ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The shopping mall slayings of at least 62 people in Nairobi, Kenya, has touched the former coach of the Albuquerque Thunderbirds NBA Development League team.
John Coffino was with the Thunderbirds from 2007 to 2010. Now the coach of a girls junior varsity high school team and a developmental men’s professional-league team in Nairobi, he is dealing with the shooting death of a player from the girls team.
It’s “such a terrible horror show of major proportions,” Coffino wrote in an email interview from Nairobi.
Among those slain in the attack and subsequent hostage situation that began Saturday was Coffino’s point guard, Nuriana Merali.
“Nuriana Merali was the sweetest angel on campus: always joking with me, saying I don’t run them enough, so she would run extra sprints after practice,” he recalled.
The attack took place at the Westgate shopping mall, where he had planned to have a breakfast meeting Sunday with his boys team from the Dankind Academy.
“I had met her family after our first game; so nice and pleasant,” Coffino wrote. “Friday we played with the varsity girls and she played so well. When we were handing out the uniforms, she pleaded with me to give her No. 22 but I waited until she was the only one left to get a jersey, until she gave me that smile and I gave in. Friday I gave her the nickname Gingerbread Girl. All the other girls wanted nicknames, too.”
The shootings have taken a tremendous toll on the community and on the teams, he wrote.
“I am sooooo heartbroken over this tragedy and unfair situation,” Coffino wrote. “She had her whole life ahead of her and so much to give. … Needless to say, the school, community, my men’s team and, most of all, her teammates are grief stricken.”
Trying to use some time on the court as therapy to alleviate some of the pain, Coffino wrote that it hasn’t been easy to get the players to agree.
“I worry about the players is all,” he wrote. “Both teams. They are in mourning and find it hard to get on the court when I think it would be good therapy. But I can’t feel what they are feeling.”
Merali’s mother and aunt were also killed during the shooting rampage. The Kenya Defense Forces was still fighting late Monday to secure the mall. The Shabab militant group based mainly in neighboring Somalia is claiming responsibility for the attack, in which at least 175 people have been injured.
“I meet with my girls at school (today) to talk about things. I told them I’m here for them 24/7, and even though my heart is broken, I have plenty left for them,” Coffino said. “My family wants me to come home, but my players need me and I need them, so I stay.”