Cheick Diallo motivated by family in Mali, embraces opportunity with Pelicans

Cheick Diallo sits in an office inside the New Orleans Pelicans’ practice facility in Metairie, sporting a black Nike T-shirt, red backward baseball cap, black sweatpants and toting a brand-new red backpack. In other words, he looks a lot like the average American teenager, kicking back on a relaxing summer morning. But then he starts talking and – not just because of his thick accent – it’s quickly apparent that the native of the African nation of Mali is different from many 19-year-olds you might meet.

“Right now, I’m wearing all these nice clothes and have all kinds of stuff,” the second-round NBA draft pick said, contrasting his experience in the U.S. to his homeland, while pointing to an outfit that seems distinctly ordinary to an American. “It’s really hard to get even a few things in my country – you are not getting any of this stuff. You have to spend a lot of money to get what you want. Back home, no way you are going to get something like this. No way you’re getting a backpack like this. No way you’re getting an iPhone. It’s not easy to get. So today I thank God and my parents, too. Where I am now, if it wasn’t for my parents and God, I wouldn’t be here.”

If Diallo sounds appreciative for where he is today, there is good reason. He and his family made the decision four years ago for him to immigrate on his own to the United States, a move that was facilitated by Tidiane Drame, who became Diallo’s legal guardian. Drame saw Diallo playing in Egypt in 2011 and told the player he could help him go to America; he made the journey at the tender age of 15. Diallo later became a McDonald’s All-American as a high schooler playing on Long Island in New York.

“I only started playing basketball in 2010,” Diallo said. “I was 13 or 14, so young. I was playing basketball for fun; I never thought I was doing it to (someday) make money. (Drame) told me that he helped a lot of people from Mali come to the United States. At first, I thought, ‘I don’t think I can do it.’ ”

The first year in America was difficult, as you might expect for someone who was only fluent in French. Diallo initially had second thoughts about whether he wanted to stick it out in the United States – he was homesick and learning English was anything but easy.

“The one thing that was really, really hard for me was the language,” Diallo remembered. “English was hard, so there were times when I was thinking, ‘I need to go back (to Mali). I can’t deal with this.’ But even though I was (here to play) basketball, you have to be able to speak English to communicate with your coaches and your teammates. I know how to play the game, but you have to know exactly what a coach wants you to do. So that made me nervous a little bit during my freshman year. But my sophomore year, it got a little bit better. Junior year, it was like, ‘OK, I’m getting everything so easily now.’

“My high school, I can’t even thank them enough, because they helped me and taught me through ESL. That’s the English Second Language. I was taking it at first and thought, ‘Oh my gosh.’ ”

Given Diallo’s unique path to the NBA and the obstacles he had to overcome to adjust to America as a teenager, the Pelicans view the 6-foot-9 forward as more mature than many players of the same age. Diallo talks to his parents and family members as frequently as possible, but they all remain in Mali, forcing him to learn about life in the U.S. at a rapid rate.

“Any time you have someone who has been on their own since that young of an age, you have to mature real quick,” Pelicans Director of Player Personnel David Booth said. “He’s mature beyond his years, because he had to be. He didn’t have the luxury of depending on others, as you’d think a kid that age does. He had to grow up fast and learn how to live in this world. His maturity has always been there and his work ethic has always been there. You can tell by how hard he plays on the court and the type of passion he plays with. He feels like this is what I want and I have to work hard to get it.

“He was forced to grow up. If you’re 15 and leave your whole family behind to come to a foreign land, I know that would be scary for me. Hats off to him for being able to do that. It makes you look at him in an even more respectful way.”

It’s difficult to project the impact Diallo will be able to make as an NBA rookie in 2016-17. His developmental curve begins this week in Las Vegas, where the Pelicans will play at least five games in summer league. But based on the motivation his family and home country provide, the Pelicans believe Diallo’s determination and hunger to improve will help him make progress on the court.

“He doesn’t take anything for granted,” Booth said. “He is very, very appreciative of where he is. He’s worked hard. He doesn’t take any day for granted. That’s one thing we really value in him, his workmanlike approach to every day. You could say that’s from his background. He’s not taking this NBA job lightly. He knows it’s something that can help him and his family.”

Diallo wholeheartedly agrees, saying that he views his recently-drafted status as “just the beginning.” He often uses Skype to communicate with his parents, four older brothers and nieces and nephews in Mali, a reminder of his responsibility and why he’s in America. Diallo is often asked why he made the difficult decision to immigrate, but never has to think long before responding.

“I sacrificed a lot of stuff in (leaving) my country to come here,” he said. “My dad, my whole family, they motivate me every day. They are watching me over here. Even if I don’t want to do something, that motivates me. I think of my parents and I think, ‘I’m going to do it.’

“I have a better life here and a lot of opportunity. Because in my country, you don’t have that many opportunities. (Even) sneakers are very expensive in my country. My dad spent a lot of money just on sneakers so that I could play. That’s before you pay for (basketball) shorts or anything else. I decided that I have to start taking basketball seriously, so that I can take care of my family one day. So that’s in my mind every day that I wake up. I’m thinking of my family, that I have to take care of them. Everything I’m doing, my family comes first, no matter what.”