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An ongoing journey for Cheick Diallo

After uprooting from Mali to Long Island, the former Our Savior New American star is competing for the NBA's Pelicans, hoping for more playing time and eventually having his family join him in the United States.

Chieck Diallo of New Orleans Pelicans defends Knicks'

Chieck Diallo of New Orleans Pelicans defends Knicks' Isaiah Hicks during a preseason NBA  game at Madison Square Garden on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

CHEICK

DIALLO

New Orleans Pelicans

No. 13, Power forward

Vitals: 6-9, 220

Born: Sept. 13, 1996 in Kayes, Mali (age 22)

High school: Our Savior New American in

Centereach

College: Kansas

Drafted: 2016 by Clippers (33rd overall)

  

2018-19 STATS

27 Games

9.7 minutes/game

3.4 ppg

Cheick Diallo’s life has been an unending series of journeys, one more unlikely than the last.

As a teen, he traveled from his home country of Mali, then in the throes of civil war, to the hallways of Our Savior New American in Centereach to play basketball — a game he had picked up only a few years earlier.

That game took him to the University of Kansas, bounced him around the NBA’s developmental league and finally landed him with the Pelicans in New Orleans, where he hopes a bench role could lead to something more.

Last week, life took him to Barclays Center and a game against the Nets (he didn’t play). Diallo still travels back in time every time he comes here, he said hours before tip-off. He still can hear the crowd and feel the energy from when he played here in tournaments in high school.

For an athlete and nomad, this is home. Or one of them, at least.

“Every time I come to New York, especially Brooklyn, to play here, it makes me feel like I’m here back in the day,” he said. “It makes me go ‘wow.’ I can picture myself here a few years ago when I won MVP [during the Jordan Brand Classic as a high school senior]. It feels different, but it feels like yesterday.”

Like most journeys worth taking, Diallo’s path hasn’t been an easy one.

Now 22, he moved here alone at age 15 and was hosted by a family in Coram, Mike and Cathy Fortunato. He spoke three languages at the time, but English wasn’t one of them.

His parents in Mali, Mamadou and Ramata, did everything to give him this opportunity, he said, but they’ve never seen him play, except for on TV, when they can manage the six-hour time difference between Mali and New Orleans.

They’re getting up there in age, he said, and his dream is to have them move to the United States, but the hurdles to immigration have been too tough to overcome.

They are his reason, he said — the reason he keeps pressing despite the long odds he’s faced along the way and, in many ways, still faces.

“I’m not going to forget where I came from,” he said. “I thank my dad for everything he did for me. Whatever I’m doing here, whatever I’m doing in life right now, it’s for my family. My family is behind my hand . . . I play hard [AND]my family is my No. 1 motivation.”

As for basketball, he can play power forward or center, but on a team with Anthony Davis, Jahlil Okafor, Julius Randle and Nikola Mirotic, playing time is hard to come by. Diallo is averaging 3.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 0.5 blocks in a little less than 10 minutes per game. He had a strong summer league, though, and seemed to thrive last season after an injury to DeMarcus Cousins led to more playing time.

He’s not big by NBA standards (he’s 6-9), nor is he wide (at 220, he’s best described as lanky), but he does have a 7- foot, 4 1⁄2-inch wingspan. He also has the type of young, infectious energy that lends some life to a team that’s near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Old newspaper articles from his high school days show coaches praising his tenacity and hard work. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry often has praised him for the same. Diallo hopes it all clicks someday in a way that leads to more chances, more playing time and longevity in this league.

Above all, though, he wants to get his parents here with him. Until then, he has a foster family in his host family, the Fortunatos. They were there that day at Barclays, and in New Orleans the previous week, to see him play and to catch a Saints game. When “home” was more than 4,000 miles away, they made him a home here to which he still loves to return.

So it makes sense that Diallo has a lot to play for. While many professional athletes are reserved, Diallo is open about his motivations and his driving desire to make both families proud. He’ll keep trying, he said, and he hopes to give the coaching staff a chance to trust him more every day.

“That’s the goal, that’s the goal,” he said of an increased role. “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing and eventually something might happen for me.”

That’s another difficult journey, of a completely different kind, but Diallo sounded neither intimidated nor insecure. After all, he’s made it happen plenty of times before.

CHEICK DIALLO

New Orleans Pelicans

No. 13, Power forward

Vitals: 6-9, 220

Born: Sept. 13, 1996 in Kayes, Mali (age 22)

High school: Our Savior New American in Centereach]

College: Kansas

Drafted: 2016 by Clippers (33rd overall)

2018-19 stas

27 Games

9.7 minutes/game

3.4 ppg

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