Cardigan Mountain School A boarding and day school for boys in grades 6 through 9
Ishmael Kalilou coaching the varsity basketball team

Blending Passions: Cardigan’s New Varsity Basketball Coach Reflects on His First Year

By Cam McCusker ’10

A well-traveled man with more life experience than most others his age, Ishmael Kalilou has brought with him to The Point the wisdom he acquired through each chapter in his life. Now, in a new home—just a few hours up the road from where he grew up—Mr. Kalilou has found his footing, and has dug into his role at Cardigan.

Ishmael Kalilou joined the Cardigan community at the inception of the 2019-2020 academic year, and has, like many of his colleagues, played several different roles thus far. Coaching football, teaching Gates, and residing in Hinman II—among the 15 or so much younger residents—has consumed much of Mr. Kalilou’s time and attention. He has also taken on the role of varsity basket- ball head coach, blending his passions for basketball and mentoring adolescents with his life experiences and wisdom.

Although he grew up in New England, Mr. Kalilou spent the first several years of his life in Accra, Ghana. When his family moved to Connecticut just before the turn of the millennium, they settled in Windsor, where he developed his love of basketball. In 2009, Mr. Kalilou was a member of the Windsor High School team that won the state championship.

Mr. Kalilou coaching student inventors

Mr. Kalilou doing a different kind of coaching with student inventors during preparations for the School’s Gates Invention & Innovation Competition.

Following his graduation from Windsor High School, Mr. Kalilou enrolled at Taft for a post-graduate year to hone his basketball skills and to fine-tune his academics. “It was a great decision because I formed valuable relationships at Taft; I still keep in contact with friends and teachers from Taft to this day,” he says.

Mr. Kalilou’s path led him next to Brandeis University, just outside of Boston. At Brandeis, he excelled on the basketball team for four years, and made what would later become his first Cardigan connection. Teammate Ben Bartoldus, shortly after his graduation from Brandeis, joined the faculty at Cardigan, teaching Leadership and Global Community Initiative. Mr. Kalilou didn’t know it then, but it would be just a few short years before he would follow a similar path.

While Mr. Kalilou’s first year on The Point came replete with new experiences and circumstances, he has handled them all with the grace and nuance of someone several years his elder. To what does he attribute his success? One must only ask him what he values and who has influenced him.

Mr. Kalilou during a student vs. faculty game

Mr. Kalilou dodging varsity basketball player Yaneik Gallego during a student vs. faculty game at the end of the season.

His first answer is simple: basketball. “Basketball has opened so many doors for me,” Mr. Kalilou says. “It has provided me with a college education at a top school, allowed me to travel the country and around the world, given me the opportunity to do commercials for companies like Nike, NBA, AT&T, etc.” A smile makes its way onto Mr. Kalilou’s face before he adds, “It has also allowed me to start an awesome career working here at Cardigan.”

Mr. Kalilou lists several other influences as well that have helped to shape who he is as both a person and a coach. The list includes Mr. Kalilou’s high school basketball coach, several Cardigan colleagues, and even a few former Cardigan community members who have gone on to new experiences—though not before leaving their indelible mark on both Cardigan and Mr. Kalilou.

One thing that Mr. Kalilou has both learned about and maintained throughout each of his experiences, is the value of hard work. As a young man in Windsor, the ideals of hard work and goal-setting were impressed upon him, and he has held them close at every stop along his journey. Now, Mr. Kalilou has the opportunity to pass these values on to his players and the numerous Cardigan students who look up to him. It’s an opportunity that he does not take lightly.

Mr. Kalilou collaborating with Director of Gates Eric Escalante.

Mr. Kalilou collaborating with Director of Gates Eric Escalante.

The importance Coach Kalilou places upon hard work becomes evident as soon as you watch the Cougars play. “I like to run and apply pressure in the full court a lot because that’s how I grew up playing team basketball...we use our defense to help fuel our offense,” Kalilou offers. A full court press often requires more effort from the Cougar players, but it also ensures that no team will have an easy time against the Cardigan squad. When you step into Marrion Gym—regardless of what team you play for—you’re going to be working hard. Hard work takes a backseat to nothing.

It’s fitting then, that Mr. Kalilou measures the successes and failures of his team on their effort and work ethic, as opposed to the numbers that burden the scoreboard. Real winning is done when players compete and give their all; everything afterwards is just a bonus. “If our guys are working to the best of their abilities and trying to better themselves as student-athletes each day, on and off the court...that is a win for us,” states Mr. Kalilou.

Fitting that Mr. Kalilou recognizes the same hard work in others that he preaches himself.

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