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Bernie: The genuine, selfless giant

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Bernard Kouma attempts a layup during Oklahoma State's game against Texas Tech in Gallagher-Iba Arena on Feb. 22, 2021. Photo courtesy: TC Brewster/OSU Athletics

Oklahoma State center Bernard Kouma started out as a person who didn’t know English, or the game of basketball all that well, until he realized he had to figure out how to accomplish both.

Coming from N’Djamena, Chad, Kouma was someone who grew up liking volleyball and soccer. He was 16-years old whenever he became interested in basketball, and made the decision of a lifetime to move to the United States.

A coach from France caught the eye of the big fella and told his coach back home, “who’s that kid?”

After watching Kouma, the coach from France told Kouma that he’s got good skills.

He kept in touch with Kouma, and told Kouma to make a video so that they could send it out to an eventual school in the United States.

It ended up being the Redemption Christian Academy in Northfield, Massachusetts. Kouma talked with his mother about leaving the country and they agreed that it was the best opportunity for him in terms of getting a good education.

“Back home, we don’t have the same opportunities and the education isn’t the same, so that's why my mom says it was OK,” Kouma said.

When Kouma got to an airport in Boston, he only spoke French at the time, so he depended on other people and Google for assistance.

“I couldn’t speak English, I could only speak French at the time, so I used Google Translate to ask people to call the school for me,” Kouma said.

Now, in a different country, Kouma used an app called Duolingo to help him learn English.

His peers would still crack jokes at Kouma for his broken English, while some peers would be wanting to assist him.

“If some word I said would be wrong, they’d be laughing at me, they’d be like, ‘Oh you can’t speak English,’” Kouma said. “I’m like firstly, it’s not my first language and I just started learning that, and some friends would be like, ‘Don’t worry about whatever it is.’”

Kouma eventually played for Peter Wehye at Our Saviour Lutheran School in the Bronx, New York for two years.

Wehye described Kouma as a ‘tenacious rebounder.’

“He is by far the best screen and roll guy I’ve ever coached,” Wehye said. “His main attribute was rebounding, so he was a rebounder, a great screen and roll and a really good finisher.”

Not only was Kouma the screen and roll player that Wehye described, he also was a factor as a leader off the court.

“He was very vocal in practice, and that carried over into the house,” Wehye said. “Basically in the student housing, he was my point person, not only that, we built things in the school, so Bernard is not just the attribute to the basketball court, he was an attribute to the community and the house. He was loved in the school.”

When asked to describe Kouma’s character, Wehye thought of one word: genuine.

“When he’s telling you to run harder, he really cares, when he’s telling you to be quiet right now, he really cares, so genuine would be the word I would use, but ain’t many people like B,” Wehye said. “Bernard Kouma is a special person.”

Wehye has been eyeing Oklahoma State this year, and he said that one of Kouma’s abilities is observing with multiple go-to scorers on the team.

“He’s selfless,” Wehye said. “Bernard is a key piece that every team needs. He’s going to affect the game in many ways rebounding that basketball, but looking at the offense the way they do and they pick and roll stuff that they do, a lot of the time, that’s kind of shooting for his role.”

During his JUCO tenure at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, Kouma shot 57% from the floor.

In response to Kouma playing big minutes in the regular season finale against West Virginia, putting up six points and 10 rebounds, OSU head coach Mike Boynton said it’s about improving his physical condition that they’ve been addressing all season long.

Boynton also described Kouma as the ‘ultimate teammate.’

“He’s literally one of the best teammates I’ve ever seen,” Boynton said. “He’s totally consumed by doing whatever it takes for his team to win. If that means he plays two minutes, or 22 minutes, or he shoots five times or doesn’t shoot for two weeks, doesn’t matter. He shows up and does his job to the best of his ability everyday.”

Kouma noticed that the game was a different look from Africa to the United States.

“When I was back home, we would just play, but here, you got to know what to do,” Kouma said. “If you rebound, you rebound. If you screen good, screen good, if you run the floor, run the floor.”

Now, reflecting on his long road to Stillwater in a tough Big 12 conference, Kouma reflected on his journey of moving to the United States as a fortunate one.

“I know that a lot of kids don’t have that same opportunity,” Kouma said. “It’s got to be a blessing.”