‘A great future awaits’: Meet the player who could shake up the WNBA draft
Apr 7, 2022
SIKA KONE GOT off the bus and approached the gate to an outdoor basketball facility in Bamako, Mali. Although she was late, she decided to give it a shot. This was her big shot.
It was 2016, and the 14-year-old Kone had just heard from one of her friends that a basketball camp was being held in town. The four-day camp’s best players would be awarded full scholarships to Canterbury School in Spain, a British school. Kone had missed two days of the camp.
Uncertain if she’d even be allowed to participate, or if she could make up for the lost time, Kone agonized over whether she should go. Her mom gave her the money to pay for her bus fare and asked her to give it a try.
Kone had already accomplished a lot in basketball within a short time. Four years ago, Kone was introduced to basketball and fell in love with it. She knew that if she had the chance to demonstrate her new skills, the coaches would be impressed. She knew what was at stake: A chance to get back to the sport she loves, to train with better coaches in better facilities, and to make her mom proud.
She approached coaches and was open with them. She told them she had heard about the camp only that morning. She said, “Give me one chance to demonstrate my skills.” She was allowed in by the coaches.
She quickly proved that their decision was wise. She made three-pointers, grabbed rebounds and dominated defense.
” “I wasn’t nervous,” she said. “When I’m on the court, I’m just playing. “
It was after the camp that the coaches sat down and considered the possibility of nerves setting in. Did she have enough? Did she do enough in half the time?
Then came the announcement: Sika Kone was awarded a full scholarship to Spain.
She could feel her heart beating in her chest. She had made it.
On Monday, nearly six years after that life-changing camp, Kone will be waiting to hear her name called yet again, this time during the 2022 WNBA draft (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). The 19-year-old, 6-foot-3 forward/center is projected by multiple outlets to be taken in the first round. If projections are correct Kone would be the fifth Malian woman to be drafted into a WNBA team. Her life is full of unbelievable stories. Leaving poverty-stricken Mali at age 15 on a full scholarship to play basketball in Spain, visiting her family once a year (if that), learning English from watching nighttime TV in Spain, losing her mom just a few weeks before the draft to an undisclosed illness.
Although Kone didn’t just lead her team to an NCAA championship like South Carolina’s Destanni Henderson did, or turn heads in the Final Four like Louisville’s Emily Engstler did, or appear on NCAA player of the year lists like Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith or Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard did, she just might have the highest ceiling of them all.
KONE WAS 10 years old when a friend extended an invitation: “Come with me! I have something to share with you.” Kone was taken to an indoor basketball court and made to stand at the sidelines while she bounced the ball between her legs, then tucked it between her legs before jumping up to throw it into a basket. Kone watched her friend play a game with her friends.
Kone’s eyes widened. She didn’t know what this sport was but was intrigued. It was geometry, precision, and her favorite part — it was a team sport.
She ran home and told her parents what she had done. She explained what basketball was and the little she knew by asking her friend questions. Then she asked her parents if they would let her try it.
The entry fee to play on that basketball court was the equivalent of around $10 per month. Kone’s mom nodded. She said, “If this is what it is that you want to do,”
Kone returned to the court the following day, captivated by the rules and speed. Slowly, her muscles grew stronger, she was growing taller, and she began to learn the nuances of playing the game.
Two years later, when Kone turned 12, she tried out for a feeder club to the Malian national team. She made it. Officials at the club called her raw talent and said she was authentic. They wanted her to improve her skills.
She ran from tryouts to tell mom everything that had happened. Her mother saw her excitement and decided that she would do all she could to make her daughter’s dreams come true.
Kone watched the Malian women’s national team on television with her family, which included three sisters and two brothers. She dreamed of wearing the Malian green jersey from the beginning. She imagined her family watching her play for her country on the television.
“That made me work hard,” Kone said and smiled.
When she was 13, Kone was picked as one of five players from her club to attend a national team training camp. She was the only one selected from her club at the end of the camp. The coaches told her that she was too young but that she should keep training, and once she got older, closer to 16, she would be called up to play for the national team.
Bamako, where Kone was born and raised, is the capital of Mali and has a population of 2 million. Kone’s native language is Bambara, but she also speaks French, an official language of the country since it gained independence from France in 1960. Mali, a West African country that is landlocked, has been in political turmoil for decades and is one of the most impoverished countries in the world. One of Mali’s bright spots over the past two decades has been its women’s basketball program, which won gold at the FIBA Women’s AfroBasket in 2007 and qualified for the 2008 Olympics. In 2010 at the FIBA world championships, Mali finished 15th. But recent allegations of systemic sexual abuse within the program, which led to the arrest of one coach and the suspension of another coach and one official, have cast that success in a grim light.
“It came as a shock to me,” Kone said of the allegations, which date back to the 1990s. “I did not have much interaction with the coaching staff during the tournaments so I am not in a good position to comment. “
By the time she was 15, Kone’s view had expanded beyond her country’s national team. She boarded her first plane and left the country she had ever lived in, leaving behind the life she knew to pursue a bigger and more ambitious basketball dream.
AS SOON AS the coaches at the 2016 camp in Bamako announced her name as a scholarship winner, Kone’s mind began racing.
She was so focused on basketball at camp that she didn’t think about what she would face if she won. What would her mom think? What would her mom think? Questions cluttered her mind on her way back home.
Until then, Kone had been playing for her local team. Kone had always dreamed of playing for the Malian women’s national team. Kone didn’t know there was anything more to her dreams. What if there was something more, something that would make Kone’s mother prouder, and it was waiting for her outside Mali?
Caught off guard, her parents asked a lot of questions. What would the academy be like? What would the academy look like? How often could she go?
Kone sought the help of the camp’s organizer, who was well-known in her community, to alleviate her parents’ concerns. She would be sharing a dorm with other students. Each day would include a full day of study followed by training. Three Malian basketball players had left the school to help her adjust to Gran Canaria.
Her parents also expressed a powerful emotion: happiness. Their youngest daughter would be able to play basketball and study at a British school in Spain. Her parents, who had six children to worry about, were thrilled.
Kone made the right decision. She wanted to play basketball. She wanted to make her parents proud.
” I always wondered, “Will this make mom proud?” She said. “And if it is yes, I said yes. A few months later, she packed her suitcase and headed to the airport with her entire family.
With tears pouring out of her eyes, at 15, she said goodbye to her family as they huddled around the entrance, waving. She walked into the airport and stumbled through security to board the plane for her first flight.
As the plane took off, she could feel pressure in her ears and gripped the sides of the seats.
When the pilot announced they would land in Spain shortly, she looked out of the window. Her bird’s eye view of Spain revealed her signature smile.
ON THE COURT for the fifth hour straight, Kone tried to perfect her every move, her every shot. She had watched hours of tape of WNBA legend Candace Parker and spent hours replicating Parker’s moves on the court.
Her agent Ahmadou Keita was a former pro basketball player and stood by her side. It was the summer of 2021 and Kone spent her offseason in France with her agent, immersed in her training.
This woman never stops, Keita thought to himself.
After hour six on the court, she wiped away sweat and walked over to the gym to lift weights.
“Sika, your body needs rest,” Keita said. “This is enough for today. “
“Just a bit longer,” Kone said and smiled.
And continued lifting weights for an entire hour.
Ever since Kone moved to Spain, in 2016, she vowed to put in that extra hour. She was the first to arrive at her training facility, before the janitors opened it, and she was the last one to leave the court. One more shot on court, one more rep at the weight room, one more mile on a treadmill. This extra effort was for her mother and her parents. She had to make them proud. This is what she did.
“We had the need to tell her, “Look, we are closing the training complex. You have to go home,” Jose Carlos Ramos (the head coach of SPAR Gran Canaria’s team for three years) said in Spanish. “Sometimes she was at the door of the training complex at 9 in the morning, but we started training at 11. She used to come to the door to open it. “
Kone began to learn English seriously as soon as she enrolled at the Canterbury School in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. It is a bilingual English-Spanish school. After training, Kone turned on the TV and watched all the news and sports, repeating sentences, writing new words, and imitating accents. She also learned colloquial Spanish to get to know her teammates. She started following the WNBA and paying attention to the English commentary as well as the athletes. She was only 15, but a new dream began to take shape.
She longed to be a part of the WNBA. It was the ultimate league in women’s basketball. She was proud to tell her mother, “Mom! I am playing in one of the best basketball leagues in the world.” She thought.
After two years at the Canterbury School, she was recruited by CB Adareva Tenerife, a team in the Spanish junior league in the island of Tenerife. Her potential was already a topic of conversation with coaches in the Spanish basketball league.
When Ramos first heard about Kone, he thought that she had a bright future ahead of her. He decided to recruit Kone to his SPAR Gran Canaria team, a highly respected member of the Spanish women’s basketball league.
Ramos had some experience in getting athletes to the WNBA — he coached the reigning WNBA champion Chicago Sky’s Astou Ndour-Fall when she played in Spain — and he knew what it took to make it in the U.S. And he knew, right away, that Kone was going to be a star in the WNBA one day.
“She’s the heartbeat [of the team] of the court,” Ramos stated. She scores, gets a rebound on defense, passes and runs the court. She can pass the ball to her teammate if she fails, and if she succeeds, she will get the same rebound. She can perform five, six, or eight different plays in the same sequence, such as rebounding, blocking, scoring baskets, or coming back on defense. “
During the off-seasons starting in 2017, she traveled to Mali and played for the national team, and her parents and siblings watched from the stands. In 2021, at the U19 World Cup in Hungary, where Mali finished fourth, Kone joined Americans Caitlin Clark and Sonia Citron on the all-tournament team after leading all players in scoring (19.7 PPG) and rebounding (14.8). At the 2021 FIBA AfroBasket, an annual continental basketball championship in Africa, Kone helped Mali finish as runner-up, reaching the final before losing to Nigeria. Kone’s mom would call Kone after every win and tell her, “I am so proud.” Every time Kone heard that sentence, she would smile big. This sentence was never boring.
“Playing for Mali was her first dream, so what a dream come true to play for her country,” Ramos said.
At SPAR Gran Canaria, she blossomed, and out of the 19 games she played in the 2021-22 season, she averaged 33.6 minutes, recording 14 double-doubles. Sometimes, Ramos could tell that she needed a 30-second break but she’d push herself. She’d insist, “No, no. No, no. I want to keep playing, I want win.”
All of those points, all those rebounds and all that winning have landed Kone in round one on a variety mock drafts. Kone stated, “It feels so great to see my name on those lists. It’s almost unbelievable sometimes.”
When she’s not playing basketball she helps new recruits from Mali settle into SPAR Gran Canaria and teaches them the little things that she learned in Spain. Ramos stated that she teaches them how to be themselves, what sacrifice looks and what effort looks.
Kone, who speaks Spanish, French, Bambara and English, made it a priority to bond with each of her teammates. Adji Fall, a teammate, said in Spanish that Kone will come to me if she feels sad or alone. “If I’m having a bad game, she will reach out to me to talk. We can also phone each other off the court. She is like a sister to me. “
Usually a quiet observer, Kone also showed her silly side to her teammates. Fall recalled convincing Kone to dance in front of others. Fall captured the entire routine on video. Fall now tells her new colleagues that Kone dances on video. “
In February 2022, Kone injured her right meniscus during a game in Spain. Initial diagnosis was not good. Doctors predicted Kone would be out of action for four months. But on March 14, Kone underwent an arthroscopy, a simpler operation than what was previously anticipated. She was expected to return in four weeks.
Kone viewed the injury and layoffs as a way to get stronger.
” “The injury can only make you better,” she said.
SIKA KONE IS wearing a red and black kaftan-esque outfit — traditional Malian garb — sprinkled with golden dots. Her hair is tied back with a black bandana. She is at her parents’ home in Bamako. Her room is separated from the rest by a door-length curtain with cream and green African prints. Kone flew to Bamako for family time. Her smile is beautiful. It lights up her face and creates crinkles around her eyes. Even though she is peering through a Zoom screen, more than 4,300 miles away from the East Coast, I find myself smiling, proving a point her acquaintances had made over and over.
Her smile will make you smile.
When I tell her that ESPN has her going in the first round of the draft, she looks away from the screen and for the first time her smile fades.
” It was my mom’s dream that I would play in the WNBA. She trails off and says, “And finally, the draft has arrived but she is not.”
In 2021, she had sat her mom down and told her all about how the WNBA draft worked, how players were selected and what it would mean for her future — and the future of her family. Her eyes lit up. Her mom said, “You must do this.” This is the dream that you must chase. “
Ever since Kone began playing basketball on that tiny court in Bamako, she’s made every decision with one goal: to make her mom proud. Her mom won’t be there to hear Kone’s name called on Monday. She will, however, be there to hug her daughter and to share her pride.
Kone’s mother died three weeks ago.
Kone has been relentlessly pushing herself to be better, to practice more, to lift more weights, and to never let up. She is now on the verge of her dream and has finally found the time to think. She is able to walk around her mother’s house and touch the sofa she sat upon, the kitchen counter she cooked on, and the bed she slept on.
Sometimes she texts her friend Fall in Spain. Fall tries distracting her. Her WhatsApp messages show her sadness.
“She longed to take her mother to Mecca. Fall stated that she wanted to take her mother to Mecca to see her play [in the WNBA after].
Kone smiles back at the camera and shakes off the tension. Her face is filled with determination.
Kone will be back in Spain on Monday night and will sit down in front of her TV to watch. Wait for her name to come up. Kone will still feel the presence of her mom even though she won’t physically be there. Her mom allowed her to be the person she is today.
” I hope she is watching from heaven,” Kone said. “I hope she is proud. “
ESPN research chief Gueorgui Milkov contributed reporting for this story.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.