Ballplayers Without Borders: Dimitry Coronel

Three thousand eight hundred and fifty-one miles from the distorted reality of the TD Garden, Dimitry Coronel is in the crevasse of the basketball universe. At just 23, Coronel has already become a hardwood vagabond, forgotten in the same treasure trove as Starbury, the Continental Basketball Association and the Grouses of Toyama.

Today, he sits in a Senegalese hotel with shoddy Wi-Fi. Training Camp with the Cape Verdean National Team has brought him to Dakar – a sprawling metropolis of over two-million, largely known to the outside world for the vivid pink shaded water that fills Lake Retba. Coronel typically spends his downtime at the beach or with family members, as he says: “there ain’t much to do really.”

I’d like to think our conversation helps break up the monotony.

Coronel is earnest and unguarded. Refreshing in contrast to the clichés most athletes are spoon-fed starting in high-school. Maybe its West African affability; or a certain assimilated gruffness that comes from spending his formative years in Boston. Perhaps, he just doesn’t give a shit after an admittedly disappointing college career.

Dysfunction In Orono

As a senior at Tabor Academy, Coronel was named All-New England Preparatory School Athletic Council Class A second-team – standing out as one of the best players in one of the best prep conferences in the country. A lengthy 6’4” swingman with the ability to go one-on-one, score from 3-point range and, above all, finish at the rim, Coronel looked the prototype for mid-major Division I Basketball.

After a recruiting trip in which he reportedly fell in love with campus at The University of Maine, he committed to the Black Bears, unaware that he was stepping straight into the tire-fire that was Head Coach Ted Woodward.

Coronel’s freshman year was like most freshman years: 13 games played, nine minutes per game, a tick over three points per contest. There were flashes though, among them 11 points versus Florida State, three steals versus Fisher College.

He had a good offseason — a “great summer” according to Woodward at the time.

On Nov. 9, 2013, Coronel, now a sophomore, was in the starting lineup of the Black Bears’ season opener at the University of Rhode Island. Although they lost by 20, all anybody back in Orono wanted to talk about was the 18 points he put up and the two dunks he threw down.

Over the next four games he was lit, going off for 17, 16, 29 and 18 again. Six weeks later he went for 27 and 24 on back to back nights. Despite his play, the losses still piled up. Eight in a row during one stretch; six in a row during two others. By January, en route to a 6–23 season, Coronels’ minutes vanished.

“Abject shit show” is the phrase used by Sam Perkins, who spent 10 years covering Maine basketball. “Maine may well have been the most dysfunctional team in the entire country,” says Perkins of the Black Bears ‘2013–2014 campaign.

Woodward’s decade at the helm of UM Basketball was largely defined by inexplicable personnel moves, and baffling relationships with his players. Woodward had no less than 28 players transfer or outright quit on him.

While Coronel doesn’t mention Woodward by name, his assessment of the coaching he received at Maine is candid: “I felt like D1 coaching was more about the coaches trying to do it their way and was too focused on statistics instead of letting players just play. They didn’t trust their players to do what they have been trained to do.”

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Transferring to Bryant

It wasn’t so much the punitive nature of Woodward’s program, but the continuous losing that soured Coronel on Maine. He might not have been Jesus Shuttlesworth at Big State, but Coronel’s two years in Orono were still relatively good. Coronel describes the experience as “alright,” saying: “Maine wasn’t what I expected coming in to college. I feel like the school didn’t respect the basketball team, but then again, who would when you’re always losing.”

At the end of his sophomore year, Coronel received his release and committed to transfer to Bryant University in nearby Rhode Island. Still relatively new to Division I, the Bulldogs seemed the perfect fit.

On Halloween, Bryant University began the season with a 52 point bludgeoning of St. Francis Xavier. Nowhere in the box score did Cornel’s name appear; likewise for the subsequent 30 games. There were rumors – his grades weren’t good enough for Bryant; he was a troubled young man; maybe he even wanted to return to Maine after Woodward was fired during the off season.

The truth – according to Coronel — is a reflection of the at-times contemptable nature of DI hoops. Coronel says that after he committed to Bryant, and the other teams that had been courting him moved on, the terms of their agreement changed. Instead of being a scholarship player, Coronel says that he was told he would have to pay his own way through summer school.

“I felt like the Bryant coach did me wrong in the recruiting process,” he says. “I committed early, then the coach tells me at the last minute to take three classes in order to get a scholarship and pay for them, which I couldn’t afford. Since he told me at the last minute, I didn’t have enough time to look for another school because all the other schools already had the transfers they wanted so it was too late for me.”

As he reflects back, Cornel acknowledges feelings of bitterness, but says, “I don’t regret making my decision: Everything happens for a reason.”

Afrobasket

After failing to enroll at Bryant, Coronel didn’t play anywhere in the past year — Invisible to the basketball world. Now, with Afrobasket – the FIBA Africa Championships — set to tipoff in Tunisia, Coronel is being given a chance to revive his career by a country he hasn’t lived in since 1998.

Born in Canada to parents who themselves were born in Gabon, at first glance Coronel appears an oddity on the Cape Verdean national team.

At six months old, Coronel was sent to Cape Verde to live with his grandparents as his mother finished college. At age 6, he moved to Boston. Living in Dorchester – the largest enclave of Cape Verdeans outside of Praia — it was easy for Coronel to connect with his lineage.

“I would go to the Dorchester Boys and Girls Club every day after school and there were a lot of Cape Verdeans there, so it was kind of easy for me to get to know my way around,” says Coronel.

Featuring 16 teams competing in a round robin tournament to determine what country will represent Africa at next years’ Olympics, Afrobasket functions as one of the biggest showcases of talent in the world. A strong showing could provide Coronel with an overseas contract as a professional basketball player.

A poor performance may relegate him further into the unknown.

In 2013 Coronel’s aunt finagled him a tryout with the Cape Verdean team ahead of that year’s Afrobasket. Former Coach Alex Nwora was a screamer.  Coronel played hard — more like a veteran than a 21-year-old. Not only did he make the team, he started every game.  According to Coronel, the physicality and aggressiveness of Afrobasket took an adjustment coming from the more cerebral play of American college ball. Game one was against an Angolan team that Coronel describes as “grown men, all about 30 years old.”

“They killed us,” he says, “I think we took that as a wakeup call then after that we played better and harder every game.”

The absence of 7”3’ Atlanta Hawks center Walter Tavares puts a greater burden on Cape Verde’s Olympic chances this year. Still the team is confident they can win with what they have.

Looking beyond the tournament, Coronel hopes to catch on somewhere overseas. But his ambitions now extend beyond the court. Although he won’t comment on it, he claims to have invented something. After Bryant University went by the wayside, Coronel used the $1,000 he originally set aside for course registration to hire a patent attorney, who told him there is nothing on the market like his invention.

But he remains a hooper at heart. Despite everything he has been through, Cornel still has the same passion for the game.

“Whether my invention makes me rich or not, I would still want to play. Maybe one day I can buy my own team and play for them,” he says with an optimistic laugh.

Noah Perkins

Noah has had articles published by a variety of publications including The Bangor Daily News; The NENPA Bulletin; and Monthly Basketball (Japan). His column ‘Heaven is a Playground’ has been featured on ESPN Radio. Noah was also called a “thirst troll” by Tom Arnold once.