By Jim Stout
DANBURY, Conn. -- The kids playing soccer back in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, didn't know it at the time, but a decade ago, they helped develop a trend — and a Little East Conference basketball legend in the process.
Abidjan, the largest city in that West African nation and former French colony, was where Brice Assie first discovered he was blessed with the inimitable blend of explosive quickness and brute strength. He played soccer like all the other kids and he cherished the sport, but he played it differently than many of the others.
It had nothing to do with the fact that he had moved to Ivory Coast with his family from France at age 3. We're not talking high-finesse French soccer here.
“I started playing soccer when I was young and I had the skills, but I was always big for my age, and was bigger and stronger and more powerful than most kids,” Assie said. “I was big for my age but not so big that I couldn't play the game with some skill. And I could play with the older guys and men because of my size and strength.”
Today, Assie (pronounced Ah-SEE) is one of the older guys himself on the Western Connecticut State men's basketball team, one of the four seniors who will enter the final stage of his career on Thursday night, when the Colonials play host to Endicott in a NCAA Tournament first-round game at the O'Neill Center.
Much has happened to Assie since he moved to Connecticut at age 13 and gave up soccer for basketball after arriving at Western, but one thing has not changed. He is still a man among boys.
After playing in the shadow of LEC player of the year and teammate Marvin Evans a year ago, Assie has cast his domineering skills and 6-foot-6, 260-pound muscular stature over the entire conference like few others have. He has shot nearly 70% from the floor this season from the post area, leading the LEC-champion Colonials in scoring (19.1 points per game), rebounding (8.7 per game) and blocked shots (2.5).
In a conference often dominated by guards, perimeter players and small forwards — witness Nick Pelotte's 62 points in the LEC final this past Saturday — Assie has Western in the NCAA tournament for the third time in four seasons via his overwhelming force in the pivot.
“He's head and shoulders above everyone in our conference,” said Mass-Dartmouth coach Brian Baptiste. “Not too many guys have had seasons like he's having.”
In a fitting conclusion to the LEC playoffs on Saturday at the O'Neill Center, Assie was on the same floor with the relentless and entertaining 5-10 Pelotte, the conference's other leading candidate for 2005 player of the year. Pelotte registered 62 points (and 13 assists) in the final and 31 points and four steals in the semis.
Assie led Western (24-3) to a win against Mass-Dartmouth in the semis with a 32-point effort (on 14-of-19 shooting) and had 10 rebounds. Despite being in foul trouble in the championship game, his seven points in the last four minutes of regulation helped rally the Colonials from a nine-point deficit and force overtime. He finished with 24 points and two blocked shots in 23 minutes as Western prevailed in a game for the ages, 135-130 in double overtime.
But where as Pelotte and forward Andreas Pope produce the majority of the scoring for Plymouth, Assie's dazzling array of thunderous dunks and dexterous short jumpers, finger rolls and put-backs were only one part of the Western arsenal. The Colonials also sport one of the LEC's most fear perimeter duos in senior Jay Reginatto and junior Greg Cole — a combined 67 points and 16 3-pointers in the final — as well as seniors Kimani Crawford and Jeff Gene.
Assie's step forward this season, however, is arguably what has set Western apart from the pack. It's certainly one of things that catch the attention of spectators at the O'Neill Center, some of whom will remain after the outcome of a game is decided, just to see what move Assie might perform next.
Playing next to Evans last season, Assie averaged 14.1 points per game and 6.7 rebounds, as well as a conference-leading 1.8 blocked shots per game. He shot nearly 60 percent from the floor in 2003-04.
“Every year, I've tried to improve on some aspect of my game,” he said.
“When I first came out for basketball here, everything was new to me so I needed to work on everything. My sophomore year, I was a horrible free throw shooter so I spent the summer working on that (he is now close to 70% from the line). Coming into this season, knowing that Marvin was gone, I knew I had to take another step up, particularly with my finishing touch around the basket.”
All of this by a guy who didn't seriously pick up a basketball until arriving with his family in Stamford, Conn., at age 13. Assie played in the soccer program at Norwalk High for two years after first enrolling in high school, and played two more seasons of soccer at Bridgeport Central, where he first caught the recruiting eye of Western men's soccer coach Wayne Mones.
Playing basketball in college was nowhere near a consideration at first. Assie was cut twice from the varsity at Bridgeport Central before finally making the team his senior season.
Soccer was what landed Assie at Western after Mones, always with an affinity for physical players, had seen him play in a high school state tournament game. Following a season of playing college soccer, however, the sport wasn't working out for him.
No matter. One of the first faces Assie recognized when he enrolled at Western was that of Crawford, the former Northwest Catholic High basketball standout. The two ended up being roommates. Assie had remembered Crawford's face from his senior year in high school, when both Bridgeport Central and Northwest were playing in the season-opening Doc Hurley Classic in Hartford.
“I remember watching Kimani that day and being very impressed with him,” said Assie. “So we talked a lot about basketball when we became roommates. I thought I'd give it a shot at Western.”
“Yeah, I saw some of Central's game that day,” Crawford recalled. “I just remember seeing some basketball player out there who looked like a football player…that and a couple of big dunks. He was kind of scary.”
Seeing that he grew up idolizing Gaji Cele, the Ivory Coast soccer international, there weren't a lot of basketball role models in Assie's life initially. But there wasn't a total void, either. He had played a little basketball at Norwalk with former Western center Winston Gray and was surrounded in Barry McLeod's program at powerful Bridgeport Central with standouts such as Terrell Taylor (who later starred at Creighton), Kano Edwards and Travis Gorham.
“The guy at Central who probably did the most for me was actually a guard, Greg Bernard,” said Assie. “He kept me straight and showed me how I should act.
“The guys here and Coach (Bob) Campbell have had the biggest impact on me, though,” he added.
“When I first came out and started getting serious about basketball, we had guys like Kevin Matthews and Lenny Rinas and Ryan Mains, and that was a close-knit team that was fun to be a part of and worked well together. They all supported me and helped me develop my skills. It was a lot like this year's team. That's one of the reasons we've been successful. Everyone works well together.”
Assie also had a basketball pedigree of sorts in his past.
“My dad (Robert) played semipro basketball back in our country,” he said.
“ He played a lot of sports: volleyball, basketball, soccer. So growing up in Ivory Coast, I did a little of everything after soccer. But later on, after we moved to this country, he told me to pick something and focus on it, and not do what he did and play everything and never be real good at anything. He said pick something and work at it.”
Assie picked basketball in the end. You could say he followed his father's advice precisely.
“When first came out for basketball, I liked Coach Campbell's attitude, taking me onto the team and working with me,” he said. “Even though I knew I wasn't a big part of the team at the start, I felt as though I had a future in basketball if I kept working.
“When Brice asked to come out for the team his freshman year, I thought that he could help us because he was strong, physical and liked to bang,” said Campbell. “I thought he could help us make the guys become more physical and aggressive players.
“We always tell our kids to work on their game in the offseason and to stay in shape; I never had to tell Brice that,” Campbell added. “He's developed in to an excellent player. He's gone from a player who couldn't do a lot of our basketball drills at first to probably the best big guy in New England.”