By Danielle Lerner
She hadn’t thought America would be so lonely. At 16 and with dreams of playing basketball and furthering her education, Yacine Diop said goodbye to her family and left Senegal for the first time. She arrived in the U.S. not speaking English, unable to communicate with her peers and cut off from the life she had always known.
Not even basketball, the game upon which she had staked her future , was a reliable comfort. Following her first difficult year at boarding school in Virginia, Diop was ruled ineligible to compete her junior season at her new high school in Pennsylvania. She finally played as a senior and earned a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh but was later frustrated by a foot injury and losing seasons.
Basketball nearly crushed Diop’s hopes once again when she transferred to Louisville only to tear her ACL before the 2018-19 season. But she wasn’t about to give up after all she had been through.
Diop lived a happy, typical middle-class childhood in the Senegalese capital of Dakar. Her mother was a businesswoman and her stepfather sold car parts. Yacine spent her free time playing basketball, lounging on the beaches and going out dancing.
But as a young girl she, along with her family, chose to make a sacrifice to follow her heart.
Diop’s dream wound through the hot streets of Senegal, hitchhiked on her lonely plane ride across the Atlantic, persisted among strangers in a foreign land speaking an unfamiliar tongue in unfamiliar gyms.
After all these years, it still burns furiously like a candle flickering stubbornly in the wind, and it is far from over.
This fall Diop will step out onto the court in the KFC Yum Center, likely in front of the largest crowd she’s ever played for, to finally begin her last season of college basketball. Next, she hopes, is an NCAA championship. Then, the WNBA.
‘I felt like I was in prison’
Diop was 9 and already accustomed to playing circles around boys her age when she started watching the NBA. She quickly formulated a plan to become, in her mind, the Kobe Bryant of the WNBA.
“Mom, I want to go to the United States,” Diop recalled telling her mother.
Her mother’s measured response housed an implied challenge: “Well, good luck. I don’t know how you’re going to get there.”
But Yacine, the second oldest of five children, had a stubborn streak. She was the kid who waited until her mother fell asleep to sneak out of the house, who always pressed for a reason every time her parents told her she wasn’t allowed to do something.
“I’m stubborn about the things I believe,” she said. “The things I want, I’m going to get it.”
In Senegal, a country of roughly 16 million people on Africa’s west coast, basketball is the most popular sport behind soccer.
Diop started playing basketball in the streets, joining 3-on-3 pickup games. By 11, she was recruited by a friend to join a club team. Coaches impressed by her skill consistently moved her up to play with older age groups.
The basketball community in Dakar is fairly close-knit, and when Diop was in high school, she was approached by Pape Koundoul, a Senegal native who played high school and college basketball in America. Koundoul often recruited Senegalese kids who wanted to play basketball in the U.S., and he told Diop she had the talent to do so.
Diop’s mother agreed to let her leave Senegal with the condition that she go to college, and a few months later Diop was enrolled at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
he transition was rough for Diop, who grew up speaking French and the native Senegalese language Wolof. The language barrier presented a great challenge and the strict rules of boarding school life only made things worse. Oak Hill students weren’t allowed to have cell phones and were given laptops strictly for schoolwork (no Facebook or Skype allowed). Diop only got to talk to her mother about once a month.
“That was the hardest part because coming from home I was free,” Diop said. “I could go to basketball, go to school, hang out with my family and friends. But at Oak Hill, I felt like I was in prison.”
When Oak Hill cut its girls basketball program after Diop’s sophomore season, she could have taken it as a sign.
“I thought about going home,” she said. “I didn’t want no part of it. I had to tough it up and realize this is an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Instead, she transferred to Seton-La Salle Catholic in Pittsburgh, where she was taken in by host family Rich and Carlin Griffin.
Rich Griffin, then a coach with travel team Western PA Bruins, hadn’t seen Diop play basketball until after she moved in. The first time she got on the court for a pickup game, she struggled.
“She had a lot of stuff she had to work on when she first came to Pittsburgh,” Griffin said. “Her ball handling skills and shooting needed some work but you could just see some raw athleticism and stuff that you can’t teach a kid. She had that in excess. Once I got to really know her and saw how she worked at it, how much time she put into it, that made it pretty clear she was going to be special.”
Diop was dealt another blow before the start of her junior season when the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association ruled she was transferring for “basketball reasons” and would have to sit out a year before competing.
Diop stayed in the gym preparing for her return, all while helping the Griffins with housework and attending school, where a program translated her homework from English to French and then back to English.
“There are a lot of little funny things that happened over the course of having a kid who doesn’t speak the language, like when they try tell you they need a new toothbrush but don’t know the word for toothbrush,” Griffin said. “She called it the bath brush. She’s standing at the top of the stairs telling us and we can’t figure it out. ‘She’s asking about a bath brush, do you know what she’s talking about?’ Eventually she made the brushing gesture with her hand and mouth and we got it.”
When Diop did become eligible her senior season, she exploded on recruiting radars. She averaged 12 points and 12 rebounds as a senior and led Seton-La Salle to a state championship. In the title game, she poured in 10 points, 23 rebounds and six blocks.
Diop had scholarship offers from college programs including Cal and Dayton but chose to stay close and attend Pittsburgh. Her freshman year, she started every game and led the Panthers to the NCAA Tournament.
Diop averaged 10.4 points as a sophomore but Pitt won just four conference games and finished 13-18. The next season, while Diop was sidelined with a stress fracture, the team went 13-17. Diop returned in 2017-18 to lead the Panthers in scoring (15.7 ppg) and rebounding (6.4 rpg), but Pitt slipped to 10-20 on the season.
It was a discouraging turn of events for Diop, who was used to winning.
“Even back home in Senegal, no matter what category they put me in or what team I was on, I would go to the championship game,” Diop said. “That was my standard.”
Louisville’s winning reputation, evidenced by a 2018 Final Four appearance, prompted Diop to sign with the Cardinals as a grad transfer. After an ACL tear four games in derailed her season, Diop’s mother flew out from Senegal to be by her side for surgery.
Following months of careful rehab, Diop got back on the court this month participating in individual workouts. She hopes to be fully cleared soon, and expects to be healthy to start the 2019-20 season for Louisville.
She intends, she says, to “go out with a bang.”
A lesson in belief
What does it take to make a choice like Diop’s?
“It requires patience,” Diop said. “People around you have to be patient with you and you have to be patient with yourself.”
Diop is the first to admit that patience is not her strong suit. It was a learned virtue that went hand-in-hand with her innate confidence and ambition.
Doubt crept in after she was injured at Pitt, leading her to question if she was letting her team down and whether she would ever be good again. She fought it off.
She was nervous about transferring to Louisville and starting over once more. People told her not to go to a bigger program where she could end up playing fewer minutes, but she was resolute about wanting the chance to compete for a national championship.
“It doesn’t matter what you think,” Diop said. “What matters most is what I believe about myself and what I think I can do.”
Louisville coach Jeff Walz said Diop’s spirit is one of the things that initially caught his attention.
“Every good player’s got a little bit of stubborness to them, but it’s not a bad thing,” Walz said. “To leave home at such a young age like that, you have to grow up in a hurry. I’m really impressed with how she handled all that and the transfer.”
Diop is earning a master’s degree in sport administration and interning in Louisville’s sports information office. She frequents a Senegalese restaurant on Poplar Level Road and texts her mother and sisters almost every day. She enjoys spending time with her teammates and changing up her hairstyle every few weeks (it’s currently a bleach-blond buzz cut).
The NCAA granted Diop a sixth year of eligibility, and with a final opportunity at a Final Four on the horizon she is determined to make the most of it.
“I’m happy and relieved (to be back) because I don’t like the idea of being limited,” Diop said. “I just want to be free. I don’t like feeling controlled. It frustrates me.”
Walz expects Diop, a 5-foot-10 guard, to replace some of the scoring and rebounding Louisville lost with the graduation of Sam Fuehring and Asia Durr last year, and Myisha Hines-Allen the year before.
Diop is also prepared to be a mentor to Cardinals incoming freshman Norika Konno, a Japanese international student who speaks little English.
If she had stayed in Senegal, Diop thinks it is likely she would still be there. Maybe she would be playing professional basketball in Europe.
Looking back, she realizes how hard it must have been for her mother to let her go at such a young age. Acknowledging that sacrifice has only pushed her to work harder and live without regret.
Diop returns to Senegal every summer to visit her family and has competed for the Senegalese National Team at the U-18 and senior levels. At the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, she helped Senegal capture its first ever World Cup victory. She hopes to return to Dakar this summer to compete in the 2019 World Cup African Qualifiers.
A WNBA career is still Diop’s long-term goal, but first and foremost is making an impact at Louisville. Diop never got to play a game at the Yum Center before she got hurt last season, and she feels like she still has something to prove to Cardinals fans.
If her journey is any indication, she’ll have no problem doing so.
“Louisville had tradition before Yacine got here and Louisville will have tradition after Yacine leaves,” Griffin said, “but I think it’s important to her to leave a positive impression, a positive result and a positive legacy in the program even in her short period of time. She doesn’t want to go in and just be somebody who people say, ‘Oh yeah that kid, what was her name?’ That’s not really in her DNA.”