Former Basketball Standout Remembered
Kwame Firempong’s love for basketball was rivaled only by his dream of becoming a doctor. A member of the Class of 2014, he was a standout point guard on the court, a laser-focused pre-med undergraduate, and a joyful friend who exuded the genuine warmth of a healer.
Last week, that life and legacy brought together friends and other members of the Tufts community in an outpouring of grief.
Firempong died on April 26 in Los Angeles as a result of an undetected heart condition. He was one year away from completing a five-year concurrent MD/MBA program at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and UCLA Anderson School of Business.
Tufts classmates came together last week in a virtual memorial to remember Firempong as a young man who inspired others with his leadership, humor, joy, kindness, and generosity. Knowing Firempong, they say, made them better people.
Dominique Bannerman, A14, said Firempong was beloved by all who knew him, especially by those in the close-knit Africana Center community at Tufts, among whom his nickname was Mamba.
The nickname was an apt reference to the late LA Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who was known as Black Mamba, said Bannerman. “Kwame was our Kobe Bryant,” she said. “He had the same focus, determination, and drive; he wanted to be a neurosurgeon from the age of eight. He was super-driven to win and to achieve his goals. He brought life and light to everyone who knew him.”
“Kwame had a million-watt smile and a laugh that could knock over a wall,” contributed Sam Zuckert, A14. “He loved life and was a source of boundless joy. May his memory be a blessing.”
It’s rare to encounter someone who “completely embodies a force for good,” shared Elyse Galloway, A14. “Kwame was just such a force and everyone who came in contact with him was blessed by his presence,” she said. “I will honor his memory by trying to be a force for good for others and sharing a beaming smile inspired by his own.”
Katrina Moore, director of the Tufts Africana Center, said she remembers Kwame as a student “laser-focused” on his goal of becoming a doctor and on the demands of the pre-med track. “What I have come to realize as well is that he was full of life and helped many members of the Africana community feel a sense of belonging and acceptance,” Moore said. “Many reflections reference his engaging smile, loyalty to his friends, and sincere care for anyone that he met. The loss to our alumni community and the medical profession is tremendous. We will treasure the memories of the time that he spent at the Africana Center and Capen House and will be planning a memorial and tribute to Kwame in the coming days.”
President Anthony P. Monaco vividly recalls his own positive experience meeting Firempong. Attending a homecourt basketball game, he sat next to then-Director of Athletics Bill Gehling, A74, AG79, A05P, who explained that the point guard electrifying the court was also a premed student.
Monaco, a Harvard Medical School graduate, thought it would be fun to meet Firempong and see if he could offer any advice about internships and courses. That meeting didn’t go quite as he expected.
“I was amazed at how Kwame didn’t need my help at all,” said Monaco. “He had answers to everything. He had it all figured out. He actually asked me how I was doing! Which is pretty typical. He constantly was looking after his friends.
“Although he never achieved his medical degree, he was practicing medicine on this campus one interaction at a time,” he added. “I remember that he said he wanted to be the best person he could be, and from early on that meant helping others. Very few people consistently, on a daily basis, make everyone around them feel better. To him, this was his main mission. He was a healer.”
Firempong, a native of California, made the cross-country trek to Tufts thanks in part to his superb athleticism. His speed and agility on the basketball team at Winward School in Los Angeles had caught the attention of Jumbo coaches, and he would go on to play on the team all four years.
It was as a point guard that his gifts as a leader shone through, said now-retired men’s basketball coach Bob Sheldon. “You need to know how to communicate and to be very knowledgeable,” he said. “You are facilitating all the time and Kwame did all that. He brought his A game every day.”
Point guards, who must have a strong awareness of each teammate's strengths, often lead in assists and are able to create opportunities for the team, said Kene Ogamba, A16, as part of his contribution to the group tribute. "Kwame was a point guard in his everyday life, just [like he was] on the basketball court."
Firempong might have been the definition of the student-athlete, added Sheldon. “He wasn’t only an outstanding athlete—he also took care of his studies and he gave everybody what they needed while remaining focused on what he wanted to accomplish professionally.”
Bannerman and Firempong met in 2010 as incoming students, “and we just clicked,” she said. He had a big-hearted way of putting people at ease, she said, and especially liked poking fun; anyone honored by his famous “roasts” had essentially won the friendship lottery. “He was goofy, youthful, funny, and humble,” she said, confident in both his bearing and his style. “He was always the best dressed among us,” she added.
Bannerman has helped establish a page on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe for “Mighty Kwame Firempong.” More than $50,000 has been raised so far, and plans are underway to channel the gifts into a foundation that will carry forward Firempong’s legacy.