Yaya Keita shaped by unusual path to Mizzou
Yaya Keita was comfortable. Garlands dressed the walls and radiant bulbs graced what seemed like every room he entered. On his first Christmas Eve in America, the 16-year-old Mali native went to bed expecting gifts, food and family when he opened his eyes.
Instead, he woke up to a nightmare.
The cold, St. Louis winter air shook Keita out of his morning sleep, and he turned over to find seven missed calls from his mother. Something was off.
His mother reserved calls for Saturdays, and they’d just spoken two days earlier. He never missed a call. Keita anxiously went to his room, plopped onto the bed and dialed back. A picture of his mother stared at him from his nightstand as his father’s voice eventually came through her phone.
Keita was terrified. His father’s frustration gave way to a sob as he broke the news that Keita’s mother passed away the night before.
He sat in shock, tears creeping down his face. All he could think was, “What’s next?”
He wished he could be alone, though he knew he’d eventually be forced to go upstairs and deliver the news to his host parents, Jim and Cindy Harter. Everyone knew, but Keita spent the entire day wearing a poker face, trying to fit the elephant in the room behind a curtain.
“I realized I could say that I’ll stay in my room and be sad, but I’m somebody that doesn’t like doing something if it's gonna affect somebody,” Keita said. “I could’ve sat there all day and made my family also feel horrible, but I decided to be a part of the Christmas celebration.”
Keita’s resilience and willingness to sacrifice, even in the midst of unimaginable circumstances, was one of the reasons he traveled to St. Louis from his birthplace of Mali just four months earlier. He’d given up so much to be in that house--his refuge in a confusing, foreign country--so that he could pursue his dream of playing college basketball. He’d only continue to sacrifice more.
Nine months later he received a similar call — this time from his aunt — to tell him his father had passed.
“That’s the part that nobody wants to be around,” Keita said. “But when it happens, you can’t control that. You only have to live through that. That doesn’t mean you have to stop doing what you love, stop doing what you think is gonna help your future. But you have to focus on the good things also.
“I know I came to the United States for basketball, but I just came here to set up my life in a way I’d want to set out for. Get things done not just for myself, but for my whole family, my community and my whole country one day if possible.”
Keita had poured his heart into basketball since it reeled him in three years earlier. Losing his parents thousands of miles away while doing what he loved was like a sucker punch — but one he took in stride.
“That’s the main reason why I keep going, you know? I can’t stop,” Keita said. “Something you love to do, and the same thing keeps you away from your family. Not being able to see your parents before they’re gone… I’m always believing in positivity and trying to think that nothing happens for no reason. Everything that happened in life is a lesson to make you believe that God exists.”
As soon as he got word of his father’s death, Keita went to the one place in America he felt most at home: the gym with a basketball in hand. He locked himself in there, shooting until it felt like his arms would fall off. He sought peace. Everywhere he went, he was followed by a sea of sympathy. Silence became prominent. The bounce of the ball was all he desired. The game turned into a new home, new life and his new testament.
Keita first picked up a basketball three years prior to his arrival in America. He grew up in Koutiala, the third-largest city in Mali. Like most of Africa, Mali’s youth donned soccer jerseys. Cleats marked the open fields and basketball courts were harder to come by.
“If you don’t play soccer, you won’t find a friend to join you in other sports, especially basketball,” Keita said. “...If you take 10 kids in the neighborhood, you’ll see only one playing basketball.”
Keita towered over most of his peers, to the point it forged his identity. Friends and strangers constantly tugged at him to try basketball.
But hoops culture was a distant myth for him growing up. People wore Michael Jordan jerseys and shoes throughout Mali, but he assumed that Jordan was an ancient player that had passed away ages ago. He found out otherwise when he moved to the United States. When Keita finally caved and decided to give basketball a try, he didn’t get the hype. It took a video clip from a family friend’s phone for him to get hooked.
On the screen was LeBron James in a Miami Heat uniform. A 13-year-old Keita had no clue who the man was, but was enamored by his powerful dunks, immense strength and competitive fire. He knew then that he wanted to be an NBA player.
A 9 p.m. game in Miami meant a 1 a.m. tipoff where Keita lived, but he still cemented himself in front of the TV to watch the NBA past the time his parents allowed. He jumped head first into the sport, earning a spot on a local club team.
In 2015, Mali’s under-16 national team faced Egypt in the African Cup final. Keita had never been so excited to watch a game. He was proud of his country, seeing the nation’s best young players suit up to represent their homeland. Despite a valiant effort, Mali came up short in a two-point loss. Keita was crushed.
He was sick of his country being an afterthought in the sport. He envisioned the red, yellow and green stripes of his country’s flag prominently displayed across his chest, hardware glistening in his hands. But he knew he couldn’t make that dream a reality playing with his club team.
So, Keita left his parents and five siblings behind to go live with his uncle in Bamako, Mali’s capital. The decision meant a bigger city with better competition and increased exposure to scouts. He spent a fruitful season in Bamako leading up to the summer that changed his life.
An annual camp approached where American coaches would spectate and funnel some of Africa’s best talent overseas. If there was ever a chance for Keita to play abroad, this was it.
At the same time, his team in Bamako had grown unusually successful. At the end of his inaugural season, the team qualified for the national competition, and for the first time in its history advanced to the third round of the tournament. Keita found himself in a catch-22: Both events took place during the same weekend.
His coach encouraged him to ditch the game in favor of the camp, to showcase his skills to the recruiters. But Keita couldn’t bear the thought of bailing on his team.
“I said, ‘Well, I know I’m doing well with my team and we wanna make something happen,’” Keita said. “‘I will stick with my team, play again, and if I have a chance to play anywhere, United States or wherever, it is what it is.’”
Between the team’s first and second games of the day, some coaches from the camp got word about Keita and sent a few scouts to watch him play. That’s all it took. The coaches from the camp reached out to Keita’s coach, incredulous that he hadn’t shipped Keita to the camp. They decided to meet with him and extend the opportunity to go to America to play basketball.
“I gave up (the camp) for my team, and God gave back to me,” Keita said.
The blessing was bittersweet. As much as he wanted to be successful, Keita’s drive was deeply rooted in his family. He wanted to succeed for them. The idea of leaving them and his home behind with no assurances of a reunion was difficult to process.
“They thought I was telling a joke, like an April Fool’s joke,” Keita said. “And they said, ‘If that’s the choice you want to make, we only can bless you and wish you good luck.’”
With his parents' approval, Keita left behind everything he ever knew for America.
Keita’s first stop in the U.S. was Miami. Seemingly everywhere he looked, he saw something that sent his jaw to the floor.
“My eyes were big, man,” he said. “My eyes were wide open all the time. … Every single place we got to look up and enjoy the view.”
He fell in love with the city, but it hardly loved him back. Keita’s situation was rough; he’d only spoken French and Bambara to that point, and needed one hand to count the number of English words he knew. Throughout his entire stay in Miami, he was surrounded by coaches and teachers who seemed hell-bent on changing him.
“I didn’t even have a computer back home,” Keita said. “They provided me a computer (and tried) to teach me to use it, and I’m like, ‘I don’t even speak English yet.’ Everything was online. I needed teachers.”
The disconnect trickled into practice, where coaches and teammates struggled to communicate with him, some even giving up entirely.
“I lost connection with my point guard,” he said. “He wouldn’t talk to me in English because I couldn’t understand. So he got frustrated, I got frustrated, and he quit talking to me for some days.”
The scenario was far from ideal, and what Keita thought would be a straight path to Division I basketball suddenly looked like a daunting ascent. He decided to move, finding a landing spot with Gateway Basketball Club in St. Louis. That led him to DeSmet Jesuit, where he enrolled in high school.
Without a permanent home, his AAU coach began calling different families in the area, inquiring to see if anyone could house a 6-foot-8 15-year-old. Jim Harter picked up the phone. At the time, Harter’s son, Brendan, was an incoming freshman soon to play at DeSmet. He was working out at the school’s gym when his father got the call.
“They told me, ‘You need to come by,’ and I thought (Brendan) was hurt,” Harter said. “That evening, I came by and they told me about this boy who needed a home. I looked at him and I’m like, ‘I’ve got a senior daughter at home. I don’t think my wife’s gonna let a stranger in the house.’”
But the family loved the idea of having Keita. A few days passed with no word from the Harter family, and the staff called saying that they couldn’t wait any longer. Harter agreed, under the impression that Keita’s stay would last a couple of days, perhaps a week. The staff dropped him off at the Harters’ doorstep that weekend, and that week turned into four years.
The Harters treated Keita like one of their own children while attempting to help him ease into American society. They used Google Translate to communicate with him as he spoke to them in French. They’d play movies like Captain America, Harry Potter and Spiderman with subtitles to help him learn English. They replaced a spare twin bed for Keita's queen-sized one. Keita, a practicing Muslim, doesn’t eat pork, so the the family adapted its grocery list to fit his appetite. They customized his wardrobe to fit his irregular frame.
Adjusting to high school basketball in America took just as much work. DeSmet coach Kent Williams knew a project was on his hands when he first laid eyes on Keita. As a freshman, he constantly missed layups, dunks and free throws. He lacked the feel and understanding of the game possessed by his teammates who had grown up playing basketball.
Yet Keita had an innocence to him that permeated his approach in his freshman season and drew his teammates and coaches to him. He picked up every opponent he bulldozed. He smiled at trash talkers. He laughed when Williams mentioned ducking in on the weak side.
“Why are you laughing?” Williams would ask.
“You’re talking about ducks, coach,” Keita said, still learning English.
Keita dove head first into his work. He spent countless days in the gym, and just as many in the weight room. His inclination to get better became obsessive. At one point, Williams had to ask him to quit lifting weights prior to the team’s games.
“I had to eventually tell him, ‘Hey, there’s 365 days a year, there’s about 30 that you don’t need to lift,’” Williams said. “ That just shows you his work ethic. He told me he needed to get stronger, and I said, ‘That’s fine, just not 20 minutes before we play.’”
Keita’s innocence gave way to intensity. Hours of NBA and college film burned his retinas, famous footwork and post moves etched into his brain. Two months after scoring five points in his DeSmet debut, he posted 20 points and 17 rebounds against local powerhouse CBC and now-Kansas State 7-footer Davion Bradford.
Keita's development became an untamable flame. Just as he had given up everything to get to this point, he approached basketball the same way.
He’d guard every position, resembling Tom hunting Jerry as he chased smaller ball-handlers. He became one of the area’s best rebounders, at one point snagging 26 boards in a single game. He led the team in charges taken for two seasons, planting his feet where most players his size would take to the air.
“I’m proud of taking charges,” he said. “I can read players when they pick up the ball trying to go to the basket. I can read their feet, their last steps and put myself in front of them.”
His gamble — leaving his family to pursue basketball in America — looked like it had paid off. He had a team to lead, a home and a family that loved him. Then, within nine months of one another, he got the two phone calls that changed his life forever. Both his parents were gone, and he would never get the chance to see their burials.
But Keita, characteristically, persevered, his focus fixed on attaining his basketball dreams. Through his new home and locker room in St. Louis, he found the strength to do so.
“My mentality (when they passed) was just keep going,” Keita said. “Setting up my future is my goal now, and everything just made me feel more confident about going for my goal. I came here for this goal, and all this happened. So now I have to make things happen.”
Keita took a major step toward achieving his goals on the hardwood when he committed to Missouri in September. His college future secured, he looked primed for a monster senior season in 2020-21 before an open run changed his course. As Keita made a cut to the basket, his leg audibly buckled. Williams thought the injury looked serious, but Keita walked it off.
“I’m OK, coach,” he told Williams the following day. “I’m walking on it. I feel good, I iced it.”
Keita didn’t go to the doctor that week expecting to learn his high school career had been cut short. Williams’ fears were right: Keita had torn his ACL. He waited until he went to Williams’ office to deliver the news, and the tears fell soon after.
“I said, ‘Hey man, we’re gonna call Cuonzo (Martin), everything is gonna be good. Cuonzo himself has had like three knee injuries, he’s been through it,’” Williams said. “He was like, ‘I’m not worried about that, coach, I’m worried about my team.’ That just tells you where his mindset is as a person. It wasn’t about himself, personal success or his future, it was about the team he was playing with.”
But Keita knew he had to call Martin. He sat alone in his car in shock before finally gathering himself. Martin let him know that it was a bump in the road, never wavering from his stance on Keita and his commitment. In the following months, he texted Keita daily motivational paragraphs.
“I realized that I made a good choice,” Keita said. “There’s no bad at all. I’ve chosen the right person.”
Keita spent his senior year learning the game from a brand new viewpoint: the sideline. He sees the game differently now. Where most kids would see as a setback, he sees a necessary step.
“I think it built me as a person,” he said. “I had to learn next to Coach Kent. I had to be like an assistant coach sometimes, trying to learn why Coach Kent took a timeout or did this.”
That sideline stint helped Keita understand his place in the game. He saw firsthand that there are necessary decisions and players who must make them. Keita knows he’ll have to make some of those decisions on a fresh-faced Tigers team as it enters a new era.
“He definitely fits a role for what coach Martin likes,” Williams said. “And sometimes I think some people get caught up in recruitment trying to get the 13 most talented players, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re making the best team. When you’re trying to put a team together, you need a guy who’s willing to do some of the other parts that some other guys might not be willing to do. I think Cuonzo saw that in him. I know that’s what Yaya feels in himself.”
Keita rehabbed hard, beating the timetable doctors gave him to return to the floor. He’s spent the summer on Missouri’s campus working toward being in better shape than he was before he went down.
While part of what drove Keita’s move to Columbia was an appreciation for a coach who recognizes the inner workings of a team, Williams knows how difficult it has been and will continue to be for Keita to live across the ocean from his family, and that Martin can prepare him for what’s ahead.
“(Martin) is a life coach for some of these guys,” Williams said. He’ll help these guys really learn to be on their own. And (Keita) is a guy that’s been on his own. He appreciates that and he appreciates the guidance he’ll be given from Cuonzo.”
Keita still finds solace in the gym, working to better his game. Shooting around or lifting weights alone, he often finds his mind drifting toward his mother’s last words.
“Take care of yourself. Be yourself. Never change.”
Her words read like a scripture. He carries them with him like a birthmark.
He’s reminded daily of what he’s given up to get here — every time he reaches for the clothes his mother made him that somehow still fit him perfectly, or whenever he glances at the pictures of his family that he’s kept through every stop.
Now in his new home, he’s focused on the sacrifices ahead and how, in his eyes, everything happens for a reason.
“I made a lot of sacrifices,” Keita said. “And I’m still giving. Since I’ve been here I’ve still never went back home, still fighting, still going through a lot of stuff. StIll missing home, missing my brothers, my sisters. Man, you already know it's tough. But I’m still going.
"There's thousands of kids out there playing basketball waiting for an opportunity like this. So for God to give it to me, it’s a blessing.”