Kamau Stokes and Carlbe Ervin took turns praising Kansas State freshman guard Cartier Diarra for his strength and athleticism on Tuesday. If he continues to run, jump and shoot the way he has during his short time on campus, they think he could be a significant contributor in his first season.
Together, they had myriad compliments for their new teammate, and they happily shared them until someone mentioned Diarra’s dancing background.
Just like that, the conversation took an abrupt turn.
“I haven’t seen him do that,” said Stokes, a sophomore point guard.
“I think he was a ballet dancer,” replied Ervin, a senior point guard. “Something like that.”
“For real?” said Stokes. “I am going to have to ask him about that.”
No one on K-State’s basketball roster has seen Diarra dance, and that’s a shame, because he is by far the most qualified member of the team to lead a pregame or postgame boogie. He could probably choreograph the halftime routine, too.
Like many college basketball players, Diarra grew up as a two-sport athlete. But his second sport wasn’t football or baseball. It was dance. Before his sophomore year of high school, Diarra dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. Living in New York, he spent much of his free time on stage. He was so into dance that he wanted to attend an arts college and make dance a career.
“I did all types of dance,” Diarra says now. “Ballet, tap, African, jazz, techno … everything.”
But professional dancing couldn’t provide the same thrill as basketball. Diarra realized that when he watched his middle school team play a game at Madison Square Garden.
He was blown away by the intensity of the game and the way fans hung on every play.
“I just fell in love with basketball,” Diarra said. “… I just wanted to be in that position. I wanted to be on the floor and play. That next year, my ninth grade year, I started working on my game. I just had a natural talent for it.”
Diarra flashed so much talent so quickly that he decided to give up his dancing dreams and go all-in with basketball. The 6-foot-4, 185-pounder was so committed to basketball that he moved to Florence, S.C. and began playing his first competitive games as a high school sophomore.
“I don’t dance anymore,” Diarra said. “I just play basketball.”
Within a year, college basketball coaches started to recruit him. A year after that, K-State coach Bruce Weber offered him a scholarship and Diarra accepted.
Few major schools showed interest in Diarra because of his limited experience on the basketball court. So his signing was not met with fanfare from recruiting experts. But Weber thinks the Wildcats found a gem.
“His junior year is when he really started to get into it,” Weber said. “He didn’t play AAU, so he never got on the radar. He’s a very physically gifted basketball player and he has a chip on his shoulder. He wants to get better. I think we were very fortunate to get a player of his caliber.”
Diarra impressed during practice on Tuesday by making crisp passes and throwing down a dunk in transition. He still has much to learn about the game, but his raw skills are undeniable. His footwork, as you might expect, is strong.
He turned heads earlier this month by posting a 43-inch vertical leap and bench-pressing 185 pounds nine times, the most of any K-State freshman in recent memory.
“To put that in perspective, when Kevin Durant came out of Texas he did zero,” Weber said of the weight-lifting drill. “This is a freshman that has a lot of physical ability. He can get to the basket and he’s not a bad shooter. He just needs to get a little more consistent.”
The learning curve may be difficult as Diarra adjusts to basketball at K-State. After all, he has only played organized games for three years. But he is ready for the journey.
This is what he quit dancing for.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett