Early last winter, Greg Paulus walked into the gym at Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock, Va., eager to watch a promising big man from Mali play in person for the first time.
Paulus, the new head basketball coach at Niagara, was struck by what he saw — and heard. One kid stood out from the rest. He was the most animated player on the court, exhorting his teammates and playing with an infectious verve. The home crowd adored him.
“It was Touba,” Paulus recalled. “He was the loudest guy in the gym, the most excited, and it continued the entire time that I was in there.”
Touba Traore, from the west African nation of Mali, was a player who could be a foundation piece for Paulus, who had taken over at Niagara a few months earlier: A leader with great promise, who could grow with the program.
It didn’t hurt that Traore stood 6-foot-11.
Last season, the Purple Eagles were literally the smallest team in Division I, as well as the worst rebounding team in the nation. It was a minor miracle that they won 10 conference games, including a MAAC tourney game before the season was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic on March 12.
“He adds a different dynamic to our team,” Paulus said with a laugh when I mentioned his team’s limitations on the front line last season.
Paulus said he and his staff moved fast, knowing what Traore could bring to the team and that he was a bit under the radar. Traore, who had never heard of Niagara University until very recently, liked the staff and the campus.
“I got along with them really well,” said Traore, who spoke often with assistant Brett Ervin. “They’re going to help me be the best player and the best person I can be.”
On Feb. 20, Traore signed with Niagara. He tweeted out his thanks — to God, family, coaches and teammates. There was a photo of him in a purple Niagara jersey, his arms spread wide with a basketball palmed in each hand.
Suffice it to say, the Purple Eagles are no longer the smallest team in the country.
There’s no way Traore would have been the loudest voice in the gym a year or so earlier. When he arrived in the United States from Mali in 2017, he didn’t know a word of English.
“It was really tough for me,” Traore said by phone from Virginia, where he recently finished school online. “I remember when I first got here, there was a lunch where everybody spoke English. I had no clue what they were saying. I had to learn by myself.
“I was staying with a host family, so I learned pretty quick. I watched movie subtitles and stuff. I got a dictionary that was in French (the official language in Mali) and English.”
The first year, Traore played high school ball for Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy in Stephens City, Va. Then he enrolled at Massanutten, one of the highest-rated military prep schools in the U.S., for his senior year.
Traore played soccer as a boy in Bamako, the capital of Mali, but gravitated to hoops and was a natural. He knew of countrymen who had gone to the United States for basketball. There are about 15 Mali natives currently playing college hoops in America, most notably Bourama Sidibe of Syracuse.
“At first, my father (Fousseiny) didn’t care about basketball,” Traore said. “All he wanted was for me to get a better education. That’s the thing he worries about most.”
His parents felt that a military prep school, with the emphasis on education and discipline, seemed ideal.
“After I visited Massanutten, I talked to my dad and he said it would be a great fit for me, help me to be a better person,” Traore said. “The basketball program is kind of like a college program, so that was good.”
Bob Gallager arrived at Massanutten as an assistant coach in 2018, the same time as Traore. Gallager, a Syracuse native, had spent six years at St. Bonaventure as a student manager and then grad assistant under Mark Schmidt.
Gallager said it was hard to get a read on Touba at first, he was so quiet and reserved. But Traore came out of his shell and became a leader on campus, an honor roll student and a HQ company commander his second year — when he stayed to play on the post-graduate team.
“Not just African kids, but the international kids in general take a little longer to build trust with you,” Gallager said. “But year two was completely different. He sought me out. He’s a really smart kid. He picked up basketball and school and the military. He got all of it."
“At military school, they’ve got to be outside by 6:40 to line up and march to breakfast," Gallager added. "He was always one of the leaders, always one of the first guys out. Having a guy like him trickles down.
“Some of these kids never experienced something like military school, where it’s all day long — breakfast, class, practice, weights, extra shots, got to be in your room by 10, all that structure.”
By his post-graduate year, the other guys were looking up to him. At prep school, rosters generally turn over year to year. Traore was the only player on this year’s post-grad team who had been there the year before.
“So I knew the basic stuff,” Traore said. “This year we had a whole new team, all new players. So I had to be the one to guide them.”
You can imagine how that appealed to Paulus, who has tried to build a program, one with a foundation of proud, competitive players who are committed to the program and each other.
“He’s a giver,” Paulus said. “That is contagious. For a guy with that type of size, adding those intangibles of character and leadership and work ethic, it’s certainly things we value.”
Gallager said that a lot of prep school kids think they’re going right to Duke, North Carolina or the NBA. Coming from St. Bonaventure, he understood that Niagara and the MAAC would be an ideal fit for Traore to develop.
“I think he and Greg Paulus are a match made in heaven,” Gallager said. “He’s going to be a joy to coach and he’s going to get a lot, lot better. Off the floor just an unbelievable kid. Never in trouble, always on time, good student, positive attitude.”
Traore’s arrival is right on time for a program desperate for a big man who can defend and score in the post. He’s a gifted shot-blocker who had a couple of triple-doubles (points, rebounds and blocks) at Massanutten. He’s developed a decent mid-range jump shot.
At Massunutten, he was a member of the chess club. He said he’s a decent player. Thinking a few moves ahead is vital, and it’s the same in blocking shots.
“Checkmate!” Traore said with a laugh. “Yeah, it’s all about timing for me. Sometimes on the defensive end, I make them think that I’m not going to block their shots. It just comes naturally.”
Gallager thinks Traore can play serious minutes right away for the Purple Eagles, assuming there’s a season. Paulus was more guarded — playing time is earned in practice — though he said Touba “brings something different to the table.”
Traore, 19, brings a rare maturity for an incoming freshman. He went from a shy kid to a company commander in one year. He believes he’ll have an impact right away.
“That’s what I’m working on,” he said.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.