SYRACUSE, N.Y. — One is a wiry 6-foot-10 and swoops down the court, manning the middle of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s defense.
The other is a foot shorter but has been just as intimidating at middle linebacker for Orange football coach Doug Marrone.
Meet Baye Moussa Keita and Siriki Diabate, Africans who have cleared big obstacles en route to Syracuse.
“Growing up, all I did was play soccer,” said Diabate, who grew up in the Ivory Coast. “That’s all we do, and when I came here I pretty much was playing soccer.”
“I played all the time,” said Keita, a native of Senegal. “I loved soccer.”
At 14, Keita stood 6-foot-6 and excelled at soccer when the coach of his youth team encouraged him to attend a small clinic so officials from SEEDS – Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal – could see him.
After graduating from the academy, Keita headed for the U.S. and earned a basketball scholarship at Syracuse.
Keita, a junior, is a backup center and has become a Carrier Dome favorite.
“Baye is a coach’s dream,” said Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins. “His energy level is unparalleled.”
Diabate was born right before his father, Souleymane, left for the U.S. to forge a better life for his family. He never saw him again until he left home to join him in 2003 in the Bronx.
His life changed after he became a regular at Roberto Clemente State Park in the Bronx, where he began to play football.
He struggled at first, but eventually got the hang of the game. Diabate later became a team captain in high school, catching the eye of Marrone.
Diabate started two games at outside linebacker for Syracuse in 2011, was moved to the middle this season. He finished the regular season tied for second on the team with 67 tackles.
“The thing that jumped out at me from the very first moment was he’s very, very coachable,” Orange linebackers coach Steve Morrison said.
“He’s a guy that wants to please. He wants to do well. He studies. It’s so important to him, and he’s got very good ability. When you couple those things together and the importance of football and how much he’s placed on it, he’s been able to do a lot of great things.
“Maybe more important, though, he’s a great leader,” Morrison added. “He’s a guy that really gets along with everybody, a guy that really can rally the kids. He’s a different kid — in a good way. Obviously, his background is a pretty special thing where he’s come to. He’s a unique guy.”
Especially to his teammates.
“Sometimes you don’t understand everything he says, but you try to make the best of it any way you can,” defensive tackle Jay Bromley said. “It’s amazing to speak as good as he does and to be really in tune with society and our coaches. It’s just amazing. He’s a great leader. That’s one thing. We follow his lead.”
Keita and Diabate met in a dorm last year and asked each other about classes. Diabate attended a few basketball games to watch Keita in action. Diabate said they “started clicking from there.”
“I’m making the best out of the opportunity,” said Diabate, an economics major. “I’m thankful I was able to get a scholarship.”
None of this surprises Syracuse’s Daryl Gross, one of the few black athletic directors in Division I that don’t work at historically black schools.
“I think it’s terrific,” said Gross, who was an assistant athletic director at Southern California before coming to Syracuse eight years ago. “At USC what we found was that African athletes were some of the best athletes, and they had a tremendous work ethic. They really appreciate the country, the opportunities and take full advantage. And they’ve always been incredible role models.”
On Saturday, Diabate will suit up for the final time at Syracuse when he trots into Yankee Stadium to play in the Pinstripe Bowl. Hours later, Keita will be ready to spark the Orange when they play Alcorn State in the Carrier Dome.
Someday, both hope to return to Africa to help youngsters in their countries. Diabate wants to build schools in the Ivory Coast. More immediately, he has his eyes on the NFL. After the season, he’ll be showing off his 4.57-second speed in the 40-yard dash to teams in the spring.
“It’s crazy,” Diabate said. “We’re blessed.”