MEN'S BASKETBALL: Bemidji State’s Mohamed Kone finds inspiration, strength in late little brother
Mohamed Kone's success with the Bemidji State men's basketball team isn't something he's done by himself. It's the product an internal drive inspired by the death of his little brother, Hamza.
BEMIDJI — Mohamed Kone wasn’t even going to play basketball.
He called himself a late bloomer after joining in high school and being relegated to the C squad. Kone had his focus geared toward football, but his little brother, Hamza, finally wore him down.
“He’s the reason I play basketball,” Mohamed Kone said. “I actually took his advice. I usually don’t listen because he’s the younger brother, but I was listening to him.”
Hamza, a basketball fanatic in his own right, was spot on. Not only did Mohamed go on to win a high school state championship alongside future NBA talent, but his winding road has led him to a prominent role on the Bemidji State men’s basketball team.
The journey was not without tragedy, though. Hamza died of cancer in July 2016 at the age of 11. Yet his influence remains strong in an older brother who gives all he has for him.
“He’s the reason why I push and go hard every single day on the court, in practice,” said Mohamed, a senior guard with the Beavers. “Because of how much energy he brought to me -- how much life and joy -- he’s the reason why I still play.”
A hunger for hoops
Hamza Kone battled through a bout with cancer, and he also dealt with a rare tumor on his kidney and even had a heart transplant. Then cancer returned, this time worse than the last.
“That hit me hard,” Mohamed said. “I didn’t know much about cancer.”
Mohamed had to grow up quickly, as did his little brother. Hamza’s health went in waves, but when he was feeling good, basketball was one of his strongest desires.
“There’d be times when he’d be able to come home,” Mohamed said. “He’d be able to play a little basketball… so I would always go and watch him play. He would go get buckets. He was out there just to score. He didn’t care about passing, he just got buckets.”
Hamza idolized LeBron James, someone he imitated to the point of adopting the “King James” nickname for himself. He even met LeBron through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, but Mohamed always prefered watching Hamza ball out.
“He looked up to LeBron,” Mohamed said. “He’d make a shot and do the LeBron (celebration). I used to laugh and enjoy that. I would watch him just go have fun. That’s something I took for granted but will forever remember.”
‘I always play for him’
Hamza died the summer before Mohamed’s senior year of high school.
The following season, Mohamed was the starting point guard on an Apple Valley team that won the Class 4A state championship. Etched in Mohamed’s shoes were the words “Ball For Hamza,” something that’s evolved into a tradition with every pair he’s owned.
“Anything that I do well, I always (credit) him because I always play for him,” Mohamed said.
In that 2017 state tournament, Mohamed averaged 8.7 points and 29 minutes per game.
He shared the court with future San Antonio Spur Tre Jones and guarded future Minnesota Timberwolf McKinley Wright IV, also dispatching future Los Angeles Clipper/Toronto Raptor Daniel Oturu in the quarterfinals.
Mohamed also forged relationships with soon-to-be NBA players Tyus Jones, who had graduated three years prior, and Gary Trent Jr., whose departure to a California prep school opened the starting point guard role that Kone assumed with authority.
“I took a lot from them,” Mohamed said. “Their leadership and their desire to win (set them apart). And how much they love to compete. That’s what I’ve tried to take from them: how much they wanted it and how much they were willing to sacrifice and do to help the team win.”
And they were all aware of an Apple Valley superfan in the stands, too.
“They all knew about Hamza,” Mohamed said. “He would always pop up at every varsity game, coming up to all of them and saying hi. I think everybody in the whole community knew Hamza.”
Work to do in Bemidji
After Apple Valley, Mohamed spent two seasons at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, N.D., a junior college program that went 51-11 with him on the roster.
Mohamed found individual success since coming to Bemidji State for the 2020-21 season, and now his numbers are up this year. Mohamed averages 11.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.3 steals in a do-it-all role resulting in a team-high 34.9 minutes a game.
Yet the Beavers still sit seventh in the division at 3-8 in league play (6-9 overall).
“Right now, I’m very happy with the success I’ve had in the stats. But I’m trying to also add that onto our record, as well,” he said. “I will continue to keep growing. I know I have a lot more to learn, and I’m fine with that. I know I’ve got a lot more in my bag.”
Mohamed said he’s undecided on whether to return next season -- using the NCAA’s coronavirus waiver to gain a fifth year of eligibility. He’s more focused on correcting course with the Beavers this year.
“I want to be able to finish the season knowing I gave everything I had on the court,” he said, adding that giving anything less “will haunt me forever.”
“I just really want to leave everything out on the floor. Hopefully things start to switch and we start catching wins going into the playoffs.”
Mohamed will do all he can with his energetic bounce and a calculated finesse with the basketball. It’s clear by his play that he’s passionate about the game -- something he learned from his little brother.
After all, he just wants to make Hamza proud.
“Hamza was at every single game. And I was on the worst teams,” Mohamed said. “He would still come and support. Back then, I was terrible. And he would always tell the coaches, ‘You should play my brother more.’ He just showed how much he loved me no matter what.”