The Curious Case of Tondi Mushandu

A story still being written, but one I will never forget.

I took my role as an assistant coach very seriously. Besides coaching the freshmen team and handling scouting I did whatever needed to be done to make sure our varsity lineup was the best it could possibly be. This often meant running offseason workouts, staying on top of students academically, etc.

Enter Tondi Mushandu.

Tondi played on my first freshmen team at Fort Lee, he came in, decent athlete, but still had not met his physical potential. He did not set the world on fire his freshmen year, but this story is not about that, it’s about what happened after.

Heading into his first offseason he was not really “predicted” to play much at the varsity level as a sophomore but he worked as hard as he could that offseason. I spent a lot of time working out players getting them ready for what would be their senior seasons and some their first seasons out of high school but Tondi was a fixture at these workouts and never missed one. He worked his way into a starting role by his sophomore year.

However, during the course of his sophomore season he fell behind in school and the summer going into his junior year he would have to take not 1 but 2 summer school courses online so that he could be eligible for basketball. He wasn’t going to be able to do this alone.

I decided I would help him and tutor him that summer but what lead was something a lot more profound than that. For the better part of 6 weeks I would tutor Tondi from almost 9am-3pm then he would go work out. I learned a lot from him during those times, maybe as much as he learned from me.

I learned a lot of what teachers commented as “laziness” was more of Tondi’s defense mechanisms he used when he did not understand certain things, or did not understand as quickly as others.

You see this isn’t a typical story of a student going through the ranks of public education. Tondi, who’s mother is a diplomat, spent a lot of time in other country’s before moving to the United States in middle school. Before then he lived the better part of his schooling years in Italy as well as Africa.

It became fairly obvious during our time together that he probably missed a good chunk of learning during these moves and travels, but not using that as an excuse he powered ahead.

Tondi passed his courses and was ready for junior year. However, now there was another issue that started creeping in. Most high school athletes dream of playing in college but for Tondi it was more of a neccesity. You see, due to his age, and his mother’s time as a diplomat in the US coming to an end Tondi was faced with several realities; get a scholarship to prep school or college…or move with his mother wherever she would be moved to, probably China or back with relatives in Zimbabwe where Tondi was born. With no definitive time table this could happen as early as the end of his junior season.

I remember having “stress” in high school, but nothing as real as this. It was a stuggle and without a doubt effected him on and off the court. We went through some rough times with Tondi, but I remember promising him, if he did his best to block out everything that he can not control and focus on what he can, I would do whatever was possible to get him to school after his senior season.

This meant writing hundreds of emails, reaching out to every coach you could think of, exhausting every avenue etc. Even when we thought we had nailed down a prep school early in the summer right before graduation, circumstances arose, the basketball coach was let go, and so was Tondi’s scholarship to prep school.

Back to the phone calls, emails, highlight videos, etc. It helped that Tondi played his best game as a high school athlete in our biggest game of the season, an upset win vs Shabazz in the state tournament that was exclimated by a breakway dunk Tondi threw down in the closing seconds.

As close to the 11th hour as you could get Tondi found himself a home at a prep school. I truly believe this was the best for him. At prep school Tondi learned what it’s like and how to truly be an independent person.

He now attends and plays for Castleton University where he is also an RA. Hopefully helping kids the same way he was helped.

Not every road in this life is straight and usually the ones with the most promise take some nasty turns, but he we end up better people because of it.

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