| The Providence Journal
JOHNSTON — Sarah Bandoma was born to play basketball.
Normally, that’s just a cliché. For the 6-foot-2 Johnston senior, it’s a statement of fact.
“The first thing the doctor told me when I gave birth to her, the doctor was amazed at her length,” says Prudence Bandoma, Sarah’s mother. “One thing I remember is [the doctor] was more interested in her height than her weight and it’s usually the other way around.”
It just took Sarah a while to learn she was born for the game. She wasn’t a prodigy, dribbling a ball around her home as a toddler. She wasn’t an elementary school rec superstar. Sarah didn’t even start playing until the eighth grade and while her height gave her a step up on most players, her inexperience and shy personality kept her a step behind.
On Tuesday, in the library at Johnston High School, a different Sarah Bandoma sat down at a circular table and did something that that shy eighth-grader could have never imagined. Bandoma signed a National Letter of Intent to play Division I college basketball at St. Francis of Brooklyn.
“It was a long journey to get me to this point,” Bandoma says. “But I can tell you now, I’m fully confident in being a tall woman.”
It took one swoop of the pen to have her four years of college fully paid for, but Bandoma’s journey from eighth-grader stepping on the court to scholarship athlete wasn’t as easy.
Everything starts with her parents, Roger and Prudence, who immigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo to America when they were 19. Bandoma was born in Massachusetts, between older brother Popaul and younger brother Gabriel.
Sarah didn’t need to do much to stand out. She just needed to stand. Being the tallest kid your whole life sounds like a dream for a lot of people, but it wasn’t easy for the soft-spoken Bandoma.
“Being a very tall woman, a tall African American woman, a tall-built woman, when I was growing up — I was bullied for these things,” Bandoma says. “It was not attractive. It was not, as a woman, what you want to be.”
Soccer was the sport her parents were most familiar with, but their No. 1 concern was for their children’s education. With her height — and every coach everywhere saying she should try basketball — Bandoma started her hoop dream shortly after her family moved from Providence to Johnston in eighth grade.
She was always the tallest on the court but lacked the skills and conditioning of nearly every other player she shared the floor with. When she got to Johnston High, she had to learn the game so she could take advantage of her considerable asset.
“She didn’t know what a 3-second violation was. She didn’t really know much of anything,” former Johnston coach Chris Corsinetti says. “It was like teaching youth basketball all over again.”
Bandoma’s parents instilled respect in their daughter and she listened intently to everything any coach told her. Blessed with natural strength, Bandoma started working out regularly to help get in shape better. She got as much gym time as possible and worked with the late Dan Mazzulla, a legend in the Johnston basketball community, on her on-court skills.
It wasn’t easy. Bandoma had her good days and bad, games she laughs about now when she watches old videos.
As a sophomore she finally became a starter for the Panthers, playing against the best in the state and holding her own on the court. Not bad for a kid that had played only two years. As a junior, Bandoma was a double-double machine and was putting together a nice season before COVID-19 cut things short.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Bandoma’s recruitment was a slow process. At 6-2, she was a no-brainer for any Division III school. But the Division I schools didn’t have much to go on because of Bandoma’s lack of film.
And that’s where Rhode Island things happened.
Linda Cimino is the coach at St. Francis and a native Rhode Islander, an All-Stater at North Smithfield. Her step-father is Bob Reall, whose granddaughter just happens to be Meg Reall, the current Johnston girls basketball coach.
Cimino and Meg Reall had talked hoops before, and Bandoma had come up, as 6-foot-2 centers tend to do. Reall told Cimino that Badoma would be a project, but not one she would have to worry about.
“She has the potential to be a real good asset to any team she plays on,” Meg Reall says. “You can’t teach that stuff”
The connections — as well as Bandoma’s projectable talents — helped.
When the official offer came, the Bandomas were confused. Full scholarship? That doesn’t make sense. They called to confirm that’s what it meant. Then they called again. Then they set up a meeting with Cimino to once again confirm that yes, this was real.
Then they cried.
“I had to go hide,” Roger says, “but I did.”
There were no tears on Tuesday. No, this was a celebration of years of hard work and a future that’s going to be filled with even more. Sarah Bandoma was born to play basketball, even if there was a time when she wasn’t so sure she was.
“Through the game I learned I could express myself and learn,” Bandoma says. “It was an ugly process, but at the same time it made for a beautiful story.”
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