Tears fell. Lots of them.
The first bout of weeping came when Senegal-born Ibrahima Diallo told his mother he wanted to leave Africa and complete his secondary education in the United States while pursuing a collegiate basketball scholarship with an eventual goal of playing in the NBA. Diallo was just entering high school when he approached his parents about leaving his native continent.
“My mom just started crying like every day because she knows I really want to do this and she wanted me to go follow my dream, but she was saying that's going to be hard for them,” Diallo said on Friday. “Just letting your son just go to another life like so far and don't know nobody there.”
Then came Diallo’s sobs.
He understood what – and who – he was losing by crossing the Atlantic Ocean by himself, eventually enrolling at Victory Rock Prep in Florida which he attended before transferring to Prolific Prep in California for his senior season. But for a while after making the move, Diallo couldn’t control the overwhelming sadness brought on by the ocean separating him from his family.
“Oh my goodness. In my old school, my first month, I was crying every day,” Diallo said. “I would say, like, 'I'm not going to practice. Just send me back home.' I was just saying, like, I don't want to play basketball anymore, just send me back home. It was the hardest thing to wake up every day and not see your parents. It's so hard, it's so hard.”
Diallo still misses his family, of course, but he’s learned how to cope with the distance.
Plus, his journey is beginning to pay off. Diallo, an unranked 2019 prospect, said he plans to sign a National Letter of Intent with a college program in March, and Ohio State is in the mix.
Diallo remembers playing in front of a Buckeyes coach in Orlando during the summer but didn’t hear from the program until about four months ago when his high school coach heard from Ohio State. Since then, he has stayed in contact with Chris Holtmann and assistant coach Mike Schrage.
The interest has ramped up recently, Diallo said, with the Buckeyes seeming open to adding a fourth player to their 2019 class that currently consists of three four-star signees: point guard DJ Carton, forward Alonzo Gaffney and forward E.J. Liddell.
“They said they didn't have a scholarship for 2019, but he said now they changed their mind, so they really need me to come play,” Diallo said.
Diallo, who has scholarship offers from DePaul, Florida State and South Florida, recently visited Pittsburgh and intends to check out LSU, as well.
Ohio State hasn’t offered Diallo a scholarship, but he said the coaches want him to visit Columbus in March. He expects that trip to happen, even though he also wants to make a college decision that month.
“I'm going to go,” Diallo said. “I'm going to go, for sure.”
# just a kid from senegal pic.twitter.com/WpTLmAJlhQ— ibrahimadiallo (@ibrahimaa24) February 14, 2019
Diallo called Holtmann an “honest guy” who “knows basketball.”
“I know he knows a lot, and he can help me a lot about basketball to develop if I go to that school,” Diallo said. “Ohio State is like a big-time school, so every player would like to play at Ohio State because there's a lot of pros who went to that school. And I know they've got a good program because I used to watch their games before they're looking at me.”
In the future, Diallo hopes to make it to the NBA. So most of his conversations with Holtmann center on the game of basketball and how the 7-footer might fit into the team’s frontcourt.
“They say they like my energy, like the fact I run the floor,” Diallo said. “Like my defense, how hard I play for every possession. That's the thing they like about me. They like that, and they think I would be helping them a lot, like the way I play hard, it's going to be really good for them.”
For a 7-foot, 226-pound teenager, Diallo moves well. He doesn’t plod when he runs, which stems from his athletic background in the sport almost every kid in Africa grows up playing.
Before ever playing basketball, Diallo played soccer. As a kid, he never liked basketball. His family viewed it as a “soft sport,” and he had only one friend playing it so he saw no reason to leave soccer.
But with each added inch, peer pressure to turn to basketball increased.
“I was just getting taller and taller, so if I play soccer, a lot of the people, they laugh at me,” Diallo said. “I was good, though, in soccer. But they just laugh at me and say, 'Bro, you tall. You need to go play basketball.' And I just got one friend who played basketball. Everyone was telling me the same thing, same thing, every day.”
In 2012, Diallo’s dad finally told his son he agreed with everyone saying he should give basketball a try. So he offered Diallo an incentive: a pair of black Jordan sneakers.
Diallo obliged, though he admits when he began playing basketball, he liked the shoes more than the sport.
“I didn't have no idea I was going to attempt to go to the United States one day and play basketball. I just like the shoes, and that shoes just made me play basketball. The Jordan shoes,” Diallo said. “Because I liked that shoe so bad, so I'm like, 'All right, I want to go now.'”
As the years passed, Diallo’s love of the sport soared.
He watched high school basketball and his then-favorite player, Lebron James – now, he’s most fond of Cameroon native Joel Embiid. His 7-foot-9 wingspan made him a natural in the paint, and after a while, he began convincing his parents he wanted to move to the United States.
They finally gave him their blessing, and Diallo, who hadn’t even studied English in school with any seriousness, moved across the ocean in 2016.
“Everything changed here. Life is not, like, same,” Diallo said. “The language changed, too. The foods. Everything changed. I just feel like that's a new life. It's just like they send you, like, to a new life. So I can say everything changed. The basketball, too, changed. Because I realized in the United States, they play more physical.”
In his third game in high school, Diallo heard from a college basketball coach for the first time. Due to an injury, Victory Rock Prep moved him from the junior-varsity team to the varsity team for a game against IMG Academy. His team won, and he played well. So a college coach called his high school coach to let him know he was interested in the 7-footer.
After a couple years of recruitment, Diallo finally nears his next step. He has three scholarship offers, and is “talking to a lot of schools,” including Ohio State.
Ultimately, Diallo said he will determine which college he chooses with three factors: people, education and basketball development.
“The most important thing for me is just being around good people. That's the thing,” Diallo said. “When you're so far from home, the thing you need the most is being around nice people. No-stress thing. A school that's got a good education and basketball, go to a school you're going to play and develop. That's the most important thing. Not just go to a big-time school and sit. I want to go to a school I'm going to play, I'm going to develop a lot of my game. Because like I said, I want to go to the League. So I need to develop. I've got a lot of work to do.”