Archdeacon: Flyers’ Sissoko makes ‘secret’ trip home to Mali

Moulaye Sissoko makes surprise visit home to Mali

Hawa Diarra – in a blue, green and peach-colored African print dress and red head wrap – was helping clean bowls of vegetables as she sat on a chair beneath the trees in the well-worn courtyard of her family’s home in Bamako, Mali.

That’s when she saw the large man in a mask walk through the far entranceway.

For a split second, she wasn’t sure what was happening.

“She was like, ‘Who is this?’” Moulaye Sissoko said with a laugh.

That’s when he removed his light blue COVID covering and she saw the big grin of her son. She let out a squeal and came hustling toward him and the two embraced with a long, loving hug. Behind her, her daughters vocalized their surprise and utter delight.

“I tried to make the trip a secret,” the Dayton Flyers’ 6-foot-9, 250-pound sophomore center said. “Only one of my sisters knew and I had her record it.”

Moulaye shared that emotional video on Instagram and it’s now posted with this story on the Dayton Daily News website.

It also shows Mamadou Sissoko, Moulaye’s dad, walking down a corridor toward the courtyard. He’s wearing a red Dayton Flyers cap and an unsuspecting look when he spots his 22-year-old son and, for a second, you can tell he is puzzled.

“He thought maybe something was wrong, that that’s why I was home,” Moulaye said.

But when he saw his son’s reaction – the joy, the confidence, the ease in which he immediately fit back into the family -- Mamadou knew better and that’s when he lowered his head and charged like a bull into his boy’s waiting arms.

Moulaye Sissoko's family at their home in Bamako, Mali. From left: Aminata (sister who’s known as Mimi), his mom Hawa Diarra, Moulaye, Mamadou Sissoko (dad), Siga (sister known as Anita)
In front: Kadidiatou (sister known as Poutchou). CONTRIBUTED
Moulaye Sissoko's family at their home in Bamako, Mali. From left: Aminata (sister who’s known as Mimi), his mom Hawa Diarra, Moulaye, Mamadou Sissoko (dad), Siga (sister known as Anita) In front: Kadidiatou (sister known as Poutchou). CONTRIBUTED

That recent scene was a far cry from the one six years ago when 16-year-old Moulaye left Mali for the United States with one suitcase, no English, no winter coat and a whole lot of nervousness to go with his big dreams.

“I wanted to develop my basketball talent, but I had heard bad stories – I’d seen movies, action movies where all kinds of things happen to people – and I worried,” he said. “I wondered what would happen to me.”

It soon became a whirlwind of new experiences and places he’d never heard of before.

He went to live with a host family – Danny and Andrea “A.J.” Doyle – in Bentonville, Arkansas. A few months later he was headed to Birmingham, Alabama to attend classes and play basketball at Central Park Christian School. The following year it was on to Lincoln Academy, a hoops-focused school in Suwanee, Georgia.

The Doyles eventually moved to Des Moines, Iowa and that has become his home away from home.

But no place has made more of an impact or been more of a challenge than the University of Dayton, which he came to in 2019.

His first year as a Flyer – when the Obi Toppin-led team went 29-2 before the COVID outbreak prevented a tournament run – was a redshirt season so he could adjust to college life and develop his unpolished basketball skills.

And then last season, he was hampered not only by the COVID concerns and protocols that significantly changed the game for everyone, but by an injury to his left knee that required surgery. He played in 14 games and averaged 1.4 points and 2.7 rebounds per contest.

“Moulaye has been through a lot and he’s had to show some real perseverance,” Flyers coach Anthony Grant said. “Imagine going from a family where he had a mom and dad and siblings to having to rely on and depend on people he didn’t know at all and who didn’t speak your language. And you’re in a place you know nothing about.

“You have to count on those people to take care of you and guide you and lead you in the right direction.

“He was fortunate to get with a really good family.”

Danny Doyle, who’s now in real estate investment, is a former small college basketball player and a coach at the high school and college level. His wife A.J. serves in various capacities at the Valley Church in Des Moines.

She and her husband – who have a 2-year-old son, Nico – have hosted several other Malian basketball players in recent years, most of whom – both men and women – are playing on college teams now.

Among them are 6-foot-8 Issa Samake at Drake, 6-foot-11 N’Faly Dante at Oregon and 6-10 Mhamadou Diawara at Stetson. There’s also 6-7 Harona Sissoko at Illinois State and women’s players Aicha Coulibaly at Auburn and Purdue’s Rokia Doumbia.

“I can tell you Moulaye has always been an impressive young man,” A.J. said. “It’s pretty remarkable what any international student does, but especially one who has to learn the language and show some pretty amazing skill at a very young age.

“It isn’t easy to be away from your family and all that is familiar, especially when you’re trying to keep up in the classroom and in sports. It’s more challenging than most people know and that’s why these kids deserve real credit.”

“With Moulaye, though, you can tell he was raised right. His parents turned out a wonderful son.”

Grant agreed, calling the Flyers’ big man “mature” and “respectful.”

The other day, as Moulaye talked about his recent trip back home, he recalled that first time he left for America:

“My mother was very worried and it took a while for my dad to convince her … and to make me feel OK, too.

“He had studied in England and been to America for work stuff and he sat me down for a couple of hours and just talked to me

“He said, ‘Don’t forget where you come from and what we taught you. Remember who you are.’”

Dayton's Moulaye Sissoko shoots against La Salle on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff
Dayton's Moulaye Sissoko shoots against La Salle on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff

Helping Mali athletes

Although he speaks French, Bambara, the national language of Mali, and the closely-related Malinke, Moulaye knew no English when arrived in the Doyle’s home.

So how did they communicate?

“With great difficulty,” A.J. said with a laugh.

“We communicated through a variety of ways. We used Google Translate and we also relied on a lot of hand gestures.

“My husband and I both speak Spanish and occasionally we’d try a Spanish word and hope it was close enough to the French word so maybe he could figure out what we were saying.

“And if we were really desperate, we’d call one of the other kids with a better command of English and have them translate.”

She and her husband, who both are from Des Moines originally, said their association with Malian athletes began “through a friend who runs a basketball camp in West Africa.”

Tidiane Drame, a Malian-American from California, is an amateur basketball scout and talent broker who runs the Mali Hope Foundation.

Over the years, he’s helped get several young Mali athletes to the United States, including 6-foot-8 McDonald’s All American Cheick Diallo, who played a season at Kansas and in the NBA with the New Orleans Pelicans. He now plays in Russia.

Drame also helped Dante, a five-star recruit who lived with the Dolyes and last season averaged 8.2 points and 5.8 rebounds a game for Oregon.

A.J. said her husband was a volunteer coach at the West African camp and met several players who had hoop dreams they hoped to pursue in America.

“He told me, ‘You know we always wanted to open our home to foster care and in some type of way, maybe this is it,’” A.J. said.

“We started with one kid and pretty soon he had a friend, who had friends, who had other friends and it just grew. Pretty soon we had a whole crew.”

She said Moulaye is the “social glue” of the bunch and keeps everybody in touch.

While the Malians are spread out across the college basketball world, they often congregate at the Doyle home for holidays and breaks from school because its just too far or too expense to go home.

University of Dayton men's basketball player Moulaye Sissoko with his mother, Hawa Diarra. CONTRIBUTED
University of Dayton men's basketball player Moulaye Sissoko with his mother, Hawa Diarra. CONTRIBUTED

Moulaye’s last trip home had been in 2019 and before that he returned on occasion to play for the youth national teams in tournaments that took him to Spain and all across Africa, including Egypt, Rwanda, Senegal, Angola and South Africa.

When they gather at the Doyle home, the Malians try to bring a little bit of African life with them.

A.J. remembered a graduation celebration they held for five of the players.

“The celebration was half American, half West African,” she said. “Moulaye’s dad was able to get a visa and came to be a part of it.

“In West African culture the children prepare their own lamb for the dinner. When we lived in Arkansas, they also killed a lamb and prepared it for a big celebration.

“This time we had a bunch of side dishes and even an African DJ.

“I got to spend some time talking to Moulaye’s father. He’s a wonderful man and he and his wife truly did raise their son very well.”

Opportunity is there with Flyers

Not only has Moulaye had to adjust to American life, but he’s had to try to adapt to basketball as its played at the NCAA Division I level.

“I think he’s learning what it means to be successful in U.S. education and sports while still holding on to his heritage and background and the way he was raised,” A.J. said. “That’s not easy to do for someone who comes to a foreign country at his age.

“It’s not easy to adjust to the U.S. style of play on the basketball court either, especially in the beginning when you don’t have that strong of a command of the language.”

Grant said he thinks the redshirt year helped Moulaye immensely, but said last year – because of COVID risks and regulations – was a setback for many. He said Moulaye’s situation was further exacerbated because of the injury and his limited playing time:

“At this stage of his career, going into year three, I think he understands what our expectations are and what it’s going to take for him to each his potential.

Dayton's Moulaye Sissoko shoots against Southern Methodist on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff
Dayton's Moulaye Sissoko shoots against Southern Methodist on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff

“He’s doing what he needs to be doing in the classroom. We’ve just got to get him to understand how he can impact the game for us. If he can do that, the opportunity is there for him. But he’s got to own it.”

The one-week trip back home to Mali was a way for Moulaye to recharge for what’s ahead.

“It was great to see my family and my homeboy,” he said. “They want to know what it’s like for international students and what my life is like in Dayton, things like that.”

He went to the open air market, visited relatives and said “every morning my mom would wake me up to see what I wanted to eat that day. “We had yassa and maafe (meat with tomato, onion, garlic, cabbage, leafy or root vegetables and peanut butter.) African porridge. Everything was organic. I got mangos and oranges right off the trees.”

While the daily temperature in Bamako – population 2.7 million -- now tops 100 degrees in the landlocked nation, he said it beats the winter weather in Dayton:

“I can’t get used to the cold. I wear a couple of jackets and I’m still cold going to practice.” But there was one thing he carried from Dayton to Mali.

“I brought some games along to play with my family,” he said. “I taught them how to play UNO.

“No one there knows UNO.”

He does.

Since coming to the U.S. he’s gotten better and better at learning to play the cards he’s been dealt.