Pelicans' Cheick Diallo a 'warrior' for hoops in Mali

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It's the spring of 2010 in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and Tidiane Drame is awestruck. He is watching Cheick Diallo, a tall, lanky but highly athletic 14-year-old, trying to grasp the mechanics of basketball.

It's been a mere two years since Cheick's father, Mamado, implored his son to abandon soccer for basketball, sensing that basketball could deliver his wiry, growing son to unforeseen heights.

It was a hard sell at first. "Uh, why are we using hands?" Cheick would ask, longing for the soccer field.

One day, his cleats mysteriously disappeared and replaced by a new pair of Nike basketball shoes. As it turns out, soccer -- the first sport Hakeem Olajuwon played, the game Kobe Bryant picked up to give him an on-court edge - served as early training for his basketball skills.

"I had footwork, I was quick. Everything was smooth, but I just didn't know to pass or shoot," Diallo, now a power forward with New Orleans, tells ESPN.

Soccer helped kickstart a journey of rapid development - a journey that would take him from his hometown of Kayes, to the capital of Mali, then to Long Island, New York, and turn him into the second player from Mali to reach the NBA.

That day in 2010, Drame, the founder of the Mali Hope Foundation, sensed in Diallo he had something special. He couldn't have known, however, that he was staring at the future of his country's basketball program -- a symbol of hope for a generation of Malian children.

But first, Diallo had to learn what "towel" meant.


The drive from Bamako to Kayes is 400 miles, a trek Drame makes only to find a tougher obstacle waiting at the door of the Diallo family.

Drame tells Diallo's father, and his mother Ramata, that a friend of his is a coach at Our Savior New American High School in Long Beach, Calif. The scholarship forms are already filled out. All they have to do is sign off on allowing their son to trek halfway across the world.

He will live with a host family they've never met, in pursuit of a sport that only recently entered the vocabulary of most Malians.

Understandably, they're reluctant. But to Diallo's father, a utility worker who scrimped and saved for that pair of Nikes, the proposition also comes as a sign that he was right to push his son -- vindication for taking what was less than a puncher's chance.

Drame convinces them their son will be in safe hands. In mere months, Cheick stands outside of JFK International Airport, all of 15 years old, dropped halfway across the globe in the dead of winter, shivering and alone, in a country where he has no grasp of the language.

"To be honest," Diallo recalls, "I had no idea what I was doing. Why basketball? Why [is it] everything?"

Brief phone calls between him and Drame become a daily habit, not only for the vital comfort of communication, but so that he can vent. Every time they talk, Cheick tells Drame he wants to go home. And every time Drame tells him if he believes in himself, it will all work out.

"I was depressed," Diallo admits. "If you don't speak English, you can't play basketball. You don't know the plays. You don't know how to communicate with your teammates. If I don't speak English, that means I cannot reach my goal."

He spent two summers taking English as a Second Language classes. When he wasn't cracking open a book or hitting the gym, Diallo turned to Facebook messenger groups and phone calls with his family. He grew closer to his host family, Mike and Cathy Fortunado, as they walked him through even the simplest of creature comforts - comforts found in the U.S., but rarely in Mali.

"Sometimes I think about it," he laughs. "I didn't even know what a towel was, you know what I mean?"

On the court, a few of Diallo's Our Savior teammates become his unofficial translators. Kassoum Yakwe, another Malian player, and Felix Balamou, from Guinea, fluent in both French and Bambara, help Diallo mine the depths of the game.

In time, he carves out a space for himself as the team's "Energizer Bunny." Diallo begins to believe he belongs in this sport.

"When he got that confidence, it was over," Drame said.

By 2015, his basketball acumen catches up with his physical skills, and Diallo hustles, hop-steps and spins his way to the MVP award in the McDonald's All-American game. He inches ahead of his American, AAU-bred competition to become the first African-born player in history to take home the award. On the sidelines, Drame's eyes overflow with tears.

After a season at Kansas, Diallo declares for the 2016 NBA draft. Considered a wiry clone of Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried, Diallo is taken with the 33rd pick overall by the LA Clippers and immediately traded to the New Orleans Pelicans.

"For him there's no joke," Drame says as he reflects on Diallo's rise. "He took everything seriously, like it's the last day of his life. If you watch him play, he never gives up. He never stops.

"He's a warrior."

It's May 3, 2017, and for the first time since making it to the NBA, Diallo returns to his homeland.

He once again makes the 400-mile trek between Bamako and Kayes to see his family but this time he's not alone. A crowd of his fellow countrymen are there to greet him -- a congregation of esteemed elders, young mothers, teenagers, pack up on the back up pick-up trucks and sedans, buses filled to the brim, followed by motorcycles, carrying signs with Diallo donning his Pelicans jersey that read "Bienvenue A Kayes Cheick Diallo."

Like a movie star, Diallo pops through the sunroof of the SUV he's travelling in and touches the hands of as many Malian children as he can, posing for pictures while passing by. When he arrives in Kayes, there are more than 10,000 fans there to greet him. Downtown, a ceremonial parade is being held in his honor. Even the Malian ambassador to the United States is invited.

"It's totally different now." Diallo says. "It feels like I'm not a normal person no more when I go back there. People follow you everywhere you go."

The Mali Hope Foundation, founded in 2007 by Drame, is an afterschool program for kids in Guinea and Mali. Its annual basketball camp -- where Diallo was originally discovered -- is run by four former stateside high school coaches, Jason McHan, Brandon Cole, Danny Doyle, and Taj Hawkins.

In the past decade, over 100 children have been taken off the streets of Mali and given stability, resources, and a sense of opportunity.

"[The Foundation makes] a difference in people's lives," Drame says. "We give an opportunity to a lot of kids who have no shot at going to school."

Along with other afterschool programs that have sprung up in Mali over the past few decades, the Foundation has helped raise scholarship money to send children from impoverished families to some of Mali's most elite private schools. Some have even gained scholarships to study in the United States.

To be sure, the infrastructure for basketball to grow remains woefully inadequate. Balls and shoes are in perpetually high demand, while the outdoor courts where Diallo cut his teeth remain the only place for young Malian players to hone their jumper.

"That's my second dream," says Diallo. "Trying to give back to my country. If God blesses you, you have to bless the people back home. Everybody can't have the opportunity that I do, so I have to give back."

On his visit to Mali, Diallo brought a trove of socks, sneakers and balls. But what he really gives them is more intangible. It's what Diallo's father was able to envision so many years ago. He is the physical personification of the notion Drame tries so desperately to sell to Malian youth, that having a dream isn't naive.