Oumar 'Baby Shaq' Ballo on NBA dreams and the "darkest moment" of his career

The 18-year-old prodigy already has his name on jerseys in his home country of Mali and hopes to make a similar impact to Hachimura Rui when he makes his long-awaited debut for Gonzaga University.
By Evelyn Watta

2019 was a year of mixed emotions for Oumar Ballo.

The center began the year by committing to Gonzaga University before leading Mali to the final of the FIBA U19 World Cup in Greece in July.

They were runners-up to the USA, but still secured the best finish by an African team at a global basketball tournament.

Ballo returned to Washington State, eager to make his debut for the Bulldogs where Hachimura Rui made his name.

But in October, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ruled the youngster was an academic 'redshirt' citing concerns over his "international academic eligibility".

That meant, while he could practise with Gonzaga and keep his athletic scholarship, Ballo was unable to play competitively,

Opening up in an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel, the 2.08m teen prodigy called it the "darkest moment" of his five-year basketball career.

“It was hard for me to sit down and watch all the guys playing even though I knew that I was capable of playing but I couldn't,” he said.

“I had days that I was mentally broken down… and I was in the darkest place I've ever been basketball-wise.” - Oumar Ballo

Oumar Ballo at the All Star-Borders Global Camp in February 2019 (photo Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)

At that low point, he drew inspiration and learnt the value of patience from Hachimura who also had his eligibility to play college basketball questioned when he signed for Gonzaga in 2016.

Ballo has been nicknamed 'Baby Shaq' due to his imposing frame, physical strong play and intimidating accurate blocks.

And the Koulikoro native has huge plans, telling Olympic Channel about his wish to lead Gonzaga to honours and help Mali clinch its first global trophy and qualify for the Olympic Games.

The 18-year-old is a hero in his homeland already with his name adorning thousands of vests.

He said, "So many people are named after me or having Ballo on their jerseys. There are so many Ballo Junior, Baby Ballo, the reason is that they think I'm special.

"I didn't choose to be called Baby Shaq. People gave me this name. I have a big mission to prove to people that I deserve this nickname and will live up to the name." - Oumar Ballo

‘Difficult moment and darkest place’

Olympic Channel [OC]: How are you holding up during this uncertain period?

Oumar Ballo [OB]: COVID has brought a lot of uncertainty. We don’t know what is going to happen in the next couple of months. We are still practising because there are not too many cases here. We are doing everything, lifting everything like normal. But at the same time, we all have to wear masks and every day they check our temperature to see if someone has any symptoms.

But sometimes you just lose your motivation... it's not fun at all because we don’t know what's going to happen. We don’t know when we're going to start playing. It’s good though that we have kept active so whenever the season starts we are just good to go, that's basically the mindset.

OC: What if there is no season to play for this year?

OB: That’s the big question. I'm crossing my fingers and I hope there's going to be a season. I didn't play last year, I had to sit out for one year due to NCAA rules and stuff. And this year, I'm really confident that we're going to play because the NCAA needs men's basketball to play.

OC: How difficult was it to be redshirted last season?

OB: Wow, that was really really hard on me. Some people choose to sit down for one year because they are not ready or because there are too many people in the team. But my case was different, the NCAA made me do it so it was hard to sit down and watch all the guys playing even though I knew that I was capable of playing but I couldn't. It was hard but it helped me a lot to develop as a person.

"I had days that I was mentally broken down, but I always tried to stay positive and took it as a gift to better myself every day to get ready for the upcoming season. It was really hard because it was just like taking your love away from you."

OC: How were you able to just get past the mental anguish and remain focused on the goal ahead?

OB: I'm really blessed that the people around me are very good people. I don't have too many people around me but the ones I have are really close to me. They always make me believe that I will be back on the court and playing again. They did everything to keep me motivated to work hard.

These people helped me a lot through this difficult moment and the darkest place I've ever been in basketball-wise.

I also learnt from Rui Hachimura’s experience. I learnt that patience is key and that you should never rush to do something. Always take your time to be ready to show the world what you have been working on. Being patient and watching the game.

"He's now in the starting five and one of the top scorers, one of the superstars in his team in his rookie season. That's motivating for me." - Oumar Ballo on Hachimura Rui

The family everyone ‘looks up to’

OC: Where did you grow up?

OB: I grew up in Koulikoro 45 minutes from the capital Bamako until the age of 13 when I moved to Spain to Gran Canaria. I went there for a couple of years. I played there and I was in a British prep school [Canterbury International Basketball School].

I stayed there for a couple of years and then two years ago I moved to Mexico City for nine months.

I didn't have a big family like most African families. I grew up in a small one, three siblings, no difficulties and we were very close. Then my oldest brother [Drissa] moved to France for basketball. Only the two of us play basketball.

OC: Who did you inherit the height from?

OB: [Laughs] Both of my parents are tall, but they never practised sport. My dad is 2.01m and my mum is 1.85m. We are all tall in the family.

I think my brother in France who is 2.11m is the tallest and I am right behind him at 2.08m.

Oumar Ballo during the FIBA U19 World Cup final match against the USA.[Photo:FIBA]

OC: When and how did you get into sports?

OB: Like most African kids I started playing soccer first. I was in love with soccer and I played it for so long until I realised that I'm getting taller and it’s getting harder on the pitch.

It was not easy for me to move as fast as the other guys.

As the goalkeeper, I was tall enough, but the hardest part was that when the ball was on the ground. I was getting into so many problems then I just decided to switch sport.

My brother was already playing basketball and he always wanted me to try it out, but I felt it was not my thing.

I liked to play soccer more because that’s where all my friends were. The first time I tried basketball I didn’t like it. I went back to playing soccer and then a month later, I returned to the court. This time it was different. I was like, "Maybe this is the best thing that can ever happen in my life." Then I started learning the plays and making basketball part of my life.

I started basketball late and my generation was way ahead of me, but those people really cared about me. They didn't know me that much, but they knew my brother and they knew how serious he was and how much he loved basketball. Because of him, it made my job easier.

OC: Were your parents supportive of your new sport?

OB: My parents have always been supportive especially my mum. They have always been by my side in whatever I want to do especially with my sporting life. And every night I had to go practise and come back late, they have always been there for me. So I didn't have any problem with losing my focus on basketball and school.

OC: You have a special bond with your mum and you dedicate a lot of your successes to her…

OB: I am the last child and you always have strong feelings for your mum when you are the last child. Also, I left home at a very young age and we became even closer.

"I just feel like anything I do on this planet is just to make her proud and happy. Whatever I do is just for her because she has been with me since day one, since nobody believed in me or knew who I was. I feel like it’s time for me to give something back to her." - Oumar Ballo on his mother

A bold and memorable debut for Mali

OC: When did you first earn your earn call up to the national team?

OB: I first played for Mali at the Africa U-16 in 2017 in Mauritius. I loved it and it was a little bit scary because we had a good team but not many guys had experience of playing at a high level. I was the only guy who was in Spain and playing in other leagues and a different style of game.

I felt like I had to carry the team on and off the court, be a leader and always remind them of our goal because Mali basketball men had never won a championship. That was my main goal. There are thousands of people in Mali, but they only sent the 12 of us. It was for the country, for our families, for our neigbourhoods, for everybody.

I made sure that all my team-mates and I were all on the same page and staying focused during these 10-12 days. And we won all of our games.

It was not that hard for us on the court - our hardest game was the final against Egypt which we won by 12 points. It was my first time for the national team and probably the best moment I have experienced since I started playing basketball. It felt like even more than basketball.

Especially at a young age, there's such pride playing for your country for the first time and you never forget it.

"My brother had played for Mali but never won the championship. I was proud to be part of that generation that brought back the trophy."

OC: Then in 2018 you starred at the Under-17 World Cup. You were named in the tournament 'All-Star' team after a FIBA U-17 32 rebounds in a game. How special was this for you?

OB: After winning the African Championship, we believed we could do more. I gained the experience of playing top-level FIBA tournaments. After the U-16 when I went back to Spain, every day I had in my mind, "I'm going to play at the World Cup. There are thousands of players like me but what I can do to make me different and make my country different?" That was my goal and I went to Spain for one year getting ready day by day. I was ready and when I got there I saw the guys improve a lot. And we did whatever we could to put Mali on the map.

OC: Was that bigger than the Under-19 team World Cup when you helped the team finish behind the USA?

OB: I mean, it's different. The difference is when I played for U-19, I had already had a taste of the national team. I also knew what the World Cup looks like. But in Mauritius I was raw I had no idea what was waiting for me. I went there and succeeded, that's why it is the biggest accomplishment of my life and very special.

Oumar Ballo: “Help Mali qualify for the Olympics”

OC: You have had success with Mali's junior teams. Is this the golden generation that can revive your country's fortunes in men's basketball?

OB: That's right. Mali is known as a basketball country, especially for women. But men's basketball was dead and I feel like my generation just gave purpose and hope not only for the Malian people but for Africa and the world.

We are showing that Mali still has great basketball players that can change the game. We have also made our younger brothers believe that they can do anything they want. I feel like we have revived Malian basketball.

OC: And what are your thoughts on Mali's future international success in terms of men's basketball?

OB: In three, four, five years, Mali basketball is going to change. Mali has never won a senior international trophy. My goal and that of the generation that just came back from the World Cup is to bring a global trophy back home for Mali..

"The goal is to put Mali on the map everywhere in all the FIBA tournaments - World Cup, African Cup, and the Olympics. My personal goal is to help Mali qualify for the Olympics for the first time."

OC: You think that Mali could soon be the surprise package at the top level of international basketball in a few years to come?

OB: We were very close to winning the [U-19] World Cup last summer. I feel like we can do more than that. In the next couple of years, we definitely can win it. It is basically the same generation that we are going to face in the next five to eight years. So if we made it to the final, why not winning the Championship?

I'm confident that the future holds a nice surprise for not only Mali but for African nations. We will make people see that Africa has something special that can change the world.

OC: Africa has produced many top superstars in football. In your opinion why is it that the numbers of basketballers coming out of Africa is not so big?

OB: If you look back over 10 years ago, African kids didn't have enough opportunities to go abroad somewhere else to improve themselves like the way I got the scholarship to go study and play in Spain or come to the United States. African youngsters never had the chance to improve themselves, have the skills and know the game. Now there are so many Africans learning the game, loving basketball and trying to do everything to help their nations. I feel really confident about what's going to happen in the future.

'Baby Shaq' Gonzaga and Mali's superstar in waiting?

OC: The future does look bright, your call up to one of the top teams in the USA, Gonzaga. How huge was that for you?

OB: It was huge. Playing for Gonzaga is not easy. People have a lot of expectation of you. Whenever I am on the court training, I always feel this is not only about me anymore, it's bigger than me, it's bigger than my family. There's a lot of Africans now playing at the highest-level and I'm one of them. It's a big mission that I have.

"All of Africa is watching me. If I do something great, the first thing they're going to say is like, 'Oh, this kid is from Africa. What part of Africa? Mali.'

OC: Gonzaga has been the top ten team every year but never won the national title. You have an impressive roster this season. Can Oumar be part of the Zag team that can change that?

OB: Our first day of training, the coach told us that the team we have this year is the best and we have a great opportunity to make history for our school. We are the guys that can step up, and I believe have the potential to win the National Championship.

OC: Who did you idolise growing up?

OB: Growing up when I was young, I idolised Shaquille O'Neal because I was big-bodied, huge and dominated the game like him. I felt like I can play on the same spot as him. But over the last couple of years, I changed my mind because the league is changing. Big men are now shooting freely, defending big, switching and everything as the NBA has changed so much. I'm trying to change to the way that the league wants the big men to do. Now I Idolise Anthony Davis because he is the type of guy who can do anything on the court.

Shaquille O'Neal playing for USA at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games

OC: Is that how your nickname 'Baby Shaq' was coined?

OB: When I was in Spain three years ago, I was dominating the Spanish League and I went to the Africa Championships and led there. People started calling me, ‘Baby Shaq, Baby Shaq...’[Laughs] that's how the name started.

OC: What should we expect from Baby Shaq?

OB: To be called Baby Shaq is something big because everybody knows who Shaq was. He was a monster.

And when someone is calling you a baby monster it means you have something special that you have to prove. So basically for myself, but I know every time that I step on the court, the other team is going to talk about me. And they will do anything to stop me. At the U-19 World Cup, I missed two games. I returned and posted some big numbers and took the team to the final.

"They feel if they stop me it will change the game for them because they know I am called Baby Shaq."

OC: What makes Oumar special and one of the top young African players?

OB: I truly care about getting the best out of my team-mates. I have been in situations I didn't like, for instance the FIBA U-18. I didn't perform well. I had some bad games. But my team-mates were there for me always reminding me that I am good, and I just needed to patient.

If you have a bunch of team-mates who try to bring out the best in you, I think that is special. That's why wherever I am I try to make my team-mates feel happy because when they are happy, they perform well. So first what makes me special is just my personality off the court.

"On the court too, I like to make big plays. I like dunking the ball and blocking shots because they're a confidence boost for you team-mates on and off the court. 'If Oumar can do that, why can't we?'"

Oumar Ballo celebrates after the Africa Cup final. [Photo:FIBA]

'Ballo' a hot name in Mali

OC: You could be the third Malian to ever play for the NBA after Soumaila Samake and Cheick Diallo. What will that mean for you and your country?

OB: I am very popular back home and when I go home, I always have many people around me. They want to talk to me; they want my advise on how they can improve their game. They want to be just like me.

You find like a local team has three players called Ballo because they think that I'm someone special and they feel that if they're good, just like me, they can make Mali succeed. I can't let these people down. Whatever I do, I must do great. Not for me, but for the next generation that is coming up in Mali.

That's why I have to play my best, work hard to make it to the league and give them something to aspire to. If I make it to the NBA it will open up an opportunity for other guys to achieve their goals and take care of the families.

OC: What do you hope to achieve if you get to the NBA?

OB: I feel that getting to the NBA is not hard but staying in the NBA is the hardest job. Once I'd get to the NBA, my first goal is going to be to stay in the NBA, do great for my team, my family, for my country, and even win a Championship.

Oumar Ballo in action against the USA at the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup. [Photo:FIBA]

'Nothing lasts forever'

OC: I am sure you have been keenly following news from back home in Mali with the coronavirus pandemic and recent mass street protests. What is your feeling about the current situation?

OB: Honestly, every day before I go to sleep, I have to check Facebook to see what's happening in my country. I feel bad about what's happening there and I'm miles away from my family. I talk to them now and then to make sure that they're safe. I feel really bad because Mali has not settled since 2012. Eight years dealing with so many things, now we have a political situation. People protesting, police shootings…it’s frustrating.

It's also good because if we want change to happen, we have to do something. But at the same time, I want peace and all the protesters to be safe. Oumar Ballo on protests in Mali.

OC: And in your temporary second home, the US, there are the Black Lives Matter protests on the streets and shows of support. What do you think American colleges and universities can do to just help push for social justice?

OB: Since I got here I haven't felt discriminated against but, at the same time, I am not happy as I have seen so many that have my skin colour getting abused or discriminated against because of their colour.

So if those people don't have justice, I don't have justice. It's not because I am Oumar and I play for Gonzaga that everybody loves me. But if you love me and you hate my friends... you hate someone that is the same as me, it means you hate me too. You just love me because I am a basketball player.

I feel like we athletes who are on the highest level, we have many followers on social media. And if we showed them that we care about Black Lives, and we want to change, and do anything we can for people's rights, I feel we are setting a good example and supporting the fight for the change. Victims will also feel we are supporting their cause.

Our universities will support the movement like the NBA or give us the option to play with shirts printed with supporting messages. The NCAA said they would let Colleges and Universities support the fight for social justice.

OC: What's your dream outside of basketball?

OB: I'm studying sports management because I want to stay in the sport. And when I'm done with my basketball career, I hope to get my degrees and go back home, open sports business because I will have the skills and knowledge to make the programme work. Then I can provide kids opportunities to achieve what I did or do even better than what I did.

OC: And finally Oumar, what is the mantra that you repeat to yourself?

When I have a goal I want to achieve, I always tell myself that this is a mission that my mum told me to do. I can't fail her so I have to do everything to achieve what she sent me out to do, for the sake of my family.

"When I am having a bad moment, I always tell myself that it won't last forever. It's just for a short period of time and I will overcome this."