With grace and speed that seemed surprising given his 6-9, 225-pound frame, Cheick Diallo quickly filled the lane on a fast break. He fielded a bounce pass on the run and dunked it with one hand, never breaking stride. He pivoted, raced back on defense and blocked a shot.
The tiny gymnasium at Our Savior New American rocked with delight. This is what they came to see. This is why on a frigid mid-February night, excited fans were stuffed into the stands at the K-through-12 Christian school, enrollment 200.
Diallo, an 18-year-old senior who left the West African country of Mali to come to the Centereach school, is ranked among the elite high school basketball players in the nation, and his play has been a treat for Our Savior fans since his arrival in 2012. Kids (and some adults) flock to the top-10 national recruit for autographs and photos.
Those kids, like brand-name college coaches who visited last fall -- Kentucky's John Calipari and Kansas' Bill Self among them -- all want the same thing: Cheick Diallo's signature.
"He works hard and developed quickly because he's very, very talented," said Pastor Ron Stelzer, the OSNA coach. "He runs the floor, he jumps, he shoots. He's not a lumbering big man. He's a deer . . . and a strong one. He's not as polished and as refined yet because he's only been in the United States for three years."
Cheick (pronounced "Shek," as in trek) has averaged 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks this season for the Pioneers, who play against such out-of-state powers as Oak Hill Academy (Virginia), Mount Zion Christian Academy (North Carolina), Rise Academy (Philadelphia), Prime Prep (Dallas), Findlay Prep (Nevada) and St. Joseph Prep (West Virginia).
But you could argue that Diallo's backstory is the main story.
"Keep in mind that English is his fourth language," Stelzer said of Diallo, who arrived in New York City on Valentine's Day 2012. "You have to have a tremendous amount of respect for a kid like that. He left his home, family, loved ones, friends, with a dream in his heart.
"He came from one of the poorest countries in West Africa, from a home where two African dialects were spoken and he learned French on top of that. Then he comes to America when he's 15 years old and he's got to learn English and compete on SATs with kids who are from America . . . He works extremely hard at it."
The impossible dream
Diallo said his transition to American life and basketball was an unimaginable challenge.
"Oh my God, it was so tough that first year," he said, recalling that current St. John's University center Chris Obekpa, then an OSNA senior, blocked "all" of his shots in practice.
"It was so funny on the court. I could not play so well because I didn't speak English and I couldn't even talk to my teammates. I wasn't listening. It was brutal," Diallo said. "If you can't speak English, you can't play the game here because you don't know the plays. My second year, I knew some more English and it became easier for me. I started to figure it out and fit in better."
In the summer of 2013, before his junior year, Diallo became a sensation on the celebrated AAU summer circuit. The big-time colleges wanted him and began applying the full-court press that is recruiting. They found their way to Centereach.
Diallo, who was named a McDonald's All-American and will play in that All-Star Game in Chicago on April 1, said he has narrowed his college choices to Kentucky, Kansas, Iowa State, Pittsburgh and St. John's. He will announce his decision in the spring, he said.
Home away from home
Diallo said he watches as many college games on television as he can, but there was a time when he wouldn't have been able to understand the broadcasts. The language barrier, he said, made schoolwork trying, but it was just another challenge for his host family, Mike and Cathy Fortunato of Coram and their son Nick, a 17-year-old senior baseball player at Longwood.
"When he first came here, he spoke very little English, and for his homework assignments, we had to Google the questions for translation before we could get to the answers," Mike Fortunato said. "But he worked very hard at that and succeeded. In about six to eight months, you could see the difference at home, in school and on the court. He felt much more comfortable and could communicate with everybody."
Cathy Fortunato said playing Charades at home helped, although she laughingly said there were plenty of anecdotes involving misunderstood words or phrases. Cathy and Mike were not big basketball fans -- though Nick was -- but Diallo "is always teaching us about the game," she said. "We're always watching basketball. I'm still learning, but it's been fun."
Diallo has been all business when it comes to his assimilation into American society. "He's the hardest-working kid I've ever seen in my life," Cathy Fortunato said. "He deserves what is coming his way. One o'clock in the morning, 2 o'clock in the morning, he's doing schoolwork. He wants to do well. As hard as he works on the court is how hard he works on his schoolwork."
Diallo is close to his host family. The Fortunatos sit in the first row of folding chairs for every home game, carrying handmade signs from friends and their extended family. Nick called it "very cool" to see all the attention that Diallo is getting. He said Diallo attends his baseball games at Longwood, where he also has become well-known.
Despite the language barrier, Diallo immediately embraced his new home. "I can't remember when he hasn't called me Mom," Cathy Fortunato said. "We've clicked from the beginning. People say, 'You're being so nice and you're doing so many things for him' and yes, it's gratifying to help somebody. But it's amazing how much of a new dynamic he's brought to our family."
A dynamic that Mike Fortunato said he dreads losing.
"He's part of our life and part of our family and always will be," Mike said. "He's called us Mom and Dad since Day 1 and we treat him just like Nick. They're brothers and he's our son. When he leaves, it'll be very tough because we'll lose both of them. It'll be an empty nest and it will take some time to get used to it. It'll be a bit of a shock for us."
Diallo can identify with that empty feeling. He left home at age 15 and has been back to Mali only once, last summer. He brought plenty of goodies along with an abundance of love.
"I have so many sneakers. More than 50 pairs," he said of the spoils of the many camps and clinics he has attended. "I saved them. I gave a lot of gear to my four brothers and my cousins and friends back home. They were loving the sneakers. It was like I was a hero."
But because it was only a two-week visit, it was bittersweet. "It was hard; it was tough,'' he said. "I miss my family. I Skype with them and I call them, but it's not the same as seeing them face-to- face. It's definitely hard growing up like that, but they are very proud of me."
Diallo's success in basketball is a delight to friends and family in Mali. "Basketball is not popular in my country," he said. "Some of my friends played basketball, but when I was young, I didn't even like basketball. I liked soccer. But my dad said, 'Oh, Cheick, you're getting tall. You've got to like basketball.' I said, 'OK, since only tall people play basketball, I want to learn to play basketball.' ''
He has learned it so well that, like his mastery of four languages, Diallo has become fluent in the sport that now defines him. An American university is next. The trek continues.