Cheick Diallo hated basketball. He can admit that now. The sport seemed foreign, he says, the movements were new and awkward. In his home country of Mali, where Diallo grew up in the capital city of Bamako, young women excelled at basketball, Diallo says. Young men played soccer.
Diallo was one of those boys, a lanky defender who could run all day. Diallo, though, didn’t stop growing, which presented a problem. So five years ago, when Mamadou Diallo asked his 6-foot-5 teenage son to give basketball a shot, Diallo tried the sport for two weeks. Then he contemplated quitting.
“I just (felt) like: ‘I’m not getting better,’ ” Diallo says. “I just talked to myself one day. I need to do it. I need to play basketball. I need to take it seriously (for) my dad. … He’s wasting his money for no reason.”
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Five years later, as Diallo sits inside Allen Fieldhouse on a Thursday afternoon, no one would dare question his love for the game. He stands 6 feet 9, a McDonald’s All-American forward with an engine that runs like a Dodge Challenger Hellcat. He came to the United States to pursue the sport, spent three seasons at a high school in New York, and now he sits here at Kansas, a missing piece on a team with Final Four aspirations.
“I can’t wait,” Diallo says, thinking ahead to Kansas’ Late Night in the Phog later this month.
No, the question is not about desire or love. It’s a lot more simple than that. As we stand here right now, nobody knows whether Diallo will be allowed to play this year. As of Thursday, the NCAA Eligibility Center had yet to grant Diallo academic clearance. He has been granted permission to practice, but that’s it for now. Kansas coach Bill Self believes a decision will come “before the season starts,” but for the moment, the Diallo Watch continues.
“I don’t want to say anything — like bad stuff now,” Diallo says, when asked how it would feel to miss the season. “That’s why I say I don’t want to talk about it. But I just want to play this year. I want to play.”
For Self and Kansas, which begins practice Friday and held its media day Thursday, the Diallo question is the two-ton anchor dragging behind an otherwise tip-top vessel. The Jayhawks appear to be Final Four contenders again, returning the bulk of the roster from a team that won an 11th straight Big 12 title and spent much of last year in the top 10. Perry Ellis is a senior forward who Self expects to play at an “All-American type level.” Junior guards Frank Mason and Wayne Selden return after carrying KU to gold at the World University Games last summer. And a slew of complementary players — Svi Mykhailiuk, Devonte’ Graham and Landen Lucas — are a year older.
“I think we’re deeper than what we have been,” Self says.
In Diallo, a consensus top-five recruit, Self believed he had landed the perfect yin for Ellis’ yang — a high-energy big man who could run the floor and clean the glass. Diallo isn’t quite Joel Embiid, the former 7-footer with preternatural skills in the paint. But their backgrounds are similar enough that they’ve become text friends in recent years.
“He’s got a motor,” Self says. “But he doesn’t know how to play yet. He’ll give us things from an intangible standpoint. He’ll change the culture of practice because he’ll play so hard.”
For now, though, every sentence comes with a caveat, and Kansas is trying to move along. Diallo will practice. He will prepare for the season. On Thursday, he dressed in a white Kansas uniform and took his spot in the back during the official team photo. Even in moments like this, Self says, you can see Diallo’s gifts: the 7-foot-5 wing span; the body that looks like it was born to run and block shots.
“He’ll do things that won’t show up in the stats sheet,” Self says.
Self still believes that Diallo can be an instant-impact player like Embiid. But for now he is dealing with more NCAA uncertainty.
“It’s time-consuming, and it is frustrating,” Self said. “But it’s not as much frustration for us as it is for the individual — the kid. You stop and think about an 18-year-old kid that comes from Africa and (has) been here for three and a half years and does what he’s asked to do.”
On Thursday, Self revealed little new information in Diallo’s ongoing case, which stems from his time at Our Savior New American, a private school in Centereach, N.Y. that has been subject to an NCAA review.
Self said Kansas is still “gathering and presenting stuff” to the NCAA, which is one reason the timeline is fluid. There can’t be a resolution, Self says, if all the information isn’t present. Maybe that’s encouraging for Kansas fans to hear. Maybe not. For now, though, Self continues to hold out hope that Diallo can do what he wants to do: Play.
“We’re hopeful, obviously, but we’ll get a fair ruling on it,” Self said. “But this one is a little unique in its own way, because it’s a very unique situation when you’re dealing with someone like Cheick that’s basically totally naive to everything going on around him.
“It’s a little bit hard for him to understand exactly what’s going on.”