UConn Athletic Communications / May 29, 2022
STORRS, Conn. – Three years ago, the basketball that was At Mamadou Diarra’s suddenly deflated world.
His life plan — which, like most top college basketball players, included a glittering college career, leading to a shot at the NBA, or at worst, professional basketball overseas — had been crushed by chronic illness. knee injury among other injuries that ended his playing days far too soon.
The difficult decision to stop playing has clearly left Diarra at rock bottom.
“At the time, making the decision to stop playing, I felt like my world was falling apart,” Diarra said.
Flash forward three years, until Monday May 9, when Diarra, with his parents, Kadija Kone and Fousseny Diarra, watching from the seats of the Gampel pavilion, crossed the floor to accept his master’s degree in sports management.
The world of basketball intact. Dream fully revived.
“Going into college, I never imagined receiving a master’s degree,” Diarra said. “I’m a first generation American. My parents came (from Mali and Senegal) so my siblings and I could have a better opportunity and just seeing their faces when I came through to get my master’s was really special. Looking back now, when I decided to quit playing, it was probably the best decision I ever made.
“Like everyone else, I thought I’d be here two or three years and then go (to the NBA), but God had a different plan for me and I’m so lucky it worked out that way. “
Luckily Diarra was at UConn, where the coach Dan Hurley and his staff welcomed Diarra, first as a student assistant coach and then as a graduate assistant. The rest depended on Diarra, his work ethic and the importance of the upbringing instilled in him by his parents.
“I started playing basketball very early and my parents let me know that if you want to keep playing basketball, you have to maintain those grades,” he said. “I was lucky they did this for me. There were times when I struggled in school, but my certificates never dropped to the point of no- return.”
Being a graduate assistant at UConn is a full-time commitment, to say the least, with practice prep, daily training, post-practice responsibilities, games, travel, taking care of the needs of the players, taking care of the needs of the coaches and accomplishing all the tasks necessary for the smooth running of a high-level basketball program. Now add the requirements of a graduate program and all the work that goes with it.
Ask Diarra, and he’ll downplay his efforts.
“Like everything, it took work,” he said. “But I really enjoyed the graduate program because it’s more focused on the job you want to do. They’re very understanding in the sense that they know a lot of the people in the program also have jobs. It’s a two-year program, so I didn’t have to take a bunch of classes like I did in undergrad.
“But the work was simple and most of the time they gave you dates, where you had enough time to do it over a long period of time. It’s not like you had to hand in assignments on the same day. I learned a lot.”
Victoria Simonofffrom UConn’s student-athlete success program and Diarra’s academic advisor, says there was a lot more to it than that.
“It really felt like Mamadou had two full-time jobs,” Simonoff said. “Being AG is pretty much 24/7/365 while having to maintain high grades in top-level graduate school. But Mamadou has always had a thirst for knowledge and he knows how to integrate what he’s learning in the classroom with real-life experiences and what he wants to do with his future. We all know his plans for the future have changed over the past few years, but he’s the very definition of “one door closes, another opens”.
“It really is a success story. From where he was to where he is now, it’s been a great transformation to watch. He’s a special person.”
Diarra likes to think he went through three backgrounds — his undergraduate degree in urban and community studies, his master’s degree in sports management, and his training in the inner workings of college basketball.
“It was a shock to me because as a player you really don’t know what’s going on in there,” he said. “As a graduate assistant, you do a lot of legwork in the operations of the program. You are part of every element of the program. It was very different from what I thought. It was really a shock to start with. I had to overcome that. Once I did, I understood where I could add value to the program. It was an amazing experience.
Armed with all he has accomplished over the past three years, Diarra is well equipped for what comes next. He’s sure it will have something to do with the game he loves.
“When people ask me about my situation, I say, ‘The ball is going to stop bouncing eventually and there’s so much more life after that,’ Diarra said. Basketball has always been my world and that just because I don’t bounce the ball myself doesn’t mean I can’t be a part of it That’s what I see in coaching, that’s for me. Being able to be like a big brother to the players meant a lot to me. I enjoyed it a lot and I want it to continue. I still want to pursue the dream.”