I miss you.
I think about you and our home back in Mali every single day.
Living across the world from you has meant missing out on experiencing a lot of big moments together. And so many big moments have happened or are happening to me right now. I wish you could be here to watch as I graduate high school, learn to drive, grow as an athlete and now this big one — go off to college. I wish you could be here in person to see me do so many things because I know that these are your victories every bit as much as they are mine.
I still remember the advice you gave me during my first basketball camp in Mali, when I was 12 years old.
I came home after the third day tired, sore, frustrated and ready to quit. Basketball was too much running for me. I was done with it.
I talked to you about it because I talk to you about everything. Since dad passed away when I was really young, you’ve always done so much for me. You’ve been my rock. And like all the advice you’ve given me, what you told me that day, when I came to you limping and hoping for sympathy, was exactly what I needed to hear at the time.
“No, you didn’t even start it yet,” you told me. “Get your butt back out there tomorrow.”
And that was that. I got my butt back to it the next day — and the day after that, and the day after that, and so on. And slowly, I got better.
Part of me always dreamed that one day basketball might be able to provide a better life for our family. Today I’m excited to tell you that I’m ready to take another big step toward that dream by announcing where I’m going to college.
But before I get to that, I wanted to take some time to thank the person who is most responsible for this opportunity. The person who has done more for me than I can ever possibly repay.
I wanted to write this letter to say thank you, Mom.
Courtesy of N'Faly Dante
One thing I’ve definitely learned about America since moving here — and trust me, there have been plenty of lessons — is that people don’t really appreciate peanut butter.
It’s not that they don’t like peanut butter — they definitely love peanut butter.
I’ll put it this way: The first time I went to a grocery store in the States, it blew my mind. I walked down one aisle and they had stacks and stacks of jars of peanut butter. All these different colors and varieties neatly in one place next to a millions kind of jelly — it was crazy.
In America, getting peanut butter was easy. Back in Mali, peanut butter was different. It was hard work. It was stressful. It was how you provided for our family.
When I was growing up I watched you work countless hours in front of the fire making peanut butter from scratch to sell at the market. It was really difficult work but you were a master at it.
Seeing you work so hard taught me what I needed to know about how to provide for myself. Even though we didn’t have much, what we did have was all because of you.
One of the main reasons I didn’t like basketball that much early on was because my feet and knees hurt all the time. And they hurt all the time because the only shoes I had were a pair of worn out low-top Chuck Taylor’s.
Going to the store and just buying a pair of proper basketball sneakers wasn’t an option. We didn’t have enough for you to just give me the money to buy them, but you did give me what you could.
One day, I remember you giving me a handful of peanuts from one of the big bags you used to buy. “Save those,” you told me, “and when we have enough, we’ll make a special batch of peanut butter to sell at the market. And the money from that batch will be for basketball shoes.”
We set aside peanuts from every bag you bought after that, and then eventually we had enough to make a batch of peanut butter. And Mom, for real, I’ve never appreciated you more than when I was sitting around the heat, then smashing all those peanuts, going step-by-step through the slow process of turning peanuts into peanut butter. It was really hard work!
We did it, though. Slowly but surely, we made the peanut butter, sold it, and then (after paying back what we owed for the peanuts) you got me my first pair of high-top basketball sneakers.
They were Jordans. I couldn’t tell you exactly which kind. It didn’t matter, honestly. They were Jordans and they were mine.Even though we didn't have much, what we did have was all because of you.
Those shoes were my favorite things in the world. We both knew that. The first time I used them, I kept them in a bag and only put them on at the court right before I started playing. When I had them on, everything that it took to get them — all that effort, all that sweat, all that work — was worth it.
And after I played in them that first time, I came home feeling like a baller. I put my bag down with my shoes in them, and not five minutes went by before you came up to me holding the bag saying, “You’ve got to clean these. No way you’re going to leave these shoes you worked for just lying around like that.”
And I did clean them. I cleaned them over and over. Honestly, sometimes it was frustrating — I’d have just finished practicing and all I’d want to do is sit and chill. But you made sure I always took care of my shoes, because you knew it wasn’t enough to just work hard to get something. You had to have the focus and discipline to not take for granted what you had earned. You needed to keep working.
Growing up you taught me so many important lessons. I applied many of them to basketball, and as a result the game has taken me further than I ever imagined and given me opportunities we couldn’t have dreamed of.
About four years ago I got the chance to move 9,000 kilometers from home to pursue the game in America. I’m your youngest child, and it was so hard to leave you. But I know it was just as difficult for you to let me go. I’m your youngest — your baby — and leaving as a teenager meant you having to miss out on a lot of things. I know it was a really difficult sacrifice. But you agreed to let me pursue what made me happy — despite knowing I’d be living a different country, with a different language and different customs. You let go of me because you knew that I had a dream and you wanted me to chase it.
Not a day has gone by since I left Mali that I don’t think about you and miss you. And there’s not a day when I’m not thankful for all of the principles you raised me with, because I’ve discovered that I needed them more than ever.
Steven Ryan/Getty Images
Even though it took some getting used to, I have to say that America is a really cool place. I can’t wait to show you around this country one day.
The first place we’ll go is a restaurant I know you’re going to love. It’s called Chipotle. They have these things called burritos and for a little extra money you get this stuff called guacamole. It’s hard to describe, but it’s one of my favorite foods now.
Still, nothing can replace your cooking. I can’t find dishes from home anywhere here — it’s impossible. So I’ve taken up cooking over the past few years. I learned from watching you while I was growing up.
No matter where I am — whether it’s Wichita, or any other city in America — when I make your yassa recipe, the smell of the sizzling onions, chicken and mustard sauce reminds me of home.
America isn’t as different from Africa as some people here seem to think. Sometimes I’ll get asked if I grew up around lions and zebras, which is crazy. They don’t realize that in Mali there are cities, like where we lived in Bamako.
But still there were a lot of things that took getting used to.
Those first few months, being so far away from home, there were a few times I wanted to give up. I didn’t know the language or the customs and I was competing against players with much more experience. The language and skill gap felt like too much to overcome. But once again, it was your words that kept me from quitting. “Be a man, keep going,” you’d tell me when we’d talk on the phone.
It might sound simple to others, but when you told me not to give up it meant something different than when others told me the same thing. Because I knew you never quit. I’m sure there were times you wanted to. After Dad died, there were probably times when the weight of responsibility felt like too much.
But you always kept going.
Day in and day out, you kept making jars of peanut butter, finding the energy to walk to the market even when you were sick. I remember you saying, “Doni, doni” — “Step by step” — as a reminder to always keep pushing forward. Giving up wasn’t an option for you when you had five kids to feed. So I told myself that giving up wasn’t an option for me either. I had to live up to your example.
John Jones/Icon Sportswire
One of the main reasons you let me come to America was for the opportunity to pursue an education.
You always reminded us that you’d only gotten to attend a single day of school while you were growing up. You didn’t have the opportunities you deserved. And because of that, you worked tirelessly so that my brothers and sisters and I could attend private school. I never lost sight of the sacrifices you made for our education. And you never let me forget that my schooling always came before my basketball.
By coming to the States, not only did I get the chance to take my game to the next level, I got to attend Sunrise Christian Academy, where I got an education you’d be proud of.
I’ve been really lucky to have some of the best college teams in the country offer me a chance to pursue an education at their schools. It’s something that I know is a dream come true for both of us.
Throughout this process it’s been important to me to choose a place that I know you’d be proud of. A place where I will get a strong education and that has a family atmosphere. I’ve put a lot of thought into it, and I’m excited to tell you that next year I’m going to be attending college and playing basketball at the University of Oregon.
Oregon has a program that reflects a lot of the values you taught me when I was growing up. And I hope that someday I get to show you around Eugene. It’s beautiful there!Throughout this process it’s been important to me to choose a place that I know you’d be proud of.
There are so many people I need to thank for helping me get to this moment. I would have never gotten attention from programs in the states if Tidiane Dramé had not recognized my potential at the Mali Hope basketball camp. Since first meeting him, Tidiane helped me with my basketball, my English and finding schooling. Paul and Bamoye, who each put so much work into helping me with the visa process when I came to America. Coach Luke and everyone else at Sunrise Christian. The past few years they’ve taught me algebra and world history (and also ripthroughs and floaters). But most importantly they’ve built on all the lessons you taught me growing up about respecting others.
And there was Matt and all my MoKan family who taught me to push myself beyond what I thought was possible.
It’s taken a community of people to get me to this point, and I’m grateful to every single person who has helped me.
But most of all, today and all days, I’m thankful to you, Mom.
Looking back on that day so many years ago, when I came home in those Chuck Taylor’s with aching knees and ready to quit basketball forever, it’s hard to believe how far I’ve come — how far we’ve come.
I know I still have a lot to learn about life and basketball. As far as I’ve made it, I know attending college in a foreign country is going to challenge me in ways I haven’t experienced yet.
But I also know I can do it.
I can do anything I put my mind to because you gave me everything I’ll ever need to succeed. You gave me good sense, good morals and a good heart.
Even though I wish we could celebrate with Dad today, I know he would be really proud of both of us. Despite facing such big obstacles in raising a family alone, you never stopped smiling and you never quit.
And because of you, I never will either.
I love you, Mom.