From picking up the game just five years ago, to moving 5000 miles to pursue his passion across three countries and countless obstacles. The rise of Lassina Traore is unique as a it is heartwarming.
Not too long ago, Lassina Traore had never even considered playing basketball. Growing up in a small town in Côte d’Ivoire (or Ivory Coast), Lassina was all about Soccer. He played in a league, he played with his friends…there were, honestly, very few times in the day he wasn’t playing in his free time.
Soccer is the national game of the West African nation and the passion of most youngsters who enjoy sports. The country had made the World Cup three consecutive times between 2006 and 2014, and narrowly missed out on the 2022 event. If Lassina was going to be a professional athlete (and that was on the table) he was going to be a soccer player.
“But then one year I just, like, grew up” Lassina explains.
By “grow up” what he means was, suddenly, he was a six-foot seven-inch 14-year-old kid who towered over his peers.
“My parents wanted me to play basketball and I didn’t want to because I was so in love with Soccer… But one of my friends he started pushing me to come play with him. So, I started playing a little bit”
That was five years ago. Five years ago, the now division one big man surprising everyone picked up a basketball for the first time. Having never played a sport where the use of hands was required, gave the sport a chance. The only thing he knew of the sport was what his family, friends, and teammates would call him.
“Nobody knew anything of the NBA or basketball or anything like that, but we knew Michael Jordan. So, when I came home my family would just call me Jordan.”
It wasn’t long after when his family decided to move Lassina to Abidjan, the country’s biggest city. Allowing him to pursue his education (and basketball) more seriously. It was only then that Lassina played organized hoops, his first time with a coach.
“It was like really tough because there were all these things I didn’t know, plays, rules, things I was supposed to do that other did.” Lassina explains. But now in a new city, with a passion for what he’s doing, Lassina picked up quickly. “I would just do nothing but go to school and practice. Even when there was no practice, I would remember what the coaches told me that day and go do it by myself or with my friends.”
Starting out, Lassina truly knew nothing of the game or the culture around it. But he knew he enjoyed doing it. “I was really good to start out” Lassina remembers, which probably had something to do with it.
From there, he was totally hooked. Basketball began to take hold on him. Doing everything he could to learn the game. “Not everyone has internet in people’s houses, so I would go down to the café pay to use the internet to watch Basketball.”
In those café’s Lassina discovered the NBA history we in the United States take for granted. He watched highlights of Jordan for the first time, saw Kobe Bryant hit game winners. “I would search up African players who played in the league and just watch them.” Highlighting players Pascal Siakam and Joel Embiid as impactful players to his love of the game.
While in other city centers some of this may have been common knowledge to those with the interest or infrastructure. But to Lassina, those hours spent in the internet café were opening a door of knowledge previously hidden to him.
Lassina rose through the ranks quickly, eventually being asked to join the national team to compete at the 2018 FIBA U18 African Championship in Mali despite being underage. However, “The Elephants” as the national team is called, pulled out of the event prior to its start due to lack of financial support.
After all, soccer is still king.
The big break Lassina finally got though came far more innocuously.
“There was a group of coaches from Canada who came to look for players, and they weren’t even coming for me they were coming for my friends. I was sitting at home, and they called and said they wanted me to come play defense on them to help”
Quickly though, the coaches had Lassina doing the same drills the invited players were doing. Realizing they had stumbled upon something interesting in Traore.
Prep schools like the famed IMG academy or Monteverde are still conceptually relatively new in Canada. Often losing their native talent to the United States. Few basketball players who hail from the great white north complete their high school education there if tabbed for success. So, the schools search out new grounds for talent to develop and hope to push to the next level. That includes trips to different parts of Africa.
One of these schools is Dynasty Sports Institute in Quebec City, Quebec. Who stumbled across Lassina that day and invited him to come to their school on the spot. Much to Lassina’s excitement.
“That was my chance, because I didn’t even know they were coming and then all of a sudden they were asking if I wanted to come to Canada to play basketball.”
But it wasn’t a done deal by any means. Lassina had to convince his family that this was truly what he believed was right. A major life change for anyone, especially a high school sophomore.
“My aunt (who Lassina was staying with) really didn’t want me to go. She didn’t want me to leave my country. She didn’t trust them. She was really worried but eventually agreed.”
So Lassina packed his bags and moved 4,800 miles from Côte d’Ivoire to Quebec, Canada. “At least they spoke French” Lassina jokes.
In a short time at his new school Lassina become an established player in the National Preparatory Association, the circuit his school played in, and was beginning to get interest from American colleges. He was now 6’10 and coaches felt he showed the raw potential that others from West Africa currently excelling did.
But due to extenuating circumstances the match was short lived as Lassina arrived in Canada late in 2019.
“Once Covid hit, everything got shut down. We couldn’t do anything. They would lock the gyms and take down rims at the parks.”
When it became clear that in no short order would the Dynasty Sports Institute continue playing, Traore knew he needed to find a new home to pursue his Basketball dream. Thanks to some lucky networking, and what Lassina describes as “one of my better days”, Lassina found himself a new home at Victory Rock Prep in Florida.
“Much warmer,” Lassina says with a smile.
“Basil”, as his friends and teammates call him, was a quick hit both on the court and in the locker room. His infectious laugh and positive attitude helped overcome any culture gap and his excitement to learn made him an ideal pupil.
“I just have so much to learn that when they tell me how to change something, I just do.” Lassina explains. An athlete with no ego in his game is a unique thing in 2022. With the grind of full-time athletics starting earlier and earlier, it’s easy to get cemented in your ways.
But not Lassina, with only four years of experience and even fewer of established coaching, he was a sponge for new information. An attitude that bought him new skills and opportunities.
After playing for the Blue Devils and putting up impressive statistics on the team’s prep roster, Lassina had the opportunity to play AAU for the first time. Which is where one Ray Giacoletti found him.
“I had scholarship offers from other schools but when I met Coach Ray it all happened so fast. He really liked how hard I played.”
After a conversation with Victory Rock Prep Head Coach Loren Jackson, who the Billikens forged a relationship with him after signing fellow Victory Rock recruit Markhi Strickland. Lassina was quickly offered a scholarship to join the program and start college that fall.
“The coaches (at SLU) knew my high school coaches better. So, I thought this would be the best place to come.”
It was Lassina’s raw potential attached to his coachability that led to the Billikens interest. A piece of clay that was yearning to be molded and would do so with a smile.
Coming into the 2021-22 College Basketball season, Lassina was viewed as a project for the future. With two established veteran big men ahead of him to learn under and practice with, the opportunity to continue to grow seemed good enough.
Instead Lassina’s effort in practice has shown he deserves game time, and then his performance in such games have demanded more opportunities.
The energy he brings in practice is infectious. SLU Head Coach Travis Ford loves those who give it their all and Lassina doesn’t go at a speed other than 110%. Tie in his mindset on learning and you have the perfect combination of factors for a breakout.
His time at SLU has not been without challenges. Traore can now look back with a smile on what he faced when arriving on Campus. While he was used to living in America there is a culture shock to starting college no matter where and being a student athlete on top of that can be downright overwhelming. Especially in a Travis Ford program.
“It was so fast” Lassina said simply, “When you play against the more experienced guys everything goes so fast…The coaches would tell me ‘Speed up Lassina, faster faster’ so I just had to start doing that. So, when I get into a game now, I just translate what I learned in practice and it’s not so fast.
But what makes Lassina special is that he wasn’t put off by the struggle. He just tried to get better. “Everything the coaches tell me; I just pay attention. To learn. To try and improve my game…to get better every day.”
Eventually he was able to find the pace. A leap that the coaches helped with but also his teammates were a major factor in.
The international front court of Francis Okoro and Marten Linssen were instrumental to his acclimation to the Billiken culture. At practice, in the weight room, the big men helped bring their freshman along.
“They teach me little details, what to do, tricks. They want me to do right so I pay attention to everything they tell me.” But the relationship extends well past the game of basketball. Lassina see them more as family. “It’s really cool, Francis is from Nigeria near me, and Marty is from Germany. We really learn about each other and really care about each other…its brotherhood.”
So, what’s next for Lassina? Where does his goals lead him towards?
“The NBA, That’s my big goal”
“To represent my family, my country, where I’m from. There’s nobody in the NBA who comes from the Ivory Coast, so I want to be the first. So that can open the door for my friends, my little brothers who are coming up. That can be a big chance for my country.
It’s a big dream, no doubt. But if you’d told me that a kid who never played basketball five years ago, let alone knew nothing of the sport, was just a short time later making a significant impact at a Division One school just that short time later…
I’d tell you he’s a good guy to bet on going forward, and an easier one to cheer on.
Carter Chapley has burst onto the scene becoming one of the most trusted voices in Billikens Athletics and beyond for Scoops with Danny Mac.
Starting at the University News, Carter joined Scoops in 2019 and has provided coverage primarily on Saint Louis University Athletics, including Basketball, Soccer, and Baseball. He has also written on such major events as the NCAA Tournament, Arch Madness, the NHL All-Star Game, the founding of STL City FC, and the NCAA reaction to the Covid-19 Pandemic.
You can find Carter more on Twitter at @ChapleyMedia where he will always be talking Billikens, Sports, and More!