SPOKANE, Wash. — Gonzaga’s Oumar Ballo and WSU’s Efe Abogidi have a lot of things in common.
They both began their athletic careers as soccer players, both got serious about basketball in middle school— much later than normal athletes— and both left home shortly thereafter to pursue their dreams.
Now, they both are one step away from their ultimate basketball goal: The NBA.
"If you take a look back five years, I would say you’re crazy. Like, how would I even make it to here?" said Ballo.
Here is definitely foreign to the duo, in the way you would obviously expect for two kids who grew up in Africa.
"It’s really cold out here," said Abogidi with a laugh. "Definitely different from being back home, where it’s, like, always summer every time."
"My visit, I remember I came, and it was snowing. That was the first time being around snow like that and that really made me think twice about choosing Gonzaga," said Oumar while grinning.
There were some other stops along the way.
For Ballo, who’s a native of Mali, that meant playing basketball in Spain at the age of 13 and eventually finishing his high school career at the NBA’s Latin America Academy in Mexico City.
For Abogidi, who hails from Nigeria, that meant first going to the NBA’s Africa Academy in Senegal at the age of 14 and then moving to play at the NBA’s Global Academy in Australia.
Even though they both have been away from homes for quite some time, they know they are still setting an example in their native countries.
"It means a lot. I’m trying to let people from back home see that we can actually get here and be the best we can be in basketball. We can actually be really good at basketball. It’s really special trying to represent those people and the continent," said Abogidi.
"It really means a lot," said Oumar, who's last name many young players in Mali rock on the back of their jerseys. "Like on a team, there will be like two, three people calling themselves after me. I feel like that’s a big responsibility to carry on."
No matter the responsibility, the duo came up with the same word to describe where they are in life now.
"It’s a blessing I would say. It’s a blessing to be here," said Abogidi.
"I’m just honestly blessed to be here and be able to play the sport that I love," reflected Ballo.