“Nothing Can Stop Me”

Nafa Haidara’s resilient path to Division I basketball

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“Excuse me, ma’am, I just need to check your bag here.”

Nafa Haidara was leaving Wal-Mart when the door attendant stopped her. “It will just be a moment.”

Haidara was confused. She had just come to the U.S. from Africa to play basketball a few months ago. Why weren’t they stopping her two white teammates?

Now a member of Chicago State’s basketball team, being racially profiled at a Wal-Mart in Phoenix is just one more chapter in Haidara’s almost unfathomably long story of adversity, perseverance, and pure love of the game.

Haidara’s basketball journey started in Mali when she was eight years old. Her cousin Mamadou Kante, who coached a youth team, noticed her growing taller than her peers and asked if she wanted to play. Her father gave the green light, and thus began a lifelong love affair.

While Haidara’s father was supportive of the idea, much of his family was not. Kante and the rest of her mom’s side of the family were on board, but many of Haidara’s paternal aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents urged her to quit.

“Playing basketball is not for a woman,” they told her.

Haidara disagreed. “What men can do, women can do,” she thought.

Haidara grew up in a Muslim family, and playing basketball meant wearing shorts and short sleeves. “I could not be seen wearing shorts,” Haidara says.

But Haidara already loved the game too much to give it up, so she wore long sleeves and tights to play. The extended family wasn’t enthusiastic about it, but it put them at ease for a while.

Until Haidara hit adolescence. “They started seeing me as a woman because I was growing up,” Haidara says. At that point, even her neighbors joined the calls for her to stop.

A then-12-year-old Haidara didn’t change her mindset. “I'm gonna do this,” she recalls telling herself. “Nothing can stop me.”

The calls for her to quit were loud enough that she had to tell people she was done. But she wasn’t done. “I had to pretend that I was going to school or going to one of my friends’ houses to do homework,” Haidara says. “But I was always going to the gym.”

Several of Haidara’s extended family members lived in the same home, so it wasn’t easy to hide the fact that she was still playing basketball. “I’d dress normally and keep my [basketball] stuff in my backpack.”

It helped that her father was on her side. “My dad was my first fan,” she says. “He was always there for me.”

Then, in 2014, Haidara’s dad passed away. “My dad was my best friend … I’d tell him everything in my life,” she says. “For two months I couldn’t even go to the gym anymore.”

But Haidara knew her father would have wanted her to keep playing, so quitting was never an option. “I didn’t stop to think about that,” she says. “I was going to keep going because of him.”

Soon after Haidara got back on the court, she was selected to Mali’s U16 national team, where she started at center for the squad that went on to win the FIBA Africa U16 Championship. That was when her family found out that she had still been playing basketball the whole time. “They saw me on TV,” she says. “They were all in shock because they thought I stopped playing basketball.”

When they saw how happy Haidara was, the family finally came to terms with her playing. “When they saw me on TV … they kind of relaxed a little bit,” Haidara says. “They saw that basketball was bringing [me] some good.”

After winning a second Africa Championship with Mali on the U18 team, Haidara set her sights on the next stop in her basketball career: the United States. She packed up her belongings and headed to Arizona to spend her final year of high school playing for Ombudsman Charter Northwest. It was there where the 6-foot-5 post started to receive attention from Division I coaches.

Haidara originally committed to Robert Morris, but those plans fell through due to test scores — she had come to the U.S. not knowing any English less than a year prior. After graduating in 2018, Haidara’s host family moved from Arizona to Kansas, so Haidara came with them and spent the following year taking classes and figuring out where to next take her basketball talents.

In the fall of 2019, Haidara enrolled at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas and began her collegiate basketball career. Still learning the English language, Haidara and her coaches used Google translate to communicate during practices.

“It was challenging for me because when I went there, my English wasn’t really good,” says Haidara. “Homework that would take my classmates one hour to do, I had to do two hours, three hours.”

Those challenges didn’t keep Haidara from success on the floor — she finished second in field goal percentage and defensive rebounding rate and tops in rebounding rate on offense for a team that went 19-5 in 2020-21.

Last season, Chicago State head coach Tiffany Sardin was looking into other Hutchinson players when she came across some game film of Haidara and reached out. Haidara still had visions of playing Division I basketball, so she was excited at the prospect of coming to the Windy City to pursue her dream.

But for Sardin, then in her first season at the helm, the recruitment process was about so much more than her potential on the court. “It wasn’t just a basketball conversation,” Sardin says. “I didn't offer her right away — I'll be honest — because I'm a relationship person.”

After getting to know Haidara’s story, Sardin knew she had what it took to be a part of a new era at a rebuilding program. “Bringing in the right young woman to the program and help put us in a direction that we're trying to go was crucial,” Sardin says. “She seemed hungry … she wanted to make the difference.”

Since forming in 1966, the Chicago State women’s basketball program has never made the NCAA Tournament. “I know the program is not where we want it to be, but I came here for a change,” Haidara added. “I want to make a change here.”

To Sardin, the barriers Haidara had overcome for the sake of playing the game she loved made her the perfect fit for her rebuild. “Coming from where she came from growing up, she’s used to kind of being the underdog,” Sardin says. “All the glitz and glamour doesn’t mean anything to her.”

Now two weeks into her first season at Chicago State, Haidara is again going through an adjustment period, although nothing like what she faced when she left Mali.

“The scariest part [of leaving Mali] was to be away from my family,” Haidara says. Coming here alone forced Haidara to learn to take care of herself. While most of her teammates were getting dropped off, Haidara booked her own train to campus.

Now, she’s relearning how to rely on her support system.

“The adjustment for her is taking advantage of the available resources,” Sardin says. “What I’m on her about, truthfully, is just helping her be an advocate for herself.”

As Haidara developed that independence, she also gained a deep sense of appreciation for everything she has. “She’s such a grateful young woman,” Sardin says. “She doesn’t seem to take anything for granted.”

The Cougars aren’t taking Haidara for granted either — her rim protection off the bench has been key early on. But when her days in Division I come to a close, she won’t be ready to give up basketball just yet. And after all that she’s been through to keep playing the game, how could she?

When the time comes, Haidara will look to play professionally overseas, following in the footsteps of her twin brother who plays in Italy. For now, she’s soaking up every minute on the court. “Because every time I go to the gym, I forget about everything that is going on around me. It gives me joy to play basketball.”

Thanks for reading the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter. If you like our work, be sure to check out our stats site, our podcast, and our social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also buy Her Hoop Stats gear, such as laptop stickers, mugs, and shirts!

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