The messy, convoluted and contentious eligibility saga of Cheick Diallo came to its conclusion early Wednesday morning. As Kansas coach Bill Self awoke at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa, he received word at 5:30 a.m. local time from KU associate athletics director Sean Lester.
The NCAA was set to clear Diallo, the Kansas freshman forward, after doling out a suspension that would amount to the first five games of this season. Finally, Diallo would officially be free.
In an eligibility fight that dragged on for more than six months — and ended up costing the University of Kansas athletic department close to $100,000 in “institutional investment” — the NCAA ultimately announced that Diallo will have to serve a five-game suspension for receiving $165 in “extra benefits” from his guardian, Tidiane Drame, a Malian-American who helped bring Diallo to the United States from Mali four years ago.
In a statement, the NCAA announced that an amateurism review had concluded that “Diallo received a limited amount of extra benefits. Therefore, Diallo is not eligible to play for five contests, including the four games Kansas has already played.”
According to Don Jackson, who represented Diallo’s guardian in the case, the extra benefits amounted to $165 that Drame gave Diallo during a 20-day period before Drame officially became Diallo’s guardian.
Wednesday’s news brought closure to a story that has clouded Kansas’ season. Diallo missed his final game Wednesday — the championship of the Maui Invitational — and will make his season debut against Loyola (Maryland) on Tuesday at Allen Fieldhouse.
For Kansas, the addition of Diallo, a 6-foot-9 McDonald’s All-American, could potentially change the course and tenor of the Jayhawks’ season, transforming them from a consensus top-five team to a group that could become a title favorite, should the pieces come together. But the announcement did not stop Self from offering more displeasure with the NCAA process and the five-game suspension for extra benefits.
“I read the release that was done by the NCAA and our institution,” Self said Wednesday. “And I am very happy that he’s eligible, but I will say that, me personally, did not agree with the contents of the release. So I’ll just leave it at that.”
In a statement released by Jackson, Drame also took a shot at the NCAA process.
“I am glad that Cheick was granted eligibility,” Drame said. “The NCAA attempted to save face because they knew since Day One that I did nothing wrong and that Cheick should have been granted immediate eligibility.”
In the NCAA’s official news release, Oliver Luck, the executive vice president of regulatory affairs, said it was a “complicated case involving international transcripts and a high school that remains under review.”
That school was Our Savior New American in Centereach, N.Y., which Diallo attended for 3 1/2 years before graduating last spring. The NCAA had scrutinized Diallo’s transcripts and coursework, saying he did not have the requisite 16 core courses to receive initial eligibility. But a subsequent review by two independent groups — authorized by the university — cast doubt on those findings. On Wednesday, the NCAA said it took the findings of the independent groups into account.
“This was an academic issue,” Self said. “And regardless of what’s been said, it was an academic issue. I’ll just say that I’m not in agreement with the release, at all. But I’m sure that the respective parties have their reasons for doing it the way in which it’s been done.”
Jackson, meanwhile, called the decision a “pretextual justification for a flawed investigation.”
“There were no legitimate academic issue relative to Cheick’s secondary school education and no legitimate amateurism issues relative to Cheick’s involvement with Mr. Drame,” Jackson said. “Conveniently, the fifth game of Cheick’s five game suspension is today’s game.”
Jackson said he hoped the Diallo case serves as an impetus for other schools and athletes to change the “intrusive and manifestly illegal actions of the (NCAA) Eligibility Center in these types of investigations.”
Jackson has stated that the NCAA Eligibility Center offers “discriminatory application” of NCAA legislation when it comes to African-American and international student-athletes.
“It is my belief that these investigations will only be modified by action of a federal court,” Jackson said.
From now on, though, the Jayhawks can forget about NCAA bylaws and bureaucracy and think about basketball. In specific: integrating Diallo into the rotation. Self has told others to exercise caution with Diallo, saying the forward will need time to adjust to the Kansas system. In time, though, he could develop into a rim-protector and high-motor big man to pair with senior forward Perry Ellis in the front court.
“I think he can make us better,” Self said. “I think it’s going to be one of those things that the immediate impact it will have will be limited, compared to what the long-term impact (will be) once we get into conference play and into February.”
As Self continued to speak, finishing an afternoon conference call inside the Westin here in Maui, a voice bellowed from down the hall.
Somebody inside the hotel had just received the news, and the response was one of joy. On that aspect, Self could surely agree.
“He’s missed a lot of valuable time,” Self said. “When you look big-picture, it’s great for the young man and it will certainly be very good for us, too. I’m very happy that he’ll be joining our team and be a teammate in action.”