Chicago State center Nafa Haidara has traveled a long way -- both literally and figuratively -- to play Division I basketball for the Cougars.
At almost six and-a-half feet tall, Haidara certainly stands out. It’s been that way as long as she can remember, even as far back as six years-old when she discovered basketball.
“I was coming from school one day and my cousin saw me,” Haidara recalled. “He was like, ‘Oh, you’re getting tall. Do you want to play basketball?’. I asked him, ‘What is basketball? I don’t even know what is basketball.'"
It wasn’t long before she found out, and it wasn’t long before she fell head over heels for hoops.
“I went to the gym the first day, and I fell in love with basketball,” said Haidara. “That’s how it all started.”
But even though she loved the game, some of the people in her tight-knit, extended family objected to her playing. It didn’t fit their vision for a young Muslim girl growing up in West Africa.
“When you are a Muslim, you’re supposed to cover your body and everything,” Haidara said. “You’re not supposed to show people your skin, so that’s why they say basketball is for only men.”
It didn’t matter. Nothing could keep Nafa from doing what she loved. When she had to, she’d tell family she was headed to a friend’s house, or doing homework, before sneaking off to the gym.
“Sometimes, I feel a little bit guilty because I’m lying to them,” Haidara remembered. “I’m not supposed to lie to the family, so I feel a little bit guilty. But sometimes I say, ‘Okay – I need to play basketball, because I find my joy in basketball’, so I say, ‘Okay – I need to play basketball’.”
The junior center came to the United States in 2017, landing at a prep school in Phoenix. She landed in the U.S. not knowing any English, but now speaks it fluently.
From there, it was on to a community college in Kansas, and that’s where Chicago State head coach Tiffany Sardin recruited her.
Sardin says initially, Haidara was shy and slow to trust, but now, she’s a treasured member of the team.
“She is the true definition of perseverance, “Sardin said. “When Nafa does something well, or when she walks into the room, they’re like ‘Nafa!’. … She wants to be the best teammate she can be, but truthfully, she’s a great young woman, and her energy can be contagious for us,” Sardin added.
“I consider my teammates as my sisters, and my big sisters are my coaching staff because they’re all young women,” Haidara said. “I love everybody, and everybody loves me.”
From Mali to the Midwest, it’s been quite a basketball journey for the Cougars center.
“It means a lot to me,” Haidara said. “Division 1 was always my dream – to play in Division 1. So if I’m here today, thank God.”