Rock Chalk Weekly: Breaking Barriers

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Download the app:Written by Shelby Blankenbaker, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant

The first thing he will you tell you is that he is here for two things – school and basketball. And he is not exaggerating. Freshman forward Cheick Diallo is known for his seriousness and dead-set determination to do the best he can on-and-off the court. Diallo said this drive and motivation derives from where he grew up and the way he was raised.
“In my country, whatever you are doing it is 100 percent serious because it is your life and you don’t want to mess it up. That’s why whatever I’m doing, I do it 100 percent,” Diallo explained.
Diallo’s journey to the United States, and ultimately to Allen Fieldhouse, has not been without its bumps along the way. But it is Diallo’s tenacity and fight to achieve his goals that has allowed him to break those barriers. That, and his undying love for basketball, keep him going and have gotten him where he is today.
He remembers the exact day: February 14, 2012. It was Valentine’s Day. The day Diallo landed in what would be his new home, Long Island, New York, United States of America. At the ripe age of 15, Diallo was outfitted with a just a backpack.
“It was my dream a long time ago to come to the U.S., and play basketball. I knew I wanted to come here someday but it was just figuring out how to make it,” Diallo said.
The Physical Barrier
Making it across the ocean to the U.S. is one of the most difficult aspects for young African kids with dreams of an education and a better life. Not only was Diallo leaving his family, his friends and his culture, but everything he knew and loved about Africa would now just be a memory, frozen in time. For Diallo, he knew what he had to do since few African kids are given the opportunity, he had to take it.
No one ever pushed Diallo to pick up sports and the only sport he ever toyed with was soccer. Soccer was a way to pass the time between school and dinner and dinner and homework. It was a chance to get outside and run off some energy with the other village kids. Diallo never thought to take soccer seriously. It was not until he began getting taller as a young adolescent that his dad began coaxing him to practice basketball every day with the help of a new pair of sneakers.
“In the beginning, I didn’t really like basketball. I thought I was wasting my time for no reason,” Diallo admitted. “When you’re young, you don’t know anything, you just keep doing it and pretend like you like it. I only liked soccer, I didn’t really like basketball because in my country basketball is not popular. Soccer is popular. I wasn’t even focused on playing basketball until I started getting better, then I took it more seriously.”
Diallo’s 6-foot-9 stature and incredible length could not stay hidden for long. By 2011, Diallo was suiting up for his national basketball team after picking up the sport just a few years earlier. Tidiane Drame, a Mali-American recruiter, caught interest and invited Diallo to attend his camp held in Mali called Mali Hoop Camp. Drame noticed Diallo’s organic athleticism and the spark of energy he brought to the court and thought Diallo could be very successful playing in America.
“I do a basketball camp every year. What stood out to me about Cheick was that he was a great kid. You could see he was someone who had so much talent and was very athletic. He was running the floor so well,” Drame remembered.
Drame spoke to Diallo’s parents after the camp, specifically to his father who was interested in the opportunity his son might have abroad. Drame laid out the process, explaining how relatively seamless it would be to find Diallo a school and a host family to reside with. The only thing his family would be responsible for was filling out the documentation and applying for a visa. Diallo’s father was sold on the opportunity to provide for his son.
The hardest part for Diallo was the idea of leaving his family. Diallo grew up with four older brothers – all differing in interests. Diallo was the family’s trailblazer in the sport of basketball, but that didn’t stop his mother from not wanting to let her baby go.
“In the beginning my mom didn’t want me to go, but at the same time my dad was always encouraging me to take the opportunity. I was kind of scared and nervous,” Diallo said. “I kept going back-and-forth. I didn’t know if I wanted to come. I wanted to stay home. But I also knew I had a dream and knew I could make it. So I thought, okay I’m coming.” 
Deciding to want to come to the U.S. was one thing, but actually getting there was another. It wasn’t like Diallo could just purchase a plane ticket and arrive on American soil. It was a process. A process that included some things in life you don’t want to do, but you have to, so you just do it. The Mali native admitted that it took a lot of hard work every day on his part and the support of the people who care about him most.
“All African kids have the dream to come to the United States to play basketball or go to school,” Diallo reiterated.
However, only a small percentage are given the opportunity. Diallo will be the first to admit that coming to the United States is no easy task. Besides the hardships of leaving his family and all that he knew, there were the logistics.
The Malian Barrier
According to Diallo, obtaining a visa was one of the most time-consuming portions of the process. He said it took over two months to finally get the visa he applied for. He would visit the American Embassy in Mali multiple times a week just to get turned down time and time again. With great perseverance and basketball on his mind, Diallo was finally granted a five-year visa.
There was another barrier on the rise threatening to hold Diallo back. His country was at war, making it nearly impossible for Diallo to leave. Diallo explained that if he would have waited as little as two more weeks to leave, he may not have been able to come to the United States at all.
The Northern Mali Conflict, also referred to as the Malian Civil War, began in January of 2012 just as Diallo was planning to leave. The war ensued when several insurgent groups began fighting a campaign for greater independence in the north from the Malian government. Several other foreign countries were involved in the matter and supplied troops and cargo planes. The conflict in Diallo’s home country threatened to keep him from leaving because of the danger and severity of the conflict.
With the help of his American connection and future mentor, Drame, Diallo would finally make the trip to America. Diallo vividly remembers landing in Long Island, New York and immediately starting his new life with his host family. Shortly after his arrival, he would begin American high school.
“Cheick’s high school has a very good international program. It provides resources for African kids. Most of the kids from his school come from West Africa, so they are used to having African kids there,” Drame said.
The Language Barrier
Our Savior New American School is a K-12 private Christian school located in Centereach, New York on Long Island. The school is known for its international program and was to be the new stage that Diallo would demonstrate his talents on.
However, high school would come with barriers of its own. Diallo admitted that he felt very isolated his freshman year. Not only because he was from another country and did not know anybody, but because of a different barrier that he had not accounted for – the language barrier.
“In the beginning, it was hard for me to speak English because English was my fourth language. It was very, very hard. Sometimes I would think that I couldn’t do it and I wanted to quit,” Diallo explained. “English is totally different. I just had to push myself every day to speak it. Even if people didn’t know what I was saying, I was just forced to try and say it.”
Although Diallo could speak three different languages, English presented new struggles for the Malian. Diallo’s household alone spoke two different languages, Bambara – which is typically spoken in Mali – and a tribal language his mother frequently used. In school, Diallo was taught in French. English would be the fourth language Diallo would become fluent in with the help of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes that his high school provided.
Diallo would attend ESL classes at least once a day, sometimes even twice-a-day to get more comfortable using English in and outside of the classroom. In the summers of his freshman and sophomore years, Diallo would take summer school. Although classes helped, Diallo claims that basketball was the key to his success.
“I knew basketball stuff like the terminology, but I didn’t know the way you talked to people. I would ask my teammates what things meant and they would explain it to me,” Diallo said.
Diallo explained that basketball was a universal language itself that everyone could understand no matter where they came from. Playing basketball was a way for an isolated Malian boy to feel a part of something and develop a purpose for himself to be in the United States.
As Diallo became more familiar with the culture and language of the U.S., he could focus more on the reason he was here – to play basketball. However, the barrier of being almost completely new to the game was something he would have to overcome.
Diallo’s freshman year of high school was not how he pictured it. He wasn’t seeing the minutes he expected and was still learning how to take his athleticism and produce results in the game. Diallo only had a couple years of competitive basketball under his belt, unlike most of his teammates who had been playing since they were in grade school.
Just as this barrier presented itself, Diallo was determined to take on the challenge by working harder to get better to reach his goal of playing at the collegiate level. With the help of his Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and high school coaches, he was able to fine-tune his skills, becoming a raw big man known for his shot-blocking, rebounding and natural athleticism.
Overcoming Barriers
By his sophomore year, Diallo was invited to attend NBA’s Top 100 Camp in Virginia where he showcased his skills and earned himself Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors. Diallo credits this camp for the role it played in publicizing his talents and helping him get discovered. By his senior year, Diallo earned spots on the McDonald’s All-American team and on the East team for the Jordan Brand Classic held in Brooklyn, both of which he secured MVP accolades in. ranked Diallo as a five-star player and No. 5 among his 2015 recruiting class. Kansas head coach Bill Self was immediately intrigued by Diallo’s vitality on the court.
“What initially stood out about Cheick was how hard he played, and his energy level was always superior to everybody he played against,” Self said.
Diallo was not locked-in to attending KU until he visited campus. What really sealed the deal for Diallo was the environment that Kansas basketball fosters. Diallo explained that at Kansas he felt like people surrounded him and cared about him as a person, not just as a point-producing basketball player. He says since choosing Kansas, he has never looked back.
“In the beginning, I wasn’t even thinking about coming here. I was thinking to myself, ‘do I want to come to KU?’ At the end of the day though, you have to choose the best school for you. So I chose KU because a lot of big men come here to play. I picked KU because I trust Bill Self, and I think he can help me get to the next level,” Diallo clarified.
Coming to Kansas was difficult for Diallo at first. He said that playing for a whole new team when you are the novice is difficult, on top of balancing practice and class. But Diallo believes that he has adapted well in the classroom and managed to learn how to compete at the collegiate level. He has used his teammates and coaches as a home away from home and is becoming more comfortable in his role with the team.
“I think he’s adapted well to Kansas. He’s adapted well to school. He’s very responsible and driven. I think the only thing that hasn’t happened well for Cheick, and he would be the first one to tell you, is that he hasn’t played as much as he thought he would or what we thought he would. But it’s certainly not from a lack of attitude or effort,” Self reasoned. “He’s just a little bit behind in some areas that he’ll catch up on and get the last laugh. The biggest thing that he wants is to be great. He’s always reaching out to ask and to try and learn how to become better and how to be more prepared.”
Despite the lack of minutes Diallo is seeing on the floor, he is making a difference in other facets of the game. Coach Self speaks highly of Diallo’s high energy that he brings off the bench to impact the game, as well as his authentic athletic ability on defense. Diallo’s highlight of his rookie season has been his first start for the Jayhawks against Loyola, Maryland where he contributed a career-high 13 points, shooting 6-8 from the floor.
“I’m not done yet. I know my journey is to keep moving, but I still have to keep working every day,” Diallo summed up.
And work he will, while giving it 100 percent. 
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