Imagine a 15-year-old child, a lone figure standing outside an airport in the West African city of Bamako, Mali.
He is toting a duffel bag and only the clothes on his back, no coat for the frigid New York winter and no backpack for classes at his new American high school.
He is tall and skinny with a boyish face and pointy shoulders and a mouth that, on instinct, will form a wide smile.
On this day, however, the morning of Feb. 11, 2012, Cheick Diallo can barely muster one.
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Three weeks earlier, his journey had begun.
He had boarded a bus in his hometown of Kayes, a small city in the west of Mali, and rode 14 hours to Bamako, the capital city of nearly 2 million, where he was taking classes as a high school freshman. It was, in most respects, a holding pattern. For months, he had waited for a student visa, his pathway to a new life in America, an opportunity to chase a basketball dream.
He had little time to waste.
Soon, Bamako would be gripped by war. A collection of soldiers would stage a coup d’etat, attacking the presidential palace in Bamako and sending the city into lockdown.
“If I was still there for like two weeks or three weeks, I’m not going to be here today,” Diallo says now. “You could not go anywhere. It was a war.”
Finally, the paperwork went through.
Diallo’s father booked his son a flight to New York and told Cheick he needed to go now. Two days later, Diallo stood on the curb at Bamako-Sénou International Airport.
Imagine a 15-year-old child, spending days in airports, flying across the world, standing alone in the international terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.
Imagine Cheick Diallo, speaking no English, having no coat to protect him from the cold, just two years from picking up a basketball, meeting a high school coach in front of the airport and heading east to Long Island.
By now, you know a little bit about Cheick Diallo, the freshman big man turned sympathetic figure after a long and contentious clash with the NCAA. You know about his eligibility fight — complete with its own hashtag, #FreeDiallo — and the potential in his longish 6-foot-9 frame, the talent flashed during his college debut against Loyola (Md.) on Dec. 1. You know how his presence might change the Kansas men’s basketball team, a missing piece transforming the Jayhawks into a possible NCAA title favorite.
But four years ago, few saw this future for Diallo, the fifth son of a middle-class utilities worker in Mali. He was a gangly teenager who focused on basketball when he became too tall to play soccer. He was an athletic specimen who could use his potential as collateral for an American education, and if he was lucky, maybe play for a low-level Division I school some day.
“We never thought for a second that Cheick was going to be this big,” says Tidiane Drame, a Malian-American turned amateur basketball scout who discovered Diallo four years ago.
“I was garbage,” Diallo says. “I was not even good.”
It’s a Wednesday in early December, the day after Diallo’s season debut, and he is sitting inside the players’ lounge at Allen Fieldhouse, leaning forward in a plush leather recliner. The NCAA drama is behind him now, and he is ready to tell his story, how he grew to become one of the most intriguing players in college hoops.
It is the story of Diallo telephoning Drame, his mentor and legal guardian, during his first months in the United States, begging to quit and go home. It is the story of Diallo, nearly four years later, showing up 15 minutes early to everything — from summer tutoring sessions, to practice, to even an interview for this story — because, well, he’s wired that way. He’s a 19-year-old who spends his nights peppering Bill Self with text messages, looking for ways to improve. He is also a growing talent who fills up his Instagram account with quotes from his chosen sages, from Nelson Mandela to Gregg Popovich. The reason? Why take any of this for granted.
“That’s the dream — to come here,” Diallo says. “Every African kid, if you start playing basketball, its the first thing in your mind: I want to come to the United States. That’s it. That’s what you think. So as soon I started playing basketball, I said: ‘One day, I want to come here.’
“As soon as I got the opportunity, I said: ‘I know exactly why I’m here. I don’t want to let it go.’ ”
The tip came in the early months of 2011. Well, in hindsight, you could call it a tip. But at the time, Tidiane Drame says, it was more like a request.
That year, Drame had arrived home in Bamako, Mali, for his fifth annual summer basketball camp. Standing 5 feet 11 with roundish cheeks and a friendly smile, Drame hardly looks the part of a serious basketball coach or scout. He never played the sport at a high level. He was introduced to the sport like most African kids, by watching the NBA in the late 80s and early 90s. But in 2007, he had launched a summer basketball camp as part of a broader mission to help kids in his native country.
The son of a Malian mother and a Guinean diplomat, Drame grew up in an affluent family that carried plenty of weight in West Africa. (“People know my father,” Drame says, before declining to reveal his father’s first name.). In the mid 1990s, when Drame was in his early 20s, he came to America to finish a college degree at Mercer University in Atlanta. The American education would open doors, and Drame would eventually settle in northern California, falling in love with Michael Jordan and the game of basketball.
When Drame hit his mid 30s, he began looking for a way to give back to his homeland. The result would become the Mali Hope Foundation, an after-school program that would, in part, provide school supplies and tutoring sessions to impoverished kids in Mali. Well, that was one phase of the plan. The other part would incorporate a basketball academy to the after-school academic help. There would be an annual camp, the one started in 2007, and an opportunity to scout some of the best local players in Mali.
“That’s how the whole thing started,” Drame says.
In the beginning, Drame says, the goal wasn’t to mine the country for future basketball stars. But in a country of 14 million people, yes, there were young boys and girls with basketball skills and athletic potential. There were kids, in other words, who could use basketball to pay for an American education.
“In Mali, we have a lot of private schools,” Drame said. “But if your family doesn’t have the money to send you to private school, you’re going to be left behind.”
By the summer of 2011, Drame was prepping for another camp. In grassroots basketball circles, Drame had become known as the “King of Mali,” a man with an instinct for finding players. He scored a sponsorship from Under Armour and enlisted American high school coaches to travel to Africa and teach fundamentals. As the camp loomed, his uncle approached him with the name of his best friend’s 14-year-old son.
Cheick Diallo was tall and raw. Drame remembers his slight frame and his awkward movements, like somebody fumbling around in the darkness. From the start, Drame says, helping Cheick felt like helping a family member. And, well, the kid did have some size.
“I watched him a little bit,” Drame says. “And I invited him the next day to my camp.”
In the months after attending Drame’s camp, Cheick Diallo sat down with his parents, Mamadou and Ramata, for a family discussion. Drame had broached the idea of sending Diallo to an American high school. The family, Diallo says, was split about sending their youngest son halfway across the world.
“I’m the baby of the my family,” Diallo says. “So my mom said, ‘No, Cheick.’ I don’t want you to go to the United States. I said: ‘No, everything will be fine.’ She said, ‘No, I don’t want you to go.’
“But my dad said, ‘Cheick you gotta go.’ ”
Years earlier, Mamadou Diallo, 6-foot-4 with the body of an athlete, had been a competitive handball player in Mali. He had settled in Kayes, a important transport hub in West Africa, and found work at a local utilities company, dealing with the local water supply. The family would eventually grow to include five boys, who on most days could be found playing soccer at a local field.
“Wake up, eat breakfast, go play soccer all day,” says Diallo, who idolized German midfielder Michael Ballack.
By 2010, though, Mamadou Diallo began to worry. His son was growing, closing in on 6-3 at age 13, and soccer was no sport for a giant. Madamou came to his Cheick with an idea:
“OK, Cheick,” Mamadou said. “You need to choose new sport. You’re getting too tall.”
In Mali, basketball has long had an intriguing relationship with the populace. In the 1990s and 2000s, the women’s national team solidified itself as an African power — so much so, in fact, that Diallo associated the sport with women as a child.
In Africa, though, soccer remains king; basketball is a growing sport, the fuse lit by the globalization of the NBA, a proliferation of media and the Internet. As a boy, Diallo remembers staying up late, watching live NBA games that came on at 1 a.m. In Mali, Diallo says, Michael Jordan remains a household name, even if younger players today were barely alive when he retired for the final time in 2003.
“I didn’t really know who was Michael Jordan,” Diallo says. “But as soon as I started playing basketball, I said: ‘Wow, that’s Michael Jordan? I want to be like him.’ ”
By the winter of 2012, Diallo had been playing basketball for nearly two years. The transfer to Our Savior New American, in Centereach, N.Y., a hamlet about 60 miles east of New York City, was set.
In a matter of months, he would be in America. As Diallo pondered his future, he spoke to his parents in his native language, Bambara. At school, he would speak French. At other times, he was exposed to a collection of other tribal languages.
Well, Diallo thought, I guess it’s time to learn English.
“Damn, can I go back?”
In the spring of 2012, Tidiane Drame picked up a phone and heard a teenager’s voice on the other end. It was Cheick. He was crying.
Diallo had been living in New York for a few months with his host parents, Mike and Cathy Fortunato, a couple in Coram, not far from school. After arriving in February, he joined the basketball team, but played less than one minute per game as a freshman. Diallo enrolled in hours of English-as-a-second-language courses, but for months he lacked the ability to converse with others. The semester was isolating.
He imagined returning home to Mali. He toted a cell phone with him everywhere, using Google Translate to help him survive the day.
“I just wanted people to know exactly what I want to say,” Diallo says. “But it’s hard.”
As Drame listened to Diallo’s frustration, he could relate. Years earlier, he had come to America and experienced the same feelings of isolation. You want to fit in, Drame explained, but you are different.
“No,” Drame told Diallo, “you cannot go back.”
Diallo found other ways to cope. He would speak French with his foreign teammates. To help learn English, he listened to American rap music — Lil Wayne and Kanye West — and watched American movies. He particularly liked “The Blind Side,” the story of Michael Oher, a top high school football recruit who is taken in by an affluent family. A few years later, a KU staffer would ask Diallo to name his favorite American sports movies.
“The one with ‘Big Mike,’ ” Diallo responded.
Diallo also would spend hours inside the gym. He was mesmerized by the sight and feel of real snow. (“Just like on TV,” he says.) He found an older mentor in teammate Chris Obekpa, a shot-blocking center from Nigeria who would sign with St. John’s.
During his first month on the team, Diallo says, he’d match up against Obekpa during practices and one-on-one scrimmages.
“I thought I was really good,” Diallo says. “But I was not. Every shot I took is blocked. Everything is blocked.”
Diallo was a blank canvas. Obekpa was the model. Diallo watched Obekpa play defense, imagining moves that would work, then trying them out during practice.
“I was watching him every day,” Diallo says. “That’s what I got to do.”
In the summers, Diallo began playing for Team Scan, a Nike-sponsored AAU program based in New York City. The experience expedited his growth.
“He has a motor that you might see once in a lifetime,” says Terrance “Munch” Williams, the head coach of what is now known as the PSA Cardinals organization.
By his sophomore season, Drame realized his expectations for Diallo were evolving. One night, Drame phoned Diallo, who had been stressing about a high school course and staying up until close to 2 or 3 a.m. to study.
“Cheick,” Drame told him, “you have to sleep.”
“I said, ‘This kid works so hard,’” Drame says now.
In the weeks after arriving in Lawrence last summer, Cheick Diallo headed off campus and slipped inside The Salty Iguana, a Mexican restaurant on the west edge of town.
Even after three years in America, Diallo had never taken a liking to traditional fast food. Too much salt. So as Diallo dined with some KU staffers, he asked for a specialty order: A plate with just steak and rice, piled high. Lots of steak and rice.
Around the KU basketball offices, the meal became known as the “Triple Diallo,” a staple of his first summer in Lawrence, a “Cheick story” that soon joined a list of others. When Diallo arrived on the KU campus, the rest of the Kansas basketball program was in South Korea for the World University Games. It was a quiet introduction to college, and Diallo passed the time by working out with strength coach Andrea Hudy and enrolling in summer classes. On most days, he camped out with KU’s academic staff. One Saturday, Diallo says, he called a tutor, asking if they could meet.
“No, Cheick,” the tutor said, “It’s Saturday. Take the day off.”
“He’s one of the best role models we’ve had,” Self says, “because nobody — nobody since I’ve been here, for 13 years — tries harder academically than he does. Nobody.”
The last part is perhaps a little ironic. It was a review of Diallo’s academics, of course, that delayed the start of his freshman season. To Diallo, the whole process is still confusing. His high school was under review by the NCAA, but what did that have to do with him? He still did the work. And then the NCAA suspended him five games for accepting “extra benefits” from Drame, his legal guardian.
“I’m kind of mad …” Diallo says. “I don’t even know what I did.”
On a Tuesday in December, Tidiane Drame sat inside a quiet coffee shop in Lawrence. In six hours, Diallo finally would make his college debut. Drame would take his seat in Allen Fieldhouse and watch Diallo score 13 points and grab six rebounds against Loyola (Md.).
Drame had come from his home in Richmond, Calif., to check in on Diallo, and Drame was still steaming over the NCAA’s decision to suspend Diallo for purportedly taking extra benefits.
During the investigation, the NCAA had labeled Drame as an “agent,” questioning his relationship with Diallo and other players he has helped bring to the United States, including St. John’s freshman Kassoum Yakwe, who also attended Our Savior New American. The benefits in question — which led to Diallo’s five-game suspension — came in the weeks before Drame officially became Diallo’s guardian. According to Drame, they included payment of a cell-phone bill, a trip to Wal-Mart and some travel expenses. The total: $165.
Drame insists that his motives are pure, that he started his foundation to help kids, that nobody from the NCAA was all that suspicious when the players he helped ended up at junior college or the low Division I level.
“I’ve been doing that for (almost) a decade,” Drame said, speaking of his foundation. “Do you think I would wait a decade for someone to go pro? I might be the worst businessman in the world. That’s ridiculous.”
The day after his debut, Cheick Diallo was back inside the players’ lounge in the Kansas locker room, relaxing in a recliner. He pulled out his cell phone: There was something he wanted to share.
During the next four months, Diallo could become the linchpin member of this Kansas team, the most complete Jayhawks squad in five years. He could grow into the rim protector that Self covets, the defensive anchor that Kansas needs, the inside presence this program has been missing for the last two seasons.
If all goes as planned, Diallo will help the Jayhawks to the Final Four in April and then ponder a jump to the NBA Draft. Already, he says, people ask him when he will leave. For now, he is not sure.
“In my opinion,” Diallo says. “I don’t really think about whether I want to stay here for two or three years, because in my opinion, maximum is two. Maximum. I’m not going to stay here for three.”
That’s the future, though. This is the present. Diallo holds up his cell phone and pulls up his Twitter account. He wants to show you the words on his bio.
“Don’t ever forget where you come from,” he reads aloud, He speaks softly, with his high-pitched accent punctuating the sentence.
Sometimes people ask why he plays so hard, Diallo says, why he shows up early for tutoring sessions, why he texts his head coach late at night, asking for advice. Sometimes, Diallo says, he will say he does not know the answer. This is just who he is. But that’s not totally true.
The real answer begins with a skinny teenager, standing on a curb, preparing to board a plane in Bamako. When you come from where he came from, Diallo says, when you have a chance to dream, you don’t want to let it go.
“Don’t ever forget where you come from,” he says. “That’s it. Don’t ever forget where you come from. That’s the key. That’s my mind. I don’t want to forget where I come from.”