45-5 in the first game under Coffino. Only, his freshman point guard kept leading the girls, kept pushing and, ultimately, treated an overtime victory like it had been a Game 7.

Almost as soon as these girls on the junior varsity team at this private school stole his heart, those terrorists stole the lives of 67 victims in the Westgate Mall on Saturday, including Nuriana and her mother. The gunmen shot her younger brother in the legs, but he has survived.

"The sweetest, most wonderful girl," Coffino said. "I had given her a nickname in our last practice: Gingerbread girl. What has happened here is … there aren't any words for it. It's devastating, and these kids, they're calling me, texting me. They're a close bunch of kids, a real team."

Sometimes, Coffino had wondered why he ever agreed to this year in East Africa. He didn't come to coach a junior varsity girls basketball team, but it turns out that'll be so much of the reason he stays the season. An old friend in the States, Jim Clibanoff, offered him a chance to be the coach of the Dankind Academy, which consists of a dozen young school-age African boy players needing stewardship and guidance. They needed a coach. The job paid $70 dollars a week.

"How could I turn that down?" Coffino said with a laugh. "I'm obviously spending more than I'm making here."

They gave Coffino a plane ticket, a house to live with his 13 players and a part-time cook six days a week. They practice and play games on outdoor courts, with bald basketballs and holes in the bottom of their shoes. Sometimes, the games get rained out. "Once, we couldn't play because they couldn't clear goats off the court," Coffino said.

Most of the players on his boys team fled the civil war in the south of Sudan, pushed through refugee camps and lived to tell him stories of lions picking off friends and family on late-night pilgrimages to freedom. He's taught his roster of long, wiry players the fundamentals of the game, and they've re-taught him the most rudimentary fundamentals of coaching.

"This reminds me of something John Wooden said: 'Never assume that your players understand what you're saying,' Coffino said. "They speak English, Swahili and sometimes things get lost in translation. I just assume they made a mistake, and I'll ask: 'Did you hear me? What did I just say?' I'd lose my cool. But this has taught me to be a lot more patient."

In the wake of the terrorist attacks targeted against non-Muslims, Coffino doesn't leave the house he shares with his players without an escort. "My guys here won't let me go anywhere – not even to the market – without three or four of them flanked at my side. Three 6-foot-10 Africans and a little Italian guy."

Dankind is 19-3 in the second division of the Nairobi basketball league, and Coffino's hitting his contacts back in the States to find prep schools and colleges for his players. "These are kids with a lot of potential, a lot of heart."

He has never had big-time jobs, but Coffino ground out a fine career. After years of working as a small college assistant coach in the Northeast – St. Peter's to Niagara to Iona – he landed an assistant's job in the NBA Development League with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds under his old college boss, Jeff Ruland.

When Ruland left for the Philadelphia 76ers staff, Albuquerque promoted Coffino to head coach. He made it two seasons. He won a title with the Albany Legends in the IBA, and had a GM/coaching job in a Texas minor league where the paychecks stopped coming for the coaches and players. He took a job in Qatar a year ago then tried to find a job back in the States, but couldn't catch on.

When an international school offered him $1,600 to coach the girl's JV for the season, he had a chance to mildly supplement his small stipend with Dankind. This was a different kind of job, a different challenge. The girls were the children of educated professionals living and working abroad in Nairobi.

Coffino had never coached girls, but it was amazing to him: They listened to everything. They were so eager to become good players, to become a team. Since the massacre, there have been no practices and no games. The school has provided counselors, and the players have sought refuge within the team. They had a funeral service for Nuriana on Wednesday, and Coffino knows it will forever remain the most tumultuous experience of his coaching life.

Through it all, his young African men asking what they can do for the girls on the school team. Can we go watch them play? Soon, the girls will start practicing again, resume a schedule, and maybe this season will be the most important of all their lives.

Back home in New York, family and friends are telling Coffino: Come home. There is still so much fear and uncertainty in the streets of Nairobi. In the Westgate Mall, there was a pasta place Coffino loved. He had planned to spend Sunday morning there – until the Saturday massacre and the terrorist hostage standoff changed everything. It changed Coffino and those kids and the memory of a part-Hindu, part-Muslim point guard called Gingerbread who made them all laugh and cry and believe.

"Of course, I've thought of leaving, but I can't do that," Coffino said. "My teams need me here – and I need them."