BYU’s ‘gentle giant’ Fousseyni Traore had humble beginnings in Africa before moving to Utah in search of basketball greatness

Traore came to the United States from Mali, one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world.

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Fousseyni Traore missed home.

A few weeks earlier, packing nothing but the clothes he wore, a few jerseys and a pair of shoes, the young man had traveled 10,000 kilometers to a new, strange place. It was dark when his plane landed around 4 a.m., and it was snowing hard when he started the drive to the rural Utah town where he was to live.

A man who had approached him on a basketball court had offered to help Traore get to the U.S. and Traore knew he had to go in order for his dream to flourish.

But he felt homesick. He missed the tiny room where he slept on a mattress protected by a mosquito net. He missed the compound where he lived with family in the market town of Kati. He missed kicking a soccer ball with his friends on the dirt roads after he had finished his homework.

He could have left. Returned to Mali. He thought of doing so.

But he stayed to chase basketball greatness and give back to his roots.

This is why those around the 20-year-old BYU freshman center believe he’ll get there.

Humble beginnings

Traore sits patiently. The Marriott Center has gone dark. One by one, his teammates on the BYU men’s basketball team are introduced to the crowd. Alex Barcello goes first, then Te’Jon Lucas, then Trevin Knell, then Caleb Lohner. All the while, Traore sits and waits.

The announcer finally calls the freshman center last. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound young man waits, but he hasn’t had to wait long to become a foundational piece for the Cougars.

“He deserves everything that’s coming to him,” Barcello said recently.

Traore, who goes by “Fouss,” has been thrust into a major role on the Cougars much earlier than anticipated due to the season-ending injuries to Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter. Coming into this week, he had started 10 games and averaged 8.5 points and 8.4 rebounds while also amassing 28 blocks and shooting nearly 56% from the field. He had also recorded five double-doubles.

But Traore’s journey to budding BYU star didn’t start at Wasatch Academy, where he played his high school ball. It didn’t start in Utah at all, or even the United States. It started in Mali, in a market town called Kati, 15 kilometers from Mali’s capital city, Bamako.

It was there where, as a young teenager, Traore saw Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, his favorite basketball player, make a near-halfcourt game-winning shot in the NBA playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“After that game, I just fell in love with basketball,” Traore said.

(Mike Clayton) Fousseyni Traore stands next to his childhood bed in Bamako, Mali, Africa. Traore, who goes by "Fouss," plays center for the BYU men's basketball team.

What followed was swift development that catapulted Traore from the Mali national team to getting discovered by a group of Utahns who run the Utah Mountain Stars, an AAU program with teams in Utah and in Mali. After his student visa was approved on the second try, Traore headed to the Beehive State, where a new life awaited him.

Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, with recent estimates indicating nearly half of its population lives in extreme poverty, per the United States Agency for International Development, a humanitarian organization. The country is also currently under a Level 4 travel advisory, which asks people not to travel there due to dangers of crime, terrorism, kidnapping and health risks.

But when Traore talks about life where he grew up, he has nothing but positive words, and he says them with a smile.

“Seriously, I never thought it was difficult to live there because I really love it? there,” Traore said. “That’s where I was born, where I grow up. I have my whole family there, my grandparents, my aunts, my cousins. I always feel happy there. I never feel, like, sad.”

Traore’s parents both played basketball and very much valued education. His mother, Kadiatou, works as a police officer, and his father, Lamine, is a military officer in Kati, which has a military compound.

It was Lamine who essentially forced Traore to start playing basketball in the first place when he was 13. Traore said his father told him playing was “not an option” because he was “built for it” due to his height. Traore admitted it took some time for him to start liking basketball — until the Curry shot against the Thunder, that is.

It became Traore’s mission to use basketball as a means of getting to the United States.

“I never thought I would be able to come here until I started playing basketball,” Traore said.

Discovered in Mali

In 2017, his Mali national team coach invited Traore to play in a camp. The then-15-year-old didn’t realize that someone from Utah would be watching him — Mike Clayton, administrator of the Utah Valley Eye Center. Clayton goes to Mali four times a year to bring eye care to the people there, and he’d already helped get another Malian basketball player, Mady Sissoko, to Utah.

“The thing that stood out the most as I was watching these guys play was that even though he wasn’t the tallest player on the team, he was the strongest and seemed to put forth more effort than any of the other players,” Clayton said. “There’s a lot of long, tall, athletic Malian kids, but there aren’t very many that have the muscular tone to their body that Fouss has.”

After seeing Traore practice just once on that outdoor concrete court, Clayton went up to him afterward and said he wanted to help get him to the U.S.

“I was shocked,” Traore said.

(Holly Zentner) Fousseyni Traore holds up a fish he caught. Traore started fishing when he moved to Utah, and has become quite good at it.

Adjusting to life in Utah

The flight from Mali to Utah spanned a total of about 23 hours.

Traore arrived in a blizzard, and it still took about two hours to arrive at his new home in Mount Pleasant, where he would first live with Troy and Holly Zentner and go to school and play basketball at Wasatch Academy.

His life became a series of firsts from the point on. He learned how to use a knife and fork on that first flight. He learned milk in the United States is refrigerated and not sweet, unlike his home country.

The first time Traore saw the family dog, he was surprised it was allowed indoors, Holly Zentner remembered. When he saw her daughter’s pet rabbit, he said, “We eat these things.” He takes showers for at least 20 minutes now.

Discovering food was a whole other adventure. Back home, Traore ate his mother’s rice, peanut sauce and plenty of fish. But he quickly assimilated North American cuisine.

His first pizza: barbecue chicken. The first time he tried mini Reese’s peanut butter cups, his eyes “went wide” and he immediately went for some more, Holly Zentner said. At his first buffet experience, “he could not believe what he was seeing,” Clayton said.

Traore has become an exceptional fisherman, those closest to him say, and loves thrill rides — even though he has a tendency to briefly lose consciousness during them. He has also come to love various water sports, so long as he wears his trusty life jacket.

“He thinks it’s like a Superman cape,” Holly Zentner said. “He thinks he can do anything as long as he has a life jacket on.”

It’s not just Traore who has learned about ideas he once found foreign. Holly Zentner said her family has realized how wasteful people can be when they see how he conceptualized excess.

He finds it unnecessary using as much water as it takes to do more than one load of laundry. And he once ate a take-out salad that arrived with a hair in it because one of her daughters couldn’t eat it.

Overall, Holly Zentner said Traore has made a profound impact on her family.

“We have been blessed beyond measure because we know Fouss,” she said. “And it’s not the other way around. We’ve given him everything we can, but everything he’s given us is — I mean, I can’t even voice it all.”

Settling in at BYU

Lohner has played with Traore for nearly three years. He’s seen firsthand how the Malian big man went from a struggling teenager to a confident 20-year-old who continues to improve every time he steps on the basketball court.

But what Lohner and the rest the Cougars admire most about Traore is his demeanor off the court.

“Every time I see Fouss, somehow, I have a smile on my face afterward,” Lohner said. “He’s just a bright presence in our team and in our locker room.”

Traore has appeared in all but one of the 21 games this season. He plays center on a team that is lacking size, and has played that position ever since his days at Wasatch Academy despite being traditionally undersized.

“I quickly realized that if he was in a play and the ball was close to him, he was going to be the one that came up with the ball,” said former Wasatch Academy coach Dave Evans, currently the head coach at Real Salt Lake Academy.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The student section celebrates the birthday of Brigham Young Cougars forward Fousseyni Traore (45) following their game against the Portland Pilots, at the Marriott Center, on Saturday, January 22, 2022.

But what Traore lacks in height he makes up for with brute strength. He works out four times a week because he actually considers himself undersized. Two separate host families told stories about him working outside on projects that involved moving giant rocks that would normally need a tractor, and Traore picking up and moving them without breaking a sweat or breathing heavily.

The one glitch in his Traore’s game might be that lacks some physicality. Coaches and others have told him not to be afraid of showing more edge, more fight. But the “gentle giant” — as Marty Haws, head of coaching for the Utah Mountain Stars, calls him — may just be a little too nice right now.

“I know it’s good to be physical, but I don’t want to hurt anybody,” Traore said. “That would hurt my feelings. I’m trying to work on being more mean. I’m working on it. I will be it for sure.”

Whenever Traore touches the ball or shoots free throws, the Marriott Center fans say his name and elongate the O and U. To the untrained ear, it may sound like they’re booing, but what they’re really saying is, “Foooooouuuuuuuss.”

He’s become a quick fan favorite, and is beloved by his teammates and close confidants. And Traore is only a freshman.

“I think I can get a lot better, but the coaching is helping me a lot,” Traore said. “I’m excited to see how I’m going to become.”

A goal to give back

During Traore’s first few weeks in Utah — back when he felt deeply homesick, almost to the point of deciding to leave — he could only communicate with his host family through Google Translate.

Instead, Traore found the strength to stay by looking home.

He spoke often with his father.

“My dad knows me,” Traore said, adding that he speaks to his parents, who watch his games on YouTube, every day. “He said, ‘Your time will come. Just keep growing and keep working.’ My dad, he always believed [in] me. He always gives me hope.”

What also helped him through was reminding himself why he left Kati for the United States.

“My goal is one day to play pro [and] be able to help my family back home in town,” Traore said. “Also, back home, to help people with [the] same chance I have.”

The same way Clayton brought Traore to Utah, he wants to do the same for others. If enough people follow his same path, Traore said, Mali will become “a better country.”

“If everybody can come, do your job here, try to make some money, go back, help,” Traore said, “I think it will be good. That’s my goal.”