On July 14, 2019, tragedy struck the Binghamton men’s basketball team. Calistus Anyichie, a rising sophomore on the team, drowned at a state park in Ithaca, New York, just a week into summer training. The team was devastated by the loss of a talented player and a beloved teammate.

“He was a special kid, and he was special to our program,” said Binghamton head coach Tommy Dempsey. “To lose him so suddenly and so tragically was tough for everybody and continues to be. As we do our best to move forward with the healing process … we have to do it in a way that honors his life and what he meant to us, and then we just need to continue to be there for each other as we have throughout this process.”

Now, two months later, the team is still dealing with the grief of losing a teammate. As their emotional wounds heal, they are remembering the life Anyichie lived, both on and off the court, and the profound impact his life had on many.

“He really embodied what Coach Dempsey wanted all of the players to stand for.”

After progressing well throughout his first season as a Bearcat, Anyichie was expected to step into a starting role on the team as a sophomore. While the effect of his passing on team performance on the court this season is significant, the effect it had on his teammates and all of the student-athletes at Binghamton University is immeasurable.

“When you go through something like this, you realize it’s about so much more than winning and losing,” Dempsey said. “It was a very difficult experience and something we had to go through together, and it hasn’t been easy.”

As a freshman, Anyichie lived on campus with his classmates, including Sam Sessoms, Leo Gallagher and Michael Besselink, who remain on the team. He was majoring in political science and hoped to be a diplomat.

“He was a great person,” Sessoms said. “He was always about giving back, helping others, always eager to learn. He really embodied what Coach Dempsey wanted all of the players to stand for, which is be respectful, be open-minded, ask questions and just be respectful. He never treated anybody differently, no matter the age, what year they were. He was trying to help everybody he could.”

Everyone who knew Anyichie remembers one thing about him above all: his smile. Sessoms, among others, noted how his smile, laughter and outgoing personality had a positive effect on everyone around him. He described one of his early encounters with Anyichie, in which the two came to BU on an official visit together. Sessoms recounted going to a party with him, where Anyichie motivated Sessoms to be more outgoing, meet more athletes and talk to more girls.

Dempsey described Anyichie as caring and courteous, and said minor things such as clearing his plate after team dinners at the coach’s house left a lasting impression.

“This summer, the team, the coaches, you could tell everybody was just trying to get better at doing the things that Calistus did,” Sessoms said. “Individually, everybody acts a certain way, but I think after the incident happened over the summer, you could see everybody trying to be a better person. I think that’s the positive we took out of it.”

Provided by BU athleticsThe Binghamton men’s basketball team and several athletics staff members were in attendance at Anyichie’s funeral.

“He was just an incredible human being.”

Anyichie’s path to playing college basketball at Binghamton was untraditional, relative to most of his teammates. He was born in Nnobi, Nigeria, and came to America at the age of 14 to pursue a basketball scholarship. He moved to Short Hills, New Jersey during his freshman year of high school and enrolled at St. Mary of the Assumption High School.

Anthony Colletti coached basketball at St. Mary’s for 30 years, and retired after Anyichie’s senior season. He and Anyichie had a bond that lasted beyond their time as coach and player.

“I didn’t get to coach him when he first got here, because our season had just ended,” Colletti said. “He got here a little bit after the season his first year, so I got to see him play a lot during the [Amateur Athletic Union] season. I was impressed with his agility. He was a very good shot blocker, very raw talent.”

Upon his arrival in New Jersey, Anyichie was reunited with a familiar face: Casmir Ochiaka. Prior to coming to the United States, he and Ochiaka played basketball together and were close friends in Nigeria. The two continued their friendship as teammates at St. Mary’s and as foster siblings, living together with the same American legal guardian, Virginia Roriston.

“It was really a coach-to-player relationship at first,” Colletti said. “It wasn’t until he graduated where our relationship became more personable. Once they graduated, we spent a lot of time together. He spent time with my family, my wife and my two kids. He was just really a personal part of our family.”

Ochiaka is now a sophomore on the men’s basketball team at Loyola University Maryland. Colletti was in attendance at the Events Center last December to watch Loyola take on the Bearcats, with the Greyhounds emerging victorious.

While playing basketball in high school, Anyichie established himself as a leader on the team, motivating his teammates and earning their respect.

“They all loved him — he would give up anything to win, he would do anything it took, even if it required him not getting the minutes out on the court,” Colletti said. “He was a kid that would sacrifice a lot for the betterment of the team. He would put his personal feelings aside all of the time, that’s what made him so humble to everybody.”

Colletti noted similar sentiments to those echoed by those in the Binghamton program — Anyichie’s infectious personality left a lasting impact on his high school friends and teammates.

“The first time I met him, at the airport, he was smiling,” Colletti said. “I was thinking that he was truly happy to be in America. His smile was electrifying.”

During Anyichie’s time in Binghamton, he kept in touch regularly with his high school coach. Colletti noted that during their FaceTime conversations, Anyichie was almost always hanging out with his teammates, and in many instances casually passed the phone off to one of them to carry on the conversation.

“One of his comments to me always was, ‘Coach, I made the right decision, I love Binghamton,’” Colletti said.

Provided by BU athleticsAnyichie played high school basketball at St. Mary of the Assumption High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

“Enthusiasm, passion, a learner, stylish and kind.”

Anyichie’s infectious personality was also highlighted by former Bearcat J.C. Show, ’19, during a eulogy delivered at his funeral in New Jersey. The whole team was in attendance, as well as several other BU athletics staff members.

“I tried to come up with some words that could sum up my experience of Calistus, and how I remember him, and some of the character qualities that he had,” Show said. “If you followed the team last year, you got to know how kind he was to other people and just how he treated people. He was always very enthusiastic, and it was contagious to everyone that he met.”

Anyichie’s lone season in Binghamton coincided with Show’s senior year. As a result, Show was able to watch Anyichie develop from a leadership position as one of the most experienced and respected players on the team.

“Even in the one year that we got to play with each other, he grew so much,” Show said. “He made major contributions on the court as far as his playing time increasing, and he continued to develop. I knew that he was going to continue to develop because of his work ethic and just how high his ceiling was.”

Off the court, Show recounted a particular story in which he and Anyichie, along with Besselink and Gallagher, went to Rockefeller Center in New York during a team road trip in December 2018. Anyichie noticed a group of tourists that appeared to be paying attention to them and insisted to his teammates that they wanted to take a picture with the basketball players. He then nonchalantly approached them and asked if they wanted to take a picture with him.

“He was the type of guy that wouldn’t try to be funny, but him just going about his daily routine of life would just make other people laugh or smile,” Show said.

Rose Coschignano/Photography InternAnyichie, a 6-foot-9-inch forward, played in 32 games during his freshman season, including a strong performance in Binghamton’s playoff upset over Stony Brook last season.

“I learned a lot about the guys we have in the room.”

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Anyichie’s legal guardian launched a GoFundMe to cover the costs of his funeral and the return of his remains to his family in Nigeria for burial. In total, 528 donors gave $28,501 to the fund. Among the contributors were several BU student-athletes, coaches, staff members and other athletics supporters.

“There’s a time to put your arms around each other and be there for each other,” Dempsey said. “I learned a lot about the guys we have in the room, who they are as people. I felt very proud of the group we had at this tough time.”

Anyichie’s remains arrived in Nigeria on Aug. 14, and he was buried in his hometown on Aug. 24.

There will be tributes to Anyichie held throughout the Bearcats’ upcoming campaign, with the details to be determined. However, in the present, Dempsey’s team has to focus on moving forward, preparing for the season while remembering their fallen teammate and honoring his legacy in the program.

“His memory is going to be with us forever, but in the time that we put the uniforms on and take the court, [it’s important] that we try to make him proud,” Dempsey said. “We play for him, play for each other and use it to motivate us.”