03 - 11
July 2021
11 Oumar Ballo (MLI)
Long Read
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Wild three-year ride leads to success and perspective on expecations for Ballo

RIGA / DAUGAVPILS (Latvia) - Oumar Ballo has experienced quite a ride over the last three years, going from unknown monster rebounder on the global stage at 15 years old to the face of African basketball's biggest event success to now a leader facing the pressure of expectations. And the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2021 is kind of a microcosm for all of that.

Ballo came into the U19 World Cup as Mali's look-to leader - both on the court where he dominates on the glass and gets his team points when they need them; and off the court, where the gentle giant often serves as interpreter for his coach or team officials. Things have not gone as hoped for Ballo and Mali, having lost all three games in the Group Phase to Australia, United States and Turkey and then falling 86-52 to France in the Round of 16. That ended the dream of coming close to matching the fairytale - almost miraculous - run that Mali took the world two years ago.

Teamed up with other high-level players with  experience on the global stage, Ballo was Mali's rock in the middle and he helped the western Africans get past Latvia and Canada in the Group Phase before knocking off New Zealand, Puerto Rico and France to reach the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2019 Final in Heraklion.

"Beating France in the Semi-Finals to go to the Final was such a great, great memory I will never forget. And facing USA was probably the best memory I will never forget," said Ballo, who averaged 17.6 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.8 blocks in the tournament. 

Ballo collected 15 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks against the United States in the title bout and it was not enough, but still he and the team had already made history - having achieved the best result for an African team at a FIBA event.

"It meant a lot to me, a lot to my family. It meant a lot to Mali basketball, it meant a lot to African basketball," said Ballo, who earned a spot on the All-Star Five for his performance.

The Koulikoro native was playing at a youth event for the second time. A summer earlier he played at the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2018 - where Ballo also earned a spot on the All-Star Five at U17 World Cup 2018 even though Mali finished 12th in the tournament.

The big man, who was still two weeks shy of his 16th birthday when the event tipped off, averaged 20.6 points and a tournament-best 16.9 rebounds including shattering the U17 World Cup record with 32 rebounds in a single game - a triple-overtime loss. Ballo also got to face the likes of strong countries such as Serbia, United States, Australia, Dominican Republic and Argentina.

Ballo had been used to being outside his country. He left Mali and made his first real basketball strides in Spain and eventually landed at the NBA Academy Latin America in Mexico City after the U17 World Cup. After missing most of the 2018-19 season due to injuries, he committed to Gonzaga University  in February 2019 and delayed the start of his college career until 2020-21 with a redshirt ruling.

Last season, he ended up playing 24 games for Gonzaga - seven times earning double figures in minutes - and he averaged 2.5 points and 1.5 rebounds in 6.3 minutes. But he was part of the Zags team that reached the NCAA Championship Game, where Gonzaga lost to Baylor University.

"The games that I played helped me a lot. I got a lot of experience about the college game and how it looks: how physical it is and how challenging every game is. You can lose to anyone. That experience will help me," said Ballo, who after the season decided to transfer to Arizona University to play for new head coach Tommy Lloyd, who had recruited Ballo to Gonzaga.

Before starting things at Arizona, Ballo knew many eyes were on him to show that Mali's second-placed finish from 2019 was not a one-off result.

"There are a lot of expectations on us, because a couple of years ago nobody expected anything from us. But after what we did two summers ago a lot of people are waiting for us, there are a lot of eyes on us. But I think that’s a good thing. It’s challenging but it’s also a lot of respect to Mali and to African basketball because of what you did in the past," Ballo said before the tournament.

Now, Ballo is aware that ninth place is the best he and the team can accomplish in Latvia. And he is hoping to finish the U19 World Cup strong.

"The first game I played really bad. My team was counting on me so much and I didn't respond. In the next game, we did pretty good against the USA. And we did pretty good against Turkey. I gave all I had and that kept our team going forward. I think I still have to do more because they are counting so much on me," Ballo said.

The wins of two years ago and the losses in Latvia have both given Ballo perspective.

"Basketball is a game that you can lose and win. Losing doesn't mean that you are terrible and winning doesn't mean that you're the greatest. So we will learn from this experience. Also, I will take this experience and use it to become a better basketball player and a person," he said.

With his youth career wrapping up with the end of this tournament, Ballo first off is looking to his collegiate career in the United States. But there is also another big goal in mind - playing at the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

"It would mean the world to me. That's my goal. To play with my senior national team and help them get to the FIBA Basketball World Cup."

The wild ride from the past three years will definitely help him get there.