View from the Top

Kevin Love is the only member of the Cavaliers still remaining from the team’s thrilling NBA title run back in 2016. But he’s not the only Champion on the current roster. 

The team’s other Champion is reserve forward Mamade Diakite. 

The difference between the two is that Diakite has won the Whole Enchilada thrice ­in the last half-decade – winning the NCAA title with Virginia in 2019 and then, after going undrafted the following June, signing a two-way deal with Milwaukee, where he proceeded to win the G-League championship with the Lakeland Magic followed by the 2021 NBA Championship later that summer with the Bucks.

After spending last year with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the 6-9, 225-pounder inked a free agent deal with the Wine & Gold this past September. And after seeing sparse action through the first month-and-a-half of the season, Diakite has found his way to the floor in each of the last four games – including a stellar start against Joel Embiid and the Sixers that won him the coveted Junkyard Dog Chain last week. 

The native Guinean – who relocated to the States as a teen and played high school hoops in Virginia – hasn’t piled up many noteworthy numbers through his first three seasons in the league – averaging 3.3ppg in 38 total appearances with six starts. He’s tallied double-figures just three times in his NBA career, with a high-water mark of 13 points against the Bulls in May of 2021. 

But you won’t find a more interesting NBA player – an intelligent, strong-willed, tough-minded 25-year-old who’s willing to do whatever it takes to win. Every successful roster needs a player like Mamade Diakite – someone who’s been to the mountaintop and knows how to get there. 

As the Wine & Gold prepare for a weekend back-to-back at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Cavs.com caught up with the affable big man …

Going back to the very start, you moved to this country as a young man unable to even speak the language. What were those first few years like for you?  

Mamade Diakite: It wasn’t easy. It was a big cultural shock. But everything is about your ability to push, to be resilient, to get what you want. 

I wanted to learn the language and I also wanted to be in the NBA and do so many things. Well, you can’t get there if you can’t communicate with your peers. They didn’t know what kind of person I was. So, I dove into (the language) and I got closer to my teammates as friends in high school and they introduced me to the American world a little bit – both good and bad. I tried to keep the good stuff. 

And then going to college was another cultural shock. But with every step up, you have to start at zero. And being ok with that will get you very far – beyond what you even expected. 

What went into the decision to relocate to the States?  

Diakite: My dad and my mom are both physicians, and they got to travel a lot. So, my dad came here in, I believe, 2013. And he realized that in America, everybody gets a fair shot to become successful – especially if you work really hard. 

So, knowing me, I love to really work really hard. I don’t back down from anything. I like challenges – 24/7, I’m ready. So, he thought it would be a great situation to get me here. 

I didn’t want to leave France and the rest of my family, but last minute I picked up basketball – and that was it!

Aside from its success on the floor, Virginia basketball has produced a lot of solid pros to the NBA. What makes the program unique?  

Diakite: First, they care about basketball, but mostly, they care about you as an individual. 

Coach Bennett makes sure that, if you came in as a little boy, to turn you into a man before you leave college. He teaches you things about life that can lead you further than you could imagine. But you have to buy into it. You have to invest in it. 

They tell you: Number one, you have to be patient; you have to do exactly what they ask you to do. But they also promise you: At the end of this, you will be successful. 

So, it wasn’t just basketball. I mean, yes, I loved his system. But it was more educational. Coach Bennett’s education system was great – and I bought into it. The basketball stuff took care of itself. But that dude changed my life. 

After (last week’s) game against Joel Embiid, I called him, and I thanked him for what he did for me. Because he tells all his players before they leave: ‘Hopefully, down the road, you will realize why we were so hard on you while you were here. We’re not going to take it easy on you. We’re going to turn you into the animal you’re supposed to be.’ 

Having won titles at so many different levels, in your opinion, what does it take to become a Champion?  

Diakite: There’s one you have to realize as a player: You may work as anybody and still not get the end goal. 

So, all those people who got to the Finals, they all worked really hard – but there’s only one gets to win. So, maybe it goes BEYOND working hard. Hard work is something you have to do in this situation. But maybe it goes beyond that. That’s what I see. 

I see the things that I was taught in college, such as: Be humble, have humility. 

I was taught: Serve each other. How do you serve each other? Maybe it’s me turning down a good shot to get you a better shot. I turn a good shot into a great shot, and that might be the reason why we win. Defensively, I have your back, you have my back. 

Unity. You have to be united. That doesn’t mean I have to be at your house every night. But I have to approach you in such a way that you are comfortable around me and I’m comfortable around you. We have each other’s back. We can be honest with each other in a good way. 

We always talked about Thankfulness. Be thankful for what you have. If you reach the Finals and you lose, you have to be thankful for that. All of the ups and downs, you have to embrace that. It’s the beauty of the game. Maybe it’s not this year; maybe it’s next year. 

And you have to have a Passion for it. You have to want to play. That’s the final pillar – the passion. You have to LOVE playing. 

I love to play. Every day. When I’m on the court I’m hopping. It’s electric. I’m passionate. If I play someone better than me, and they beat me up – great for me! Tomorrow, I’ll come back better. If I beat someone, tomorrow they’ll come back harder at me. Great! I’ll learn from it. 

Those things, I bought into, on and off the court. And it helped us win championships. 

When I’m not playing, I’m still participating. I have to get guys going. I have to get them confident to go through ups and downs. When things are down – as flat as the Earth – I can find a way to bring them up.

Does this current Cavaliers team have the elements it takes to win it?  

Diakite: Yes. We have a lot of talent in this building. We can win it, but we just have to understand that it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be very hard. But you have to accept it and embrace the challenge. 

And once you win a Championship, it’s sweet. But you also have to understand that the following year, everybody is at your neck. Every team you play against, whether they’re good or bad, is saying: ‘Yeah, we’re going at them. They’re the Champion.’ So, you think worked really hard? Just wait. They’re already going hard at you in the preseason. 

Why were you and the Cavaliers a good mix when you signed here in September?  

Diakite: It’s a great staff. It’s a great group of guys. They’ve embraced me since the beginning. And they’re giving me opportunities now that I’ve not gotten on other teams, such as playing multiple positions. They’ve played me at the 5, the 4 and the 3. 

And everything starts with defense. That’s what I was taught at Virginia. When you play good defense, the offense clicks. 

This team embraced me. They love me here. And I embrace the culture. But we’re only a quarter through the season, so I’m going to keep fighting and keep showing that I belong. 

You didn’t see consistent minutes until just recently. Was it difficult to keep from getting discouraged early on this year?  

Diakite: (laughs) That’s one thing: I’m not going to get discouraged. I’m like a hunter, a predator, always seeking my prey. 

So, I spent some time in the G-League and I think those games helped me. I did so at crucial times, too. 

It was like: ‘OK, he hasn’t played in four or five games, let’s send him to the G-League for a game.’ And afterward, I came back up ready. 

And it’s still a challenge when I go down there. Working on my game, staying in shape, so when they call my name, I’m ready. 

Just past the season’s quarter mark, what’s your goal rest of the way?  

Diakite: It’s about winning a Championship. Saying it won’t make it happen. Doing it will make it happen. 

I might not play much the rest of the way. I might play a lot. Who knows? But I will find a way to get guys going, because we want to win it all together. We have to win together

Everyone on the roster is an important piece. As a player, as a pro, it’s my assignment to stay ready for when my number is called. And I’ll be ready.