When Kassoum Yakwe played with a ball, it was always a soccer ball. That’s what youngsters play in Mali.
Then one day, walking around the capital, Bamako, he saw some kids playing basketball.
“It was out of the blue,” Yakwe recalled, after a morning workout at the Werth Family Center. “I didn’t even know about basketball. I saw some kids playing, and I wanted to try something new. I started playing basketball when I was 13, and as soon as I started playing, everything changed for me.”
In a year or so, Yakwe was playing with older kids on the Under-16 national team and then on his way to the United States, leaving the landlocked, West African nation.
“I started liking the game more and more,” Yakwe said. “When I was selected to play for the national team, at that time I was just playing basketball for fun. When I was selected, I was like, ‘How did this happen?’ I knew that I could be special.”
To this day, his family has never even seen him play basketball “in real life,” he said. He sends his parents, Youssouff Yakwe and Eveline Arama, videos, and has gone back to visit every two years.
“It was hard,” Yakwe said. “I came here when I was 14. It was pretty hard, especially for my mom. I was pretty young. She didn’t know if I would be OK. My guardian [Tidiane Drame] went back home and let them know I would be fine, in good care.”
Yakwe, 6 feet 7, 210 pounds, played at Our Savior New American in Centereach, N.Y., out on Long Island, and for the PSA Cardinals AAU program in New York City, and then at St. John’s, where he earned a degree in three years.
“There was culture shock,” he said. “Also the game is so different, so much faster. You have to have everything. You can’t just be athletic. You have to have skills, know the game. I was just trying to adjust to it.”
Now he is in Storrs, arriving July 8 for the second summer session, one of two grad students who have joined coach Dan Hurley’s program renovation. Takwe’s days begin with weight training shortly after 6 a.m., then workouts, then classes and study, and finally back in the Werth Center for a little more work on his game.
“I like it. It’s very calm,” Yakwe said. “It’s not like New York. Outside of campus, there is nothing to do. I like it because all I do is go to school, study and focus on basketball. I think this is the perfect place for me.”
Yakwe, Tarin Smith, a grad student from Duquesne, and Brendan Adams, a freshman from Baltimore, all came to visit the same weekend, as Hurley and his staff looked for quick replacements for the three players who de-committed after the coaching change, with plans of moving on quickly to Class of 2019 recruiting. Smith and Adams committed the day they left. Yakwe slept on it, and committed on April 17.
“I just wanted to have more opportunity to play,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot of stuff, but I’m not going to hold on to that now. I’m here at UConn, and I’m willing to work hard. It’s just been up and down, but I’m not looking back on that now.”
Hurley sees him as the rim protector to complement the pressure defense he wants to implement. Yakwe made the Big East’s all-rookie team in 2015-16, averaging 7.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. He was slowed by ankle injuries the next two seasons and never quite regained his form, or his minutes with the Red Storm.
“He’s very athletic,” said Taliek Brown, UConn’s new director of player development, who saw Yakwe in New York early on. “Great motor. He’s just got to get his legs under him and learn the game a little more. He’s everywhere on the floor. He makes plays. He changes shots, crowds the paint. He’s just an old-school big guy. It’s all about confidence, just go hard and push yourself.”
Yakwe is healthy now and getting up to speed with the up-tempo practices.
“I feel like it’s more intense here,” Yakwe said. “Coach Hurley is going all the time. He doesn’t even stop. Drill after drill, the pace is great. When you practice that way, the game will be easier.”
After getting his degree in sports management, Yakwe is pursuing a master’s in that field at UConn. He has big aspirations — to be a GM. His eyes would be trained on work ethic.
“I would look for players, no matter if they come from the United States or another country,” Yakwe said, “if they’re willing to work hard and be great.”
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