It was Gershon Collier who represented the newly independent country around the world, meeting with leaders such as President John F. Kennedy. Back in his West African home, Gershon Collier was a well-known leader.
So his name is part of Gamal Collier’s identity and it’s a name he tried to live up to as he forged a new life in the United States 23 years ago, first in New Jersey and finally in Missouri.
His American-born children, Napheesa and Kai, heard the family history: “You guys have that last name. You have to respect it. Everything you do should be for that last name.”
These days, Gamal’s daughter is cultivating her own identity far from where she grew up. In basketball-mad Connecticut, Napheesa Collier is a rising star on a team with 11 national titles and an 84-game winning streak. Pheesa, as her coaches and teammates call her, has emerged as a reliable scorer and diligent all-around player, never flamboyant on the court and quietly poised off the court.
Her back story, though, is as unique as her first name. Her mother Sarah grew up in a small town in central Missouri, the daughter of a farmer and a high school athlete in her own right. Her father grew up in Sierra Leone, educated in London and focused on his own political path before leaving his home country after a civil war erupted in the early 1990s.
After six months in New Jersey, Gamal followed his brother to Jefferson City, Mo. He met Sarah while working at a nursing home one summer and they married, merging cultures from different parts of the world. Napheesa and her younger brother Kai, who plays college football at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., grew up with one foot in each world — holidays split between the small-town family on their mother’s side and the growing Sierra Leone community on their father’s side.
“It’s truly an African-American family,” Gamal said. “The American dream.”
More than the culture, the Collier kids learned about their grandfather and the history of their father’s native country. How’s this for a family treasure? Hanging in the house was a photo of Gershon Collier sitting with President Kennedy.
“It’s really cool,” Napheesa said. “My Dad told stories about him all the time. I still hear stories about him. He was an amazing person, from what I hear.”
Gershon died of a stroke in 1994, a year after Gamal moved to the United States and two years before Napheesa was born. Napheesa said she grew up hearing about life in Sierra Leone from her father and her relatives.
She has never been to the country, but is planning to visit next year when he grandmother turns 90. Stories about her grandfather, while routine, didn’t resonate until she was a teenager.
“I didn’t really realize until maybe middle school or high school just how big of a deal it was,” Napheesa said. “He helped gain independence for a whole country. It’s just amazing, hearing about that. And even though I never got to meet him, it’s cool to know that’s in my family history and I grew up with a person like that.”
Gershon Collier was a diplomat and was a high ranking figure with the political party that helped the country gain independence after more than 150 years of British colonial rule. He was appointed as the country’s first U.N. ambassador and later served as the country’s chief justice before becoming an educator, which included a teaching stint at New York University.
Gamal said he grew up privileged, although he was exposed to an array of people through soccer.
“I was able to not be treated as a rich kid,” Gamal said. “I was with people who were not normally in my world and I had a feel for what Sierra Leone really looked like.”
Gamal would attend college in London, where he took up rugby. He also visited New York on vacation with his father, but he realized later that was not seeing the real city.
“It was a weird New York, driving around in a limo and seeing famous people,” he said. “That was the New York I knew.”
In 1991, a civil war broke out in Sierra Leone and Gamal relocated to the United State because he did not have the proper paperwork to find employment in London. He spent six months in Northern New Jersey, trying to make ends meet by cycling around and working with an array of jobs.
His brother was in Missouri, where the cost of living was manageable. Really, better than manageable.
“My brother lived in an apartment that looked like a palace and he had a red Toyota Celica,” Gamal said. “To me, he lived like a king.”
Word spread and more people from Sierra Leone moved to the Jefferson City area. Gamal, who has worked in pharmaceutical sales for 17 years, went to school and found steady work as he merged his culture with Sarah’s. He found his wife’s family different in some ways (punctual and not so loud) and the same in other ways (family-focused, hard-working). The Colliers have raised their kids alternating between the two families, maybe a Christmas meal with Sarah’s family at noon followed by a meal with Gamal’s Sierra Leone group at 2.
Or scheduled for 2.
“My wife’s family, they’re so punctual … they eat and it’s quiet,” Gamal said. “Africans, we’re supposed to eat 2 and we eat at 6. It’s loud, politics and sports all the time. And dancing. It’s just loud noise and copious amounts of food.”
Gamal estimates that there are about 60 members of the Sierra Leone Associations of Jefferson City, which was created in 1994. Whether blood relatives or not, they are family.
“Because of the war, a lot of them came to America and a lot of them came to Missouri,” Napheesa said. “Growing up, we went to Sierra Leonean parties. They’re all my uncles, all my aunts. I have 50 uncles and aunts. It’s a really close community.”
Gamal has remained connected to his home country, visiting over the years and even overseeing projects to build roads and bridges in a place with a high rate of poverty. He has cut back on the trip in recent years, as life began to change with the kids growing up and playing sports. Sarah, a nurse by training, got an administrative job in the St. Louis area and the family relocated when Napheesa was in high school.
Napheesa, a 6-foot-1 forward, emerged as one of the top high school players in the country. The kid who always figured she would stay home at play at Missouri was afforded opportunities, including an offer from that iconic program in Connecticut.
Gamal chuckles when he thinks about where basketball has taken his daughter. They are not a family that spends a lot of time analyzing the games. All he and his wife have asked of their kids is that they work hard and don’t complain, whether it’s to an official or a coach.
Napheesa took those instructions to heart. She is not animated on the court and she has a distinct demeanour on the court. As a freshman, she averaged 17.2 minutes as Geno Auriemma tried to get a handle on who she was.
“At times last year, actually a lot of times last year, she lives in a different world than the rest of our team does while we’re playing the game,” Auriemma said. “There’s Gampel world and there’s Pheesa world out there somewhere.”
She was also dealing with a hip injury throughout her freshman year, which required surgery in the spring. Healthy and confident, she opened this season with a 28-point performance against Florida State, and is averaging 19.4 points and 7.0 rebounds.
Auriemma raves about her instincts and work ethic. He nudges her to be better defensively, but he also said she is among the most unique players to ever don a UConn uniform.
“And she’s going to get better and better and better,” Auriemma said.
Gamal and Sarah were at Kansas State and Notre Dame for recent road games. They love UConn and they love Auriemma, the demanding coach with high standards. They also love the opportunities basketball has brought to their daughter.
And Gamal continually reminds Napheesa and Kai that they are living the American dream.
“If you grow up in Sierra Leone and you’re the same kid with the same talent you have right now, you would not have any of these opportunities,” Gamal said. “You have to appreciate where you were born.”