“Early mornings, late nights. A sense of doubt from people around me fuelled my passion to rise against all odds. My game has been criticized in many ways: ‘He can’t run a system. He’s a good player but he’s not a winner.’ I heard it all. Y’all can say whatever now, I’m a national Champ.”
This, the mentality of newly named Canada West Player of the Year and 2018 U SPORTS Men’s Basketball National Champion, Mambi Diawara.
The road to Canada West stardom and overall success was not easy for Diawara, and he’ll be the first to tell you that it all comes from hard work, effort, and sacrifice.
Diawara comes from Montreal, Que., with his parents both immigrating from Mali, a country in West Africa. His journey to becoming CW MVP and leading the Calgary Dinos to a 20-0 regular season record was an impressive feat in itself, but he’s still training, practicing, and playing with something to prove.
“I feel like we’re not respected. I mean, people think that after ‘the shot’ it makes last year a fluke, and that we didn’t deserve to be there,” Diawara says. “We’re 20-0 and haven’t been ranked No.1 in the country all year. We recognize that. We’re here to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke.”
Diawara, of course, is the man who broke the hearts of Ryerson Rams fans last season when he hit the go-ahead layup with just two seconds left at the end of regulation, to bring Calgary its first men’s basketball national title.
Diawara had been doing things like that all season and doing it on the biggest stage is just a testament to the amount of work and sacrifice that he’s put into his basketball career thus far.
“That whole game was crazy. Manny (Diressa) came back on us and hit a huge three in transition to tie it,” he explains. “We went into the timeout and everyone was kind of shocked and frozen at what just happened. I kept telling the guys ‘C’mon. We got this. We’re not going to overtime, let’s do this.’”
And with the game, the season, and a national championship on the line, Diawara stepped up when it mattered most.
“I’ve been grinding. Putting my time in the gym, the late nights, early mornings, it’s for times like these,”
“I’ve been grinding. Putting my time in the gym, the late nights, early mornings, it’s for times like these,” he says. “I told my point guard to give me the ball, let me go make a play. I got it with my left and laid it up. It hung on the rim for a bit, I remember watching it hang there and just praying it would drop, and thankfully it did.”
Born and raised in Montreal, Diawara played the end of his high school days at Alma Academy, which acted as a prep team and would travel to Toronto and the U.S. for tournaments in order to get their players scouting exposure. After trouble with paperwork, Diawara was unable to go to Division 1. He instead committed to Lamar State-Port Arthur, a Texas Junior College about an hour and a half east of Houston.
“It was a great experience. It really helped me grow as a man, as a person,” he says. “Moving away from home and focusing in on basketball, it really helped me grow into the player I am now.”
After two years, it was time for Diawara to take the next step in his basketball career. After finding out the NCAA would only offer him one year of eligibility, Diawara concluded that coming back to Canada would be his best choice.
“In terms of my career, I still wanted to develop. Having one year in the U.S. wasn’t worth it, so I opted to come back to Canada and have three years here instead.”
When it was time to come back north of the border, former Dinos head assistant coach Matt Skinn reached out via social media, and the rest is history.
“It was a pretty easy decision for me,” Diawara explains. “The vibes in Calgary were really good, the coaches were up front and honest with me about my role. Calgary fit me as a person and overall it was the best place for me to go at that time.”
Over his three years in Calgary, Diawara has grown from a role player in the Dinos rotation to the straw that stirs the drink for the undefeated and defending national champions. Part of that development came from experiences with Team Canada, at the 2017 FISU Summer Universiade in Tapiei City and at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.
“The chance to work with Team Canada was really fun, and it gave me a pro-like experience. Playing with high level guys like that, you really find your game and figure out how to fit in,” he says. “You find other things to do on the court, you understand how to become a true professional, and that was definitely one of the best experiences of my life.”
Those experiences prepared Diawara for the season he’s had so far. He’s been a key cog for the Dinos, leading the team in scoring with 17.9 points per game en route to just the fifth undefeated season in Canada West history.
“We’re not done yet,” he says. “We’ve only lost one game all year (in exhibition), and we’re a confident group. We tasted what the success was like last year, and we’re trying so hard to get there again. We, as a group, want to prove to everyone that last year wasn’t a fluke. We’re for real.”
When asked about the lack of a No.1 ranking in the U SPORTS Top 10, Diawara was motivated.
“We see it. It drives us. We’re working,"
“We see it. It drives us. We’re working,” he says. “We’re not too worried about that though, we have a lot of basketball left to play, it’s just one game at a time.”
His focus is on finishing this season, hopefully by hoisting the W.P McGee Trophy in Halifax once again. But after that, there’s no denying that Diawara’s pro dreams may be realized.
“It’s crazy, like, you never really think it’ll happen. It hit me really late you know, like, realizing that I actually could go pro. It makes me anxious actually, not knowing exactly what’s going to happen, but it makes me go harder in the gym every single day. I’m so excited for any and every opportunity that comes my way.”
Nicholas is third-year student in the Radio & Television Arts: Sport Media program at Ryerson University. He has written for ebonybird.com, covering the Baltimore Ravens for Fansided and Raptors HQ, covering Canada’s NBA team for SB Nation. Sports has been the integral piece in Nicholas’ life and has opened many doors for him throughout the years. He has been taught many practical character traits through the love, passion, and competitiveness of sports, but none more important than teamwork and respect.