Chicago State Center shares their incredible basketball journey from Mali to the Midwest – NBC Chicago
Nafa Haidara, the center of Chicago state, has come a long way – literally and figuratively – playing Division I basketball for the Cougars.
With a height of almost two meters, Haidara definitely stands out. It’s been so long since she can remember, even when she was six when she discovered basketball.
“One day I came from school and my cousin saw me,” recalls Haidara. “He said, ‘Oh, you’re growing up. Do you want to play basketball? ‘. I asked him, ‘What is basketball? I don’t even know what basketball is. ‘”
It didn’t take her long to find out, and it wasn’t long before she fell head over heels in love with tires.
“I went to the gym on the first day and fell in love with basketball,” said Haidara. “That’s how it all started.”
But while she loved the game, some of the people in her close-knit extended family were against her playing. It didn’t fit her idea of a young Muslim girl growing up in West Africa.
“If you are a Muslim, you should cover your body and everything,” said Haidara. “You can’t show your skin to people, that’s why they say basketball is only for men.”
It does not matter. Nothing could stop Nafa from doing what she loved. If she had to, she would tell the family that she was going to a friend’s house or doing homework before sneaking into the gym.
“Sometimes I feel a little guilty for lying to her,” Haidara recalled. “I’m not supposed to lie to the family, so I feel a little guilty. But sometimes I say, ‘Okay – I have to play basketball because I enjoy basketball,’ so I say, ‘Okay – I have to play basketball’. “
The Junior Center came to the USA in 2017 and ended up in a prep school in Phoenix. She landed in the US and can’t speak English, but is now fluent in it.
From there they went to a community college in Kansas, where Tiffany Sardin, head coach of the state of Chicago, recruited them.
Sardin says Haidara was shy and slow to trust at first, but is now a valued member of the team.
“She is the real definition of endurance,” said Sardin. “When Nafa does something well, or when she walks into the room, they say ‘Nafa!’. … She wants to be the best teammate she can be but honestly she is a great young woman and her energy can be infectious to us, ”added Sardin.
“I see my team-mates as my sisters and my older sisters are my coaching staff because they are all young women,” said Haidara. “I love everyone and everyone loves me.”
From Mali to the Midwest, it’s been quite a basketball journey for the Cougars Center.
“It means a lot to me,” said Haidara. “Division 1 has always been my dream – to play in Division 1. So if I’m here today, thank God. “