Samba Diallo has more pairs of basketball shoes than the younger version of himself could ever dream of. And on occasion during his collegiate career, he showcased different color schemes with one half of his footwear game unique in appearance. He didn’t do it to be different. Rather, it was his reminder of how his story was different.
“It’s to remind myself where I was when I didn’t have those shoes,” says Diallo, a 24-year-old former Manhattan College basketball player. “I said to myself, ‘now if I’m going to have these pairs of shoes, I’m going to take them home and give them to those who don’t have them.’”
Home for Diallo is Rufisque, Senegal, situated in the western part of the West African country. There, soccer talent comes in more copious quantities than opportunities for basketball stardom, further punctuated by the nation’s advancement to the Round of 16 at this past World Cup.
Diallo says he will watch soccer when it’s on sometimes, but that’s about it. He would not sacrifice anything for it like he did for basketball. From an early age, it’s been his escape.
“Only thing we can do is go to school and then play basketball,” Diallo said of his childhood. “That was a way for us to stay away from the streets and from trouble.”
When Diallo was 13, his friend Moustapha Diagne introduced him to Dadie Basketball Academy more than 13 miles away from Rufisque in Dhaka. There, Diallo learned the game from a new perspective under the auspices of coach Momo Sene, who had a reputation for developing players into professional prospects.
Countless early mornings commuting and late nights finishing homework followed Diallo, making it a rinse and repeat process. He even learned English in his classwork at DBA to prepare him for his journey one day to America. It was an adjustment, but it was better than anything he ever experienced before.
“The minute I stepped out of the classroom I’m looking at the court,” Diallo said. “I went to school during the day and then after class I would start working out.”
From then on, it was easy for Diallo to envision a career for himself in America or in Europe. However, the hardest approval for these plans was from his mother, Satou, who preferred her fourth child of five to stay at home instead of starting a new life overseas.
Diallo and his mother were almost inseparable until her passing when he was 18. When he wasn’t playing basketball, Diallo was most likely at home spending time with her. She trusted him and he closely listened to her demands, but this time it was different. She saw everything in a new light once Diallo explained the value a college scholarship could provide for his academics.
“It was between letting me go to school here and play basketball or go to Europe where I could say goodbye to school,” Diallo said of his options. “She told me ‘you will have to continue your studies.’”
Diallo arrived for his sophomore year at Pope John XXIII Regional High School in Sparta, New Jersey, and lived with a host family. At the time, it was a whole new world for Diallo, who had to adjust to speaking English full-time instead of French. However, there was precedent for this type of transition with Moustapha Diagne, who graduated from the same school a few years earlier and went on to play basketball at Western Kentucky University and later La Salle University.
“I was fortunate enough to have a host family that took me in and gave me everything I needed,” Diallo said. “They were a big part of me being capable of what I’m doing right now.”
Diallo recalls the time his high school coach Jason Hasson gifted him a pair of basketball shoes. Up to that point, Diallo had only known to ask for what he needed and nothing else.
“Two or three days later, he gave me another pair of shoes,” Diallo said. “Next thing you know I didn’t have any room for pairs of shoes.”
Diallo committed to play at the University of Massachusetts. It was there his teammates became accustomed to seeing him wear a different color shoe on each foot.
“I have a choice now to be like, I’m going to wear this one today, or I’m going to wear this one tomorrow,” Diallo said. “So that was the one thing that I kept with me.”
Diallo collected so many shoes he knew only one thing to do: send them to children in Senegal who needed them more than he did. Diagne remembers receiving a phone call from Diallo about his plans to start a basketball camp in Rufisque. Diagne bought into the message to give back, especially in partnership with Diallo, who he calls a “go-getter.”
“We always had this idea that when we made it, we were going to give back,” Diagne told the Riverdale Press about the origins for their basketball camp called Rufisque Made. “But it’s like why not now.”
For the third summer in a row they will be doing just that with the Rufisque Made camp in Senegal set to happen in July. Diallo will host the training sessions spread across a few days backed by the support of his friends like Diagne and Sene and others at DBA. Each attendee will receive a shirt to wear designed by Diallo, as well as shoes and other equipment donated by Diallo.
“He comes up with the ideas and I’m just behind him,” Diagne said. “It’s for the city and for the kids.”
The shipping is the hardest part. Diallo packs for a month before shipping the memorabilia in plastic containers, which only arrive a month later.
“It all starts from the last day of the last camp,” Diallo said of the preparations. “When I come back here, I start putting stuff together and seeing what I can get.”
The basketball activities will take place in the morning before the heat of the afternoon sets in, which then gives way to a Q&A session with Diallo.
That is his time to impart wisdom on the same youth which Diallo once counted himself among.
“If they have a question, I will tell them things like making sure you are doing this right and are focusing on that,” Diallo said. “The questions they ask make me realize they are feeling the same way I did when I was in their shoes.”
Sene still draws on Diallo and Diagne as models for his current players to follow when it comes to defying odds and reaching their life goals on and off the court.
“I give Samba Diallo and Moustapha Diagne as examples to make them understand that the first thing is not basketball but studies,” Sene said. “Basketball is the icing on the cake.”
Sene gave Diallo a home away from home at DBA, opening up an avenue of opportunities he enjoys today in America.
“He is the reason I am here today,” Diallo said of Sene. “He helped me with a lot of things.”
Diallo last played for Manhattan during the 2021-22 season before stepping away due to the coaching change at the school. He had transferred to Manhattan during Covid in 2020. Since then, Diallo has completed his undergraduate degree and is now working toward his masters. His basketball career may be on hold for now, but he is as passionate as ever about bringing the game to others.
“They will think about when they were kids and how there were people who decided to put something together to help them,” Diallo said. “That’s my goal…that’s the whole point for me is to help them be able to help someone else one day.”