If you paid close attention to New Orleans Pelicans games in 2017-18, you may have noticed that Cheick Diallo is a perpetual bundle of energy – regardless of whether he’s actually on the court or not. The second-year NBA forward didn’t receive significant playing time until February, garnering 27 DNPs in his team’s first 49 games. Instead of sulking, however, Diallo focused on remaining a positive presence from the sideline, as the Pelicans’ most prolific celebrator of New Orleans baskets and defensive stops. As Diallo matter-of-factly put it last week on his 22nd birthday, “I have a lot of ways to celebrate.”
Indeed, Diallo’s range of celebratory acts last season became wide-ranging, often to the delight of the home crowd in the Smoothie King Center. As he heads into Year 3 of his pro career, the native of the African nation of Mali intends to provide a similar hyperactive impact on and on the floor, but is planning a few changes to his repertoire. A look at the future status of some of Diallo’s primary celebrations:
The Mutombo finger wag
Hall of Fame center Dikembe Mutombo, who played in the NBA from 1991-2009, was known for many things, but one of them was his signature gesture of wagging his finger and saying “No, no, no!” when he blocked a shot (the premise of a humorous Geico commercial in 2013). Partly as a sign of respect for Mutombo’s unique impact on basketball and status as a pioneer for African NBA players, Diallo copied Mutombo’s famous gesture after some of his 21 blocks last season. Going forward, though, Diallo said it’s time to develop something for himself.
“Because I watched him a lot (growing up), I started doing the finger wag,” Diallo said of Mutombo. “But now I want to create my own stuff now. When I get a block I might do a two (hands and) fingers down (gesture). In the season about to come up, I’m going to make my own thing, so everyone says, ‘That’s what Cheick does.’ If you do the Mutombo (finger wag) every time, people start to say, ‘That’s a Mutombo move.’ ”
Make no mistake, Diallo remains extremely appreciative of how Mutombo – a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – helped pave the way for players such as Diallo, Joel Embiid (Cameroon) and Serge Ibaka (Congo).
“Every African kid looks up to him as a role model,” said Diallo, whose homeland is located in the western portion of the continent. “He’s a great role model. I really respect him for doing many great things for Africa, building a lot of things (including a hospital in Congo) and helping so many people who don’t have anything.”
Celebration status for 2018-19: Modified for individuality
Raising the roof
No one appeared to be asking for it, but at times last season it seemed Diallo was attempting to singlehandedly resuscitate the once-popular gesture of pushing two hands above one’s head toward the ceiling. Diallo’s frequent “raising of the roof” made curious onlookers wonder where he got the idea, particularly since he was born in 1996, not long before the gesture mostly faded out of usage in sports. Well, as Diallo explained, the credit here must go to YouTube.
“I was watching a lot of old basketball games on YouTube and saw a lot of players doing it,” he said. “I just started doing it and wasn’t sure if anyone was going to like it. I only did it (briefly), because of lot of people told me (immediately), ‘That’s an old thing.’ I really didn’t even know its name. I heard it was (called) ‘Top of the roof.’ ”
For those who still miss the 1990s trend, the Kansas University product has some bad news: “I’m going to stop doing it. It’s not my thing.”
Celebration status for 2018-19: Retired
Following the February release of the hit movie “Black Panther,” several athletes across various sports began doing the arms-crossed “Wakanda Forever” gesture from the film, including Diallo. The movie’s debut coincided with Diallo’s spike in playing time for the Pelicans – he appeared in 30 of the season’s final 33 regular season games – giving him ample opportunities to pay tribute.
“I started doing it because I had never seen anyone else in the NBA doing it,” he noted. “It came from seeing it in the movie. I remember after the first game I did it, a lot of (fans) said, ‘Oh wow, we really liked the Wakanda (celebration).’ ”
The gesture was so popular and well-received that Diallo sounds like he’s planning to expand its usage in the near future.
“Next year I’m going to bring the same thing again,” he said. “Since I started doing it, it seemed like a lot of other people started doing it. (Black Panther) is an African movie and made me think about Africa. As an African player in the NBA, I felt like I had to bring something to the crowd, so that people can say, ‘That guy never forgot where he came from.’ It reminds me of my country.”
Diallo, who started wearing suits to the arena during the Western Conference playoffs, added that he’s planning other wardrobe changes.
“I’m going to wear a lot of African clothes (to games). I feel like I need to represent my country and all of Africa. Last year, I did it a couple times, but not so much.”
Celebration status for 2018-19: Doubling down
Chef stirring a bowl
After rejecting a layup attempt by the NBA’s reigning MVP on March 17, Diallo broke out James Harden’s well-known cooking gesture, as a sold-out Smoothie King Center roared in delight.
Diallo is quick to note that he meant no disrespect to the Houston superstar.
“I watch James Harden a lot, so the day before the game I was thinking, ‘I need to block James Harden and do his (chef) thing,’ ” Diallo said. “I was trying to make the crowd go crazy. There wasn’t anything serious about it and I wasn’t trying to make fun of him.”
Diallo smiles, then adds: “(Harden) was just looking at me like, ‘This guy is crazy.’ ”
Celebration status for 2018-19: To be determined (New Orleans opens the regular season Oct. 17 at Houston, by the way)
Acknowledging Pelicans baskets
Diallo takes the in-game role of “sixth man” almost literally, jumping to his feet on the bench constantly when New Orleans scores. He sees it as part of his duty to be supportive of the other players on the squad.
“If someone makes a three, I put up three fingers above my head,” he explained. “If (Anthony Davis) or Jrue (Holiday) makes a finger roll, I (pantomime doing) a finger roll. If Darius (Miller) or Ian (Clark) makes a three, I have a different (gesture to signify their baskets).”
Diallo pauses, then notes of made New Orleans three-pointers, “or sometimes I will do the (triple) dab.”
As a relatively new pro who’s at times been at the back of the depth chart, Diallo believes it’s vital to show he’s fully engaged with his teammates, even if he’s in a stretch of scarce playing time.
“If you’re a young player, especially a rookie, you have to do that,” he said. “You want to get the respect from the vets. If you don’t do things (to be encouraging, other players) might say, ‘Well, he’s not playing, so he doesn’t really care about his teammates.’
“I will do anything for my team. Anything. Whatever they need, I’m going to do it. I will give high-fives and do my part.”
With 102 made baskets of his own during his sophomore NBA campaign, Diallo even has a method to how he recognizes the points he produces.
“If I score an and-one, I do a (above-the-shoulders muscle) flex, then the Wakanda,” he said. “If it’s a regular basket, I just sprint back and play D. But if it’s a nice move, I want to celebrate it.”
Celebration status for 2018-19: Unchanged