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Tragedy strikes HCC basketball



Sad, sad news today. I called Hillsborough Community College coach Derrick Worrels this afternoon, checking to see if anything had changed in the recruiting process for his two big sophomores, Kenie Freeman and Ejike Hart, who were both considering signing with USF. "We've had a terrible tragedy," Worrels said. I'd talked with Freeman just Monday, catching him before practice, talking about his future. Here's the story that will run in Friday's Times.

TAMPA -- Kenie Ade Freeman, a 6-foot-11 basketball player at Hillsborough Community College who came to the United States two years ago from his native Africa, collapsed on a practice court minutes after a team practice Thursday afternoon and died. He was 20 years old.

"He was a gentle giant," coach Derrick Worrels said from Toledo, Ohio, where the team had traveled for a weekend tournament. "He could dominate on the basketball court, but off it, he was mannerable, with a sense of humor you'd never expect. This totally caught us off guard. It's very tough for all of us."

Worrels said Freeman had no previous medical conditions, and had returned to practice Thursday after sitting out a week with a thigh bruise. He said an autopsy would be performed to determine the cause of death.

"He had made one move during practice today, and one of the kids said, 'It's good to have you back on the court, big guy," Worrels said.

Freeman, who had yet to play a game for HCC, was born in Liberia and raised in Nigeria, coming to the United States with current teammate Ejike Hart in 2004 with the hopes of one day playing professional basketball. Both were strongly considering signing scholarship papers this week with the University of South Florida, whose coach, Robert McCullum, was at a loss for words upon hearing of Freeman's death Thursday night.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, his teammates, his coaches and adopted family," McCullum said. "He was just a class young man, the kind that any program would benefit from just his presence. This was a young man with a bright future, and it's so sad that his life is taken at such a young age."

Freeman and Hart played together at New Creations Academy, a prep school in Indiana, and then played last season at Florida Community College in Jacksonville before transferring together to HCC. In addition to USF, both were considering scholarships to Houston, where NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon, born in Nigeria, had starred.

"It's especially tough for Ejike, because they've been together so long," Worrels said. "They're like brothers."

The team was in Toledo, Ohio, preparing for a weekend tournament at Owens Community College, their lone out-of-state road trip this season. Worrels said he would allow his players to decide today whether they would participate in the games or return to mourn the loss of their teammate and friend.

Coaches and players from the University of Toledo joined the HCC team Thursday night, and the Rockets can relate to HCC's grief all too well. Toledo basketball player Haris Charalambous, 20, collapsed and died last month during a morning conditioning workout because of a small tear in his aorta.

[Last modified: Thursday, May 27, 2010 11:17am]


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