Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
Assata Konate was rushing to work one late-spring night in 2019, and, on her way, intended to drop off her son, Alassane “Big Al” Amadou, at one of his friend’s homes when she got a call. Nodding for a second as she listened, Konate suddenly shrieked, followed by screeching brakes. Amadou extended his long arms to the dashboard, thinking for a moment that the car would careen off the road.
“Mom, what happened? What happened?” Amadou was yelling in a panic. Konate, too distraught to speak, simply handed over the phone to Amadou as she pulled the car over. Seconds later, he erupted into tears, after finding out his father, Hamidou Amadou, had died.
Alassane Amadou lost the two most important men in his life within two weeks of each other in 2019. (Photo: Nick Daggett Photography)
Two weeks later, still paralyzed by depression, Alassane Amadou was driving in the car with his mother again, when the double whammy came that his uncle, Mory Sidibe, his father’s younger brother, died after a long ailment.
Within 14 days, two of the most influential men in the younger Amadou’s life were gone. He lost the center of his life—his father, due to a heart attack in his 50s. And then the second center of his life, his uncle. Amadou was inconsolable. There were random times in the car with his mom when he would have emotional eruptions. He didn’t want to hear from anything or anyone. He hid in his room for days, hardly able to speak, hardly wanting to speak.
Months later, somber, idle moments were sometimes pierced by emotional outbursts seemingly from nowhere.
Amadou had an escape. He had basketball. The great panacea was a cracked asphalt local court where he would get lost by himself and run for hours, playing games in his head, announcing big moments where he was always the hero—and there watching at courtside would be his father Hamidou and Uncle Mory.
The 6-foot-9, 190-pound Amadou still sees them sitting there leaning intently forward, only now in real moments of big games for Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.
Though just 18, “Big Al” has managed to channel a simmering anger at the world over his plight into becoming a rising prospect on the brink of blowing up.
In August, he received offers from Big 10 Maryland, Big East Marquette and Atlantic 10 Dayton. Those are just the last three added to a list that already included La Salle, Saint Joseph’s, Siena, Drexel, Cal Poly and VCU. And it’s a list that’s growing—like Amadou, who’s taken emotional leaps since those weeks in 2019.
Amadou likes Villanova, while Virginia and Penn State really like him. Most recently, Miami and Cincinnati have also offered scholarships.
Amadou has remained unbelievably strong. He lights up a room. At a young age, he’s discovered the rare ability to step outside of himself and see him. He wears a brave mien. Everyone around him raves about his outlook.
Alassane Amadou (above) has had a strong first season at Springside Chestnut Hill. (Photo: James Quinn Sports)
“That comes from my mom,” Amadou said. “I was really angry and I shut myself off after my dad and uncle died. There was a lot of pain there. There still is. Basketball was my only escape. When I’m mad, I keep to myself. It’s something I learned from my dad, keeping my emotions tight.
“I changed. Yeah, I was angry at the world. It took me about a year to start returning to myself, but I have to admit, there are some nights when I still get angry and I still cry to this day, because I would love my dad and my uncle to see what I’m doing now. Basketball is my weapon.”
Jay Joseph first brought Amadou to the attention of Kamal Yard, the President of the Philly Pride AAU basketball club, after seeing Amadou play as a grade schooler in Quakertown. Joseph knew Amadou needed a bigger platform to show his skills, and it’s why Joseph referred him to Yard.
“When we first met Alassane, his dad was really involved, and he would drive Big Al everywhere, so I knew that was a very tough blow for him,” said Amauro Austin, one of the lead directors for the Philly Pride. “There’s been peaks and valleys with Big Al. He was ready to break out a year ago, but after September 2019, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we did makeshifts events.
“What happened was Alassane was going to Bishop McDevitt, and Big Al got lazy. He didn’t put the work in, and he had a horrible season last year. He should have started for McDevitt and he didn’t start, because he wasn’t mentally focused and mentally ready.
“Fast forward to March of this year, when McDevitt was going to close, we thought we could re-classify Alassane as a 17-year-old. This spring, Alassane started to get his mojo back, and in came [Springside-Chestnut Hill head coach] Julian McFadden."
Springside Chestnut Hill Academy is not exactly a basketball “haven,” but it is a high-quality academic school. It’s also a school that can present Amadou with opportunities he could not get at any other school in terms of high-powered relationships.
Amadou has been a perfect fit. He’s a talented basketball player, who’s incredibly personable, constantly wears a smile and is academically sound.
Konate, Amadou's mom, is from the Ivory Coast (his father was from Mali, though the younger Amadou was born in the United States). She easily works 60-hour weeks in the medical field. She admits it took some time before she could break through her son’s icy veneer.
“Losing his father and uncle was very hard on Alassane, and I’m a single mother trying to raise him,” said Assata, who lives in a two-bedroom complex with her son. “Playing basketball by himself in the park was good for him. The Chestnut Hill people have been very nice to him and my family.
“His father and his uncle were the men in his life. It was very tough when they died. I got help from Alassane’s coaches. There were times when we were in the car, when he would burst out crying. In the middle of the night, he would burst out crying. Right now, he’s been doing a lot better. He really is a good kid.
Alassane Amadou (left) and SCH head coach Julius McFadden. (Photo: Dave Wilson/SCH Academy)
“I work a lot, but I try to watch him play as much as I can. I get emotional when I watch him play, because I wish his dad would be there to see him. He’s doing something that he loves.”
In Amadou, college scouts see a long, athletic wing who can nail the three, rebound, get out on the fastbreak and possesses a quality handle for his size.
McFadden is in his fifth year as head coach for Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. Amadou is in his junior year for the Blue Devils, who are 5-3, and averaging 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots a game. McFadden has seen a maturity emerge in Amadou. He’s lifting more frequently, and more importantly, loves playing basketball.
It’s been the one constant in his life.
“Alassane understands now what the grind is to get to a Maryland, or a Marquette, or a school like that,” McFadden said. “He’s one of the best young people I ever met. He’s someone who was trying to find his way (in life), and he’s getting there. He’s still trying to figure out his place on the court, whether he’s a wing, or a stretch-four that can shoot.
“There are so many different things that he can do. If he continues doing what he did over the summer, sticking to a routine, going to the gym in the morning and lifting, or going to the gym and shooting, and then going to school, he’s going to be fine.”
McFadden equates Amadou to a taller, bigger version of Villanova’s Shane Clark.
“Big Al is a relationship kid, that’s him, that’s his energy,” McFadden said. “I definitely think Al is Villanova-good, and it would be wise for them to jump in right now, and it would be really wise for Jay (Wright) to do that. Wherever Al goes, his mother is going to have to check off on that. It’s why it might make sense that it’s somewhere close.”
The Chestnut Hill Academy community has rallied around Big Al, as has the Philly Pride program, though mostly Amadou did lot of healing on his own.
“I can’t forget the times I would be playing on that playground for hours, not going home until the sun went down,” Alassane recalled. “The whole trauma of what happened put my mom through hell, and I think I shut myself off for a time, because I didn’t want her to go through any more pain by seeing me stressed.
“Coach Joseph helped me out a lot, and Coach Amauro, Coach Jules and the Chestnut Hill people, they’ve all been a blessing. I want more in life, and hopefully that I can provide my mom with more. It all comes through basketball.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.