From the moment they arrived in Morningside Heights, the seniors of the Columbia men’s basketball team have been forced to adapt at every turn.
As head coach Jim Engles’ first recruiting class, the current seniors entered the program during a period of transition, as all of the returning players had been recruited by former head coach Kyle Smith and his staff. The class of 2021 took it upon itself to set a new standard for the program.
“We did a really good job of establishing a culture that [Engles] wanted,” Randy Brumant said.
Not only did these seniors enter Columbia just after a coaching change, but several also suffered significant injuries during the class of 2021′s time in Morningside Heights. Guard Jake Klores missed the entirety of his first-year and sophomore seasons due to shoulder injuries. Former Columbia standout Mike Smith suffered a torn meniscus early in the 2018-19 season, forcing Gabe Stefanini to step in as the team’s primary ball handler. Less than a year after Smith’s injury, Stefanini suffered a foot injury, which kept him sidelined for all of the 2019-20 season.
By the time they recovered, both basketball and the world had been turned upside-down. Amid spiking COVID-19 cases, the team learned last November that the Ivy League would not hold any winter sports competitions. For the class of 2021, that meant it would never get to experience its long-awaited senior season.
“It sucks. We’ve been talking about playing our senior year together since we got on campus that June before our freshman year, and we obviously didn’t get that, and that’s frustrating,” senior guard Tai Bibbs said.
Yet several seniors said that the way they responded to all of these challenges was what defined their careers as Lions.
“As a group, we’ve really learned a lot about adversity,” Klores said. “We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs together, and I think [we] learned how to come together, work with other people and ourselves, and understand how to get through adversity.”
And despite the heartbreak they felt at losing their senior season, Bibbs said that they have made the most out of the situation.
“Instead of kind of dwelling on that—on the what ifs, what could have been—I think we all grew this year,” he said. “We tried to focus on the future of the program rather than being sad and being sorry for ourselves, and I think that’s been a positive impact on all of our lives.”
Engles was particularly proud of the way the seniors handled this year, remaining connected with the team and mentoring the younger players, even though “they could’ve been extremely disappointed.”
“When this whole thing went down, I said, ‘Listen, I really still need you involved, and I’d like you on all the communication and all the Zoom calls. … I need you to help me with the incoming guys,’” Engles said. “So I was really happy that they did that. I think that was a good indication of the type of character they [have] and what they believed in and what they see in Columbia.”
Despite the roadblocks, there were also highlights. At the beginning of the 2018-19 season, the Lions beat Iona, which made March Madness that year, at Madison Square Garden. In March, they took down Yale—the best team in the League at the time, according to Engles—just a day after defeating Brown in Providence.
“That was incredible,” senior guard Luke Bolster said about the win against Yale. “That bus ride back was a lot of fun.”
Through it all, the team learned many lessons about life, basketball, and overcoming adversity. These are lessons they will take with them as they enter the next chapters of their lives.
Bibbs will join former Columbia assistant coach Kenny Blakeney at Howard University as a graduate transfer next season. There, he will have the opportunity to play with 2020 five-star recruit Makur Maker while working toward a master’s in sociology.
The Chicago native, who was elected a captain this year, was an immediate contributor for the Light Blue. Despite being injured for parts of his rookie season, Bibbs managed to see playing time in 13 of his games during his first year. His sophomore year, he earned a spot in the starting lineup for 16 of the Lions’ games, which carried over to his junior season, when he started in all 30 games.
Bibbs made his mark on the defensive end and eventually became the team’s best defender, according to Engles. However, what Engles will miss most about Bibbs is his leadership.
“He was just the epitome of a leader,” Engles said. “He always showed up every day, was always enthusiastic, was always committed. He was one of those guys who led in so many different ways for our team and [that is] something that I’m gonna miss.”
Reflecting on his basketball career, Bibbs is grateful for all of the opportunities the sport has brought him.
“I realized as I’ve gotten older how many blessings basketball has brought me and how many opportunities basketball has brought me, like being able to go to this school, being in New York City, and the relationships I’ve formed because of basketball,” he said. “That’s something that I’m really thankful for now, and I’m very cognizant of that in every situation where I get to experience something new because of this game.”
He is also grateful for the friendships he has been able to cultivate and said, “this year really made me realize that every moment you have with these guys is special.”
Looking forward to next year, Bibbs’ answer to what he is most excited about was simple.
“I’m excited to play,” he said. “I’m hungry. I’m gonna play with a chip on my shoulder. I’m ready to prove people wrong next year and go out there and perform.”
Brumant, like Bibbs, will play at Howard University as a graduate transfer next season, where he will pursue a master’s in economics.
Brumant said that entering the program as a first-year, he learned the ropes of college basketball from older players on the team like Lukas Meisner, CC ’19. Just as he received guidance from upperclassman teammates as a young player, Brumant is excited about the opportunity to mentor his young Howard teammates.
“Coach Kenny brought me and Tai on for leadership, so that’s what we’re going to have to be doing next year,” he said.
As a Lion, Brumant became a starter his sophomore year, getting his first start against Iona at Madison Square Garden, and started in every game he played as a junior. The forward quickly became one of the team’s strongest rebounders. During his sophomore season, he averaged 4.8 rebounds per game—including a career high 19 against St. Joseph’s Brooklyn—the third best on the team. His junior year, he was the team’s most productive rebounder, putting up 5.5 per game.
Brumant was also one of the team’s strongest and most reliable defenders. He recorded 55 blocks and 39 steals as a Lion.
“He really was a very physical force for us, both on the glass and from a defensive standpoint,” Engles said. “He has that toughness that he showed on the court that will continue to follow him.”
With all of the stress of being a college athlete, which involves a tightly regimented schedule, Brumant is grateful for the time management skills he learned in his time at Columbia.
“I just learned a lot more about the world and how to organize myself, a lot of time management,” Brumant said. “I never really had to worry about that that much in high school just because basketball was always a set time after class, and I didn’t really have so much work that I had to really manage. That was a big thing for me, and I feel like I developed that kind of skill over the past four years.”
Bolster will be taking advantage of the new waiver that grants current seniors another year of Ivy League eligibility by returning to Columbia as a graduate student. Though currently undecided, Bolster intends to pursue either a master’s degree in American studies from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences or in sports management from the School of Professional Studies.
The New York native will be the only senior returning to the Lions next season. He was elected as a captain this season, but since the team did not get to compete, he is excited about fulfilling his duties as captain in person next season.
“It’s going to feel really good to be able to play that role for a season,” he said. “Obviously, we had responsibilities this year—captain’s responsibilities and trying to lead the team—but it’ll be different getting to actually play games and be on the court with guys.”
Engles is also excited to have him back.
“From a Columbia culture standpoint, he’s the ideal kid to have come back, especially with a young team,” Engles said. “He’s really embracing the responsibility of what a senior captain is supposed to be like.”
Bolster looks back fondly at the friendships he has been able to develop with his teammates, and said that coming in as a first-year, he did not necessarily expect to find his best friends on the team.
He also relished the opportunity to play college basketball in his hometown, which allowed his parents to come to many of his games.
“[Playing in New York has] really been a dream come true because I get to play at the highest level, I get to push myself, and it’s been unbelievable, an unbelievable experience working with guys, getting better, and learning the game from the coaches and from players,” he said.
And with many of his high school friends returning to New York next year, he is excited that they will have the opportunity to watch him play again.
When Joseph Smoyer transferred to Columbia from the University of Portland, the 6′11″ center joined a tight-knit class of players that would soon become the people who defined his collegiate basketball experience both on and off the court. The group welcomed him immediately and he gelled with them quickly, Smoyer reflected.
“One of the reasons I came here is because I felt very comfortable on my official visit with all the guys on the team. I thought that I fit in very well with them. I’ve always had a great time being on this team, hanging out with the guys.”
Smoyer had to sit out his first season at Columbia as a result of NCAA transfer rules, which left him watching his teammates play from the bench.
The Oregon native later made a clear impact on the floor when he was able to return to the court. He used his big frame to block 28 shots in 30 games played throughout the 2019-20 season, despite only averaging 10 minutes per game. Engles appreciated the way Smoyer took advantage of the limited playing time he received.
“His competitiveness was something that really stood out for me,” he said. “He really had to sacrifice a part of his game because he played a little bit behind guys but was still one of those guys who showed up and did the stuff that, from a leadership perspective, you need to do every day.”
Unsatisfied with the way the pandemic cut his career short, Smoyer committed to transferring to Chaminade University of Honolulu. This Division II school will grant him the chance to expand and develop his talents against intense competition—his new squad is lined up to play in the Maui Invitational next year. Smoyer said he will cherish his Columbia memories even as he embarks on a new adventure on the island.
“Being part of such a good group of guys has been great. I think I’ve learned a lot from them about being a good teammate and also about basketball and life in general.”
While many of his teammates will pursue their basketball hopes in the years to come, Jake Klores is blazing a unique path. The guard from New York is starting a company to assist college athletes with brands and business partnerships, given the NCAA’s decision to allow college athletes to profit off of their name and likeness.
Klores is building this start-up with Peter Barba, CC ’19, Klores’ mentor and friend, and the pair aims to create a platform through which brands, business, and athletes have easy access to one another. Klores’ platform will also submit all transactions to the compliance department of each athlete’s school, thereby assuring the business deals made are approved by the NCAA.
“[I] realized that there are some really exciting opportunities that are going to present themselves for college athletes, but, at the same time, they’re going to need a lot of help navigating a new and complex landscape. So, I started to think about ways to solve that problem and try to allow each athlete to maximize their earning potential,” he said.
Klores lost a significant chunk of his Columbia days to inopportune circumstances: injuries sidelined him for all of his first two years while the pandemic prevented him from stepping on the floor as a senior. Being around the program and recovering from his injuries was a defining part of Klores’ college experience, however, and he emphasized the character development he experienced during that recovery period.
“I obviously wasn’t expecting to come in and miss my first few years with injuries. I didn’t expect it at all to be an experience that I would look back on and appreciate, and I really do now. I was able to learn a tremendous amount,” he said.
Engles has high hopes for the senior’s ambitious new venture.
“Jake, because he’s the type of kid he is, is just fully committed to it. I think it’s a great opportunity for those guys. He’s a kid that I would expect to see around the program for many years to come. He’s just a good kid, and I’m excited to see him take this venture and make it work.”
Next year, Gabe Stefanini will take his experience from an illustrious Columbia career to the University of San Francisco, where he plans to study sports management as a graduate student. The Italian guard was one of the senior class’ most impactful players from the moment he arrived as a first-year.
He emerged as a spark plug off the bench for the Lions during his rookie season, earning Ivy League Rookie of the Week twice and averaging 5.9 points on 45.6 percent shooting from three-point range. Stefanini took another leap forward during his sophomore season, averaging 13.8 points while handling playmaking duties as well, leading the Ivy League with 4.1 assists per game.
Engles praised Stefanini’s self-sacrifice in becoming a better passer.
“He had to give up a lot of his game from a scoring perspective to really help everybody else out,” he remembered. “And there was definitely a little bit of an adjustment, but it just went to show the type of player he was. That’s what I always remember about him. He was just that the type of guy who sacrificed a lot.”
Following his stellar sophomore year, Stefanini suffered an injury that sidelined him for his junior year, and, effectively, the rest of his Columbia career. He had to work hard to get back to his initial skill level, and being apart from the team was a crushing blow. His resilience garnered him respect from his teammates, who elected him a co-captain his senior year.
“It was really frustrating at first. I don’t think I missed a single practice when I was hurt. I still went and watched every practice and supported my guys,” Stefanini said. “I wanted to be there as much as I could because I wasn’t able to have them on the court. So I tried to do my job as a leader and stay on everybody.”
Now, the guard has had the time to recover fully and ready himself for another year of competition, which he can’t wait to start.
“I think coming back made me more motivated than ever. I’ve been holding back a lot. I have a fire in me that I just want to show off on the court. That’s all. I just want a possibility to play.”
While Stefanini and many of the other seniors will not get the closure they desired in their Columbia careers, they created a team culture that Engles hopes will carry over in the years to come.