IF ever an athlete belied their outward appearance, it was Mohamed “Momo” Ntumba.
Intimidating and impenetrable — the Congolese giant gave off a distinct impression of utter stoicism.
But he was anything but to those who took the time to get to know him.
Innately curious, the multi-lingual Ntumba has been a towering, friendly presence throughout the Border.
In a regional basketball community such as Albury-Wodonga, an import who embraces and connects with the fans is just as important as his or her on-court production.
But the announcement that he and the Bandits have agreed to part company is a sad and unsatisfactory conclusion to his three-year stint.
For as much as star point guard Jazz Ferguson was the ignition switch for the Bandits 2012 SEABL title run, Ntumba was the bedrock of a stingy, stifling defence that smothered its way to a championship double.
And this was never clearer than in the title game against Dandenong.
Having been anchored to the bench early in the first half with three fouls, Ntumba was thrown back into the fray with the Bandits trailing by 11, and by sheer force of will, he dragged the Border outfit back from the brink.
Hauling down a game-high 13 rebounds, including six at the offensive end, Ntumba ensured Dandenong never got a second chance when they misfired — and they misfired often.
“Big Mo” then capped the Bandits’ comeback with a thunderous, title-winning dunk with 14 seconds remaining, sparking wild scenes of jubilation.
A patella tendon injury suffered in last year’s pre-season meant he lost much of his mobility and with it, the Bandits’ title defence was essentially dead before it started.
His return this season, having been medically cleared to play, was heralded as a critical factor in the Bandits’ quest to return to the playoffs.
But the knee soreness returned and his performance on Saturday night against Ballarat — a mere shadow of what he once was — confirmed his departure was in the best interests of both player and club.
At his peak in 2012 he was a much-feared presence throughout the SEABL with several opposition players quietly confirming what everyone suspected — there wasn’t a stronger player in the league.
His gym workouts were legendary and his pre-game “snack” of two litres of milk and a loaf of bread beggared belief.
And there was always a funny, playful side to him. At one stage in this year’s pre-season he said captain Michael Watson should always shoot because “when he misses I’ll just grab the offensive rebound anyway”.
His departure shows the fragile nature of the life of a professional athlete; a single, unfortunate collision in a pre-season game that would cost him at least two years.
On such trivial things does a career hinge.
Bonne chance Momo.