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How Amida Brimah used basketball to escape poverty, kept working and made his NBA debut with the Pacers
Born in Ghana, Brimah attended UConn and got called up by the Pacers as injuries decimated the roster.
There was a two-week period to end April when the Pacers didn’t have any of their three centers available due to injury. It’s been that kind of season.
To add to their challenges, forward JaKarr Sampson had to serve a one-game suspension. So there was Oshae Brissett, who signed two 10-day contracts to start April, outperformed all expectations and earned a three-year deal three weeks later. At 6-foot-7, he was starting at center and they needed backup. ASAP.
So the Pacers turned to the Mad Ants, their G League affiliate, once again. It was serving its purpose.
6-foot-10 center Amida Brimah averaged 8.0 points and 8.5 rebounds over 10 games played in the G League bubble. Once that season was over, like Brissett, he went home and kept working. Having patience has been a priority for him.
Brimah won’t ever forget the events that would unfold seven weeks later. He was in Key West for the weekend to celebrate the birthday of his second mom when he started hearing from his agent, Daniel Hazan, that a team was interested in signing him.
So he cut his weekend short and made the four-hour drive back up to Delray Beach from Key West. The next day, he had just completed his routine morning lift session and was in the car again when he finally got the call from Hazan. The Pacers want to bring him in, and his flight was booked within three hours.
(Hear his reaction below in the video.)
”It was surreal because I was not…” he said, then had a change in thought. “In this business, you can’t really have your hopes high sometimes, especially in my situation. This is my first time playing in the NBA so I didn’t want to have my hopes high or anything so I just was like, ‘OK, this is one of them’ and tried to keep my emotion leveled out.
“It was a crazy experience, the best feeling I’ve ever gotten in a while.”
On April 23, he signed his first NBA contract, a two-way deal, and got right to work at practice. He chose No. 37.
Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren’s system was being utilized by Mad Ants coach Tom Hankins, so Brimah was familiar with the Pacers’ play calls and how they operate.
Bjorkgren’s message to him was simple: “Don’t let all the plays and everything consume you. What you need to be thinking about most is playing as hard as you can. In Amida’s case, it would be running, rebounding and protecting the rim and being a great screener. Those things are pretty simple and that’s what you want to focus on.
“Playing hard outweighs everything.”
And that was the spirit Brimah, 27, embraced. He knows he’s not going to lead the team in scoring or get many shots. He’s out there to defend, rebound and help the team stay afloat.
Here’s what starting centers Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner told him: “We’re gonna need you out there,” Brimah recalled. “Just them saying that was enough for my to get comfortable and know I didn’t just come here to be on a team. I came here because they needed me.”
Brimah is grateful for this opportunity because he remembers when he didn’t have very much. He was born in Ghana to Barikisu and Rashat Peregrino, both of whom still live there. Life was tough, though.
He used to walk two hours to play in a gymnasium. “He was too embarrassed to ask for a ride, so he walked back,” Hazan said.
As a teenager, Brimah began saving up money to get to the United States. Once he finally had enough and was U.S.-bound, he had a horrible on the seat on the airplane considering his tall frame — but he didn’t care. He was coming to America.
Brimah attended high school in Miami, Florida. He once was evicted from an apartment in high school and slept at a bus stop. He ate McDonald’s out of a trash can sometimes just to get by; whatever he could find.
Yeah, he’s been through some things.
Brimah learned and grew his game, and averaged 15.7 points, 11.6 rebounds and 7.2 blocks per game during his final season at Archbishop Coleman Carroll High School.
He accepted a scholarship offer to the University of Connecticut, where he played from 2013-2017. He was part of the 2014 National Championship team, playing in all 40 games that season. But still needing to polish his game, he went undrafted and then to the G League, where he could develop. And he kept working.
He became known as a workout warrior and that reputation still holds up.
The Pacers signed Brimah to an Exhibit 10 (training camp) deal before the 2019-20 season, but he suffered a torn right ACL during a workout. That wasn’t going to stop him, he didn’t even stop to consider whether the injury would eliminate his chance to play in the NBA.
“I work so hard, I can’t think like that at all,” he said. “I was going to do everything I can do in my power (to return) and if anything comes my way, I’m gonna take advantage of it.”
Justin Holiday, a veteran on the Pacers, knows Brimah well because they were on the third team together during that training camp. They were the ones in yellow pinnie jerseys.
“I love his game, I love his attitude, I love what he brings,” Holiday said. “Me and him had a lot of good times in practice in winning some drills and doing a lot of good things together. I’m excited Amida is with us. He really, really wants to do what’s best for the team and he really understands what he brings to the team and I think that’s huge.”
The team brought Brimah back for training camp this season — or at least tried. He was unable to participate until he received his work visa. Then, still waiting, he was delayed in arriving to the G League bubble. It took about three months.
And once he did play, it was his first live game action in a year and a half.
The Mad Ants played their final game in the bubble on March 5th. Brimah then returned to Delray Beach, Florida, where he stays with who he refers to as his second family.
That’s Mark and Becky Walsh. Brimah met them back in 2010 during an AAU tournament in Miami. He’s the same age as their son, Sean.
“In AAU basketball, there’s a lot of traveling and a lot of sitting around waiting between games and hanging out,” Walsh said. “That’s how the relationship started and he was just such a charismatic, special kid that lights up the room when he gets there. He’s got that ever-ready smile, an infectious laugh and always very kind and helpful. A great teammate at any part of life. His parents obviously have done a great job of instilling a lot of good values.”
Brimah was 16 at the time and had a lot to learn. Walsh described him as “very competitive, tough, determined and very curious. He’s always interested in learning about anything. He warms up to people quite quickly.”
He has built a friendly relationship with the staff at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in recent years. After the bubble, Brimah worked out there very early in the morning before the student-athletes arrived, and return at night once they were done.
“I’m a light sleeper so I’d hear him when he comes in at like 1:30 in the morning he comes in after hours in the gym by himself working out,” Walsh said. “He’s a tireless worker.”
So what about the time between workouts, in the afternoon? Brimah got bored and thought he’d learn about the family’s hotel business, so he started working alongside Sean Walsh in revenue management.
Remember that curiosity? He wasn’t even getting paid. It was his job to help manage inventory and set rates for hotels. He speaks English, French and several African languages.
“He’s very good on computers,” Walsh said. “He’s very knowledgeable. He’s a smart kid and really curious. To learn that (complex system), you got to be smart enough and curious enough as to why.”
Brimah’s biggest takeaway from that experience: “I don’t belong there,” he said with that big smile of his. He belongs in basketball, not at a desk job.
Brimah made his NBA debut in a regular-season game on April 25, two days after signing with the team. It was in Orlando and the Walsh family made the 2.5-hour drive to be there for him. Unfortunately for them, his first NBA basket was scored in the next game, at home. Two of them, in fact, finishing with six points, three rebounds and two blocks in nine minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers.
As the Pacers’ regular-season concluded Sunday in Tampa, against the Toronto Raptors, about 10 friends from Delray Beach made the trip, including the Walsh family, his strength trainer and local coaches with whom he built relationships.
“We were all ecstatic,” Walsh said of when Brimah got the call up while they were together in Key West. “It was just like ‘How does it get any better than this?’”
Brimah appeared in five games this season, helping the Pacers during a stretch when they were thin on bodies and without any healthy centers on the roster. He scored 13 points 5-of-8 shooting over the last three weeks and hopes this is just the beginning. It’s a matter of opportunity, and then what you do with it.
“I’m all about the grind, to be honest,” Brimah said with a big smile. “2019-20 was a tough year for me, I went through a lot. This is a light at the end of the tunnel for me. This is a blessing.”