Big Man On Campus
Globetrotter Bakary Konaté finds a happy home in Minnesota.
STORY BY RICK MOORE
Bakary Konaté flashes a wide, warm smile and reaches down to shake a visitor’s hand before ducking under some scaffolding that’s become a new fixture in the Bierman athletic complex—a precursor to the new Athletes Village rising to the east.
Upon entering a conference room, Konaté takes a seat at the end of a long table, his legs splayed everywhere, and suddenly you realize you don’t have it so bad on airplanes, after all.
By all accounts, the junior center on the Gopher basketball team is a blast of West African sunshine in the University of Minnesota community, with a personality even larger than his 6-11, 235-pound frame. But on this day he’s a bit reserved, especially after finding out his story will be shared at length to a broader audience.
That’s the price of endearing yourself to your teammates and adopted state and having a rich tale worth telling.
A late bloomer, ‘Lost Boys,’ and a found opportunity
Konaté’s path to Minnesota would take half a basketball game to fully explain, and involves four languages, three continents, two families, and one very dedicated student and athlete.
He was born in Bamako, Mali, and counts 14 siblings among his “extended” family. At age 12 he started playing basketball rather than his original love, soccer, and that corresponded with an epic growth spurt. Two years later he traveled to Spain with his brother to explore options for secondary school, and wound up attending IES La Vega de San Jose on Grand Canary Island.
Konaté was still raw as a high school player, but in four years averaged nine rebounds, 7.5 points, and one block per game, and he played for Team Mali in the Adidas Nations Basketball Tournament in Chicago. He spent an additional year at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kan., where he focused on raising his SAT scores and English proficiency. The summer prior he caught the eye of coaches from a number of Division I colleges. Among them were Rick Pitino from Louisville (which had recently won an NCAA championship), who said, as Konaté recalled, “I think we are interested in you.”
On an official visit to Louisville, Konaté met Pitino’s family, including son Richard, who had just won the NIT title in his first year coaching at Minnesota. When the Louisville ship sailed without him, one thing led to another and Konaté wound up visiting Minnesota, where he loved the U and the “kind” people.
Intertwined with all of this was a relationship Konaté’s family had with Jeffrey Kollar of Sharon, Pa. Some 18 years ago, Kollar had watched a ‘60 Minutes’ segment on the Lost Boys of Africa. The piece moved Kollar. The following day he talked with a friend from college and declared that, “Somehow or another, I’d like to help.”
That notion turned into a concrete idea—to recruit, in a sense, a bright young African child who could earn a collegiate scholarship in America. The goal, said Kollar, was to “get someone a full education so that they could take those skills back to Mali, put them to use, and change lives.”
His first “recruit” was Ibrahim Konaté, Bakary’s older brother, who came to Pennsylvania when he was 15 and went on to play college basketball for Boston University. Ibrahim earned a math degree and added a master’s degree. He is now teaching in Ohio.
Kollar developed a relationship with the Konaté family and thought, “This worked so well, let’s see what we can do with his brothers or sisters.”
That connection has worked six times now, and Kollar considers himself a second father to Konaté, about whom he gushes.
“As the people of Minnesota are becoming aware, Bakary is an individual that is extremely outgoing and personable,” Kollar said. “That’s one of Bakary’s greatest traits; his personality is so big.”
“You’d be hard pressed to find a guy that’s more liked than Bakary on campus,” said Gopher Head Coach Richard Pitino. “Everyone knows him, everybody loves him. He’s never had a bad day, always a smile on his face, always talking to everybody. He’s easily one of the most popular student-athletes that I’ve been around.”
Adapting to a new role
Despite some nagging injuries, Konaté was a key cog for the Gophers as a sophomore last year, albeit for an undermanned team that struggled to an 8-23 overall record and only two Big Ten wins. He started 26 times and averaged nearly 22 minutes per game, with 4.8 points and 5.1 rebounds (the latter good for second-best on the team).
This year Minnesota added to its lineup transfer Reggie Lynch (who promptly became one of the nation’s elite shot blockers) and freshman Eric Curry—two athletic big men who earned significant playing time and helped key the Gophers’ incredible turnaround. That relegated Konaté to a reduced role in terms of playing time, with an average of about 10 minutes per game.
However, the time he logged was precious, both for the team and Konaté. “Last year he played a lot of minutes and it was good for him, even if he may not have been totally ready,” said Pitino, who added that last year’s experience bolstered Konaté’s maturation process.
“He’s become a great force down low—a great secondary big man we can count on to make stops,” added Nate Mason, the junior point guard who is one of Konaté’s closer friends on the team.
Facing less playing time can be a big blow for an athlete, but Konaté has adapted well.
“He hasn’t said a word,” said Pitino. “He’s the biggest cheerleader on the team and just wants to help us win. The only time he’s ever complained to me is if I take him out too much in practice. He listens to everything you say, he competes every single day. He just wants to be on the court and practice, and he never even mentions [playing] time during the games.”
Konaté is competitive enough to dislike his decreased time, but unselfish enough to turn it into a positive. “It was not easy, but I understand,” he said. “I know Reggie is an excellent shot blocker and a big body, and does a lot of stuff well.”
“Now I understand I have to work very hard, game by game, to get [the coach’s] confidence every minute that I’m on the court. Even if it’s for five seconds or 10 seconds, I try to do my best to help my team win.”
‘No Bakary-screen Tuesdays’ and other rituals
While Konaté is reserved in an interview, talk to Pitino or a teammate or even Konaté himself and you learn that he’s enthusiastic and outgoing, to the nth degree. His energy abounds on the court, especially in practice.
“He works his butt off and never takes a possession off,” said Pitino. “To be his size and play that hard, to play with that type of motor, it’s a valuable weapon off the bench for us.”
And “he can set some very physical screens,” Pitino said with a grin. “You have to be careful of putting him in screening actions the day before a game, because he’ll knock somebody out. We’re always on him about that.”
The day before a home game with Indiana in mid-February, Konaté apparently set himself up as an immovable object on just such a screen. Akeem Springs hit the wall and Konaté “almost gave him a concussion,” said Pitino. “That’s just the way he is; he’s an intense kid that plays hard every single possession.”
Konaté dedicates himself to academics with the same vigor he applies to his screens. And when English is your fourth language (his native Bambara, French, and Spanish are the others), you’re always playing a bit of catch up. “I have to [work harder]; I have no other option,” he said. “I still have a way to go, but I know I have to learn faster.”
He’s planning to major in business management, and thinks that the world of sales—if not basketball—may open doors for him anywhere in the world. “I’m getting the skill set to start knowing people and how to communicate,” he said. “If I have a good resume and have those relationships, I think can find something.”
The desire to communicate is not an issue. “When he first got here he was really quiet,” Mason said. “Through the years he’s definitely speaking a lot more—speaking too much now—and making jokes. It’s fun to see how he went from being shy to being so talkative.”
“You can always tell when someone gets somewhat Americanized,” added Pitino. “He’s one of the funnier characters in our locker room. Everybody loves him; he’s friends with everybody. You can just tell that everybody really, really wants him to succeed on the court. And I think a lot of that is because he’s such a good teammate and cares about the guys and wants them to succeed. You can tell that they feel the same way about him.”
Outward ebullience aside, there’s a contemplative side of Konaté. “Even though he’s very personable, he’s a very cerebral individual,” said Kollar. “When people think he doesn’t understand [something], he understands.”
“I’m just trying to take time to analyze things, instead of trying to react,” said Konaté. “I might understand more than people think.”
“I try to be generous and have a good time with people,” he added. “To me, being in a different place and being around different people of different cultures and ethnicities and all those backgrounds different to my own, that has been a blessing. And I’m trying to take advantage of every opportunity to meet new people and learn from them.”
Host dad Kollar has no doubt Konaté will succeed in the future—during and after his on-court pursuits. “Bakary has turned into a great young man and I’m expecting great things of him as a man, a father, and a leader of a community—whatever profession he chooses,” he said.
Pitino is also expecting big things of Konaté. “He’s such a people person that he’s going to be successful in whatever it is that he does, because he has such a good way about him and people are going to want to surround themselves around him.”
Konaté may not yet be prone to profundity in his fourth language, but after a reflective pause, he offered that he’s “starving” to achieve his goals—academically, athletically, and socially. “I really believe if you prepare yourself, work hard, and follow [your plan] step by step and not be lazy, you can find your way. It might take time, but you can do it.”
And in his case, if you smile a lot on your journey, you’ll have plenty of teammates and friends at your side.
Rick Moore is a writer/editor in University Relations and a long-time follower of Gopher Athletics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.