Diarra finally grasps the power basketball has to change his life

FOR many basketball players, the moment that sparked their love for the game might have been a highlight reel dunk or a game-winning shot. Some may reference legendary players like the late Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, or Stephen Curry as their inspiration to play the game.

However, for 22-year-old Aliou Diarra, the beginning of his basketball journey was a little different.

Growing up, Diarra and his childhood friends often visited a large fruit tree in their neighbourhood, where they picked fruit and played games. He was the tallest of the group and could easily reach the fruit, but it wasn’t until a stranger suggested that he try basketball. The chance meeting would later help in evoking his passion for the sport.

Diarra is a long way from picking fruit in his neighbourhood. He is now a grown man who has taken the BAL by storm. The 22-year-old averaged 15 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks during the recent Kalahari Conference with Morocco’s FUS da Rabat. He has recorded nine double-doubles since his debut in the tournament last year.

Aliou Diarra in action at the Kalahari Conference.
Aliou Diarra has taken the BAL by storm since his debut last season. Pictures: BAL and FIBA

In an interview with The Big Tip Off, Diarra spoke about his time with Stade Malien, the language barriers he has faced, the NBA Summer League and his time with Moroccan club FUS Rabat.

Stade Malien scouted Diarra while playing in the city of Kayes in the western part of Mali. From there, Diarra would go on to have an electrifying 2023 Road To BAL debut with Stade Malien, finishing with a double-double (11.8 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game). Despite putting up solid numbers for his former club, Diarra had not fully grasped the power that basketball could have in changing his life.

“I did not basketball that seriously until last year in Dakar during the Sahara Conference (last year),” says Diarra. “Once I started putting in an effort, I realized that the sport could be good for me and so I decided to take it more seriously because maybe it could change my life.”

The Cinderella-type performance during their BAL Season 3 led the Malian club to a podium finish after defeating Petro de Luanda in the third-place game behind Diarra’s 25 points and 12 rebounds.

Along with the historic finish of Stade Malien, Diarra was also crowned BAL Defensive Player of the Year and got All BAL First Team and BAL All-Defensive Team honours last year. Diarra had the opportunity to travel to the US for the NBA Summer League with the Milwaukee Bucks, an experience that widened his horizons to what the sport could do for him.

“I learned a lot playing with the Bucks, I had some workouts with professional coaches who saw and believed in my potential. I am trying to implement what I learned in the US with FUS,” says Diarra. “The coaches at the Summer League told me that my future is bright and I trust them. I also trust myself and I am working hard to make that future a reality.”

The experience in the Summer League helped break down the language barrier that Diarra, who speaks fluent Bambara and a little bit of French.

“Last year the language barrier was an obstacle, but going to the USA helped me. I learnt a little bit of English and that gave me the confidence when I joined FUS,” said Diarra.


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Moving to a different country often comes with challenges, such as adapting to new cultures, societal norms and language barriers. However, Diarra’s time with FUS molded him into a different and much better player than he was in his BAL debut season.

“When I was playing with Stade Malien, I used to do things my way and play the way I wanted. That did not always align with the coach’s and the team’s needs. However, since I started playing with FUS, things have changed significantly,” says Diarra. “I have become more disciplined, taking a more professional approach because I understand that this sport could change my life, and I need to take things more seriously than I did in Bamako.”

FUS concluded the first round of Season 4 by finishing at the top of the Kalahari Conference with a 3-1 record. According to Diarra, the team’s success can be attributed to their cohesion and chemistry. This is something they built over the past six months.

“Since September, we have been training together and playing in the domestic league together. There was never a question about the so-called ‘import’ players because we know each other so well. We know each other’s habits and that makes us a strong team,” says Diarra. “As for myself, I fit well into the team thanks to the experienced players who have helped me learn and grow as a basketball player, but more importantly as a man too.”

Aliou Diarra playing for Stade Malien.
Aliou Diarra, playing in the 2023 Road To BAL, was scouted by Malian club Stade Malien.

To finish top of the Kalahari Conference was the first goal for FUS, now the focus will be on the domestic league until the start of the BAL playoffs in Kigali (May 24 – June 1).

“Qualifying for the playoffs is a very big accomplishment, but this is just the first step for us. We gave our best to come out as the leader of this Conference. Now we look forward. We would like to make it far into the playoffs.”

Two months remain between FUS and their second objective of progressing through the playoffs. As for Diarra, he’ll be refining his skills and hoping they will take FUS to the promised land.

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