Friday, February 19, 2016

Modibo Diarra Happy to Be Back with Mill Rats

Diarra high fives a fan in his return (Photo: Rod Stears Photography)

Harbour Station roared with applause, as fans saw a familiar face heading back onto the court. Veteran big man Modibo Diarra was suiting up for the Saint John Mill Rats for the first time in nearly two years. The 35-year-old contributed four points, two rebounds, and one block, as his team dominated the Orangeville A's.

Diarra has some of the closest connections to a team that a player can have. He was first spotted by general manager Ian McCarthy in 2006, who received a call from Modibo's host family in Boston. The family wanted to see if Diarra could play basketball for the Cape Cod Frenzy. McCarthy allowed Diarra to join his summer team, and then the center went to play in France.

The two stayed in touch for the next couple of years, and they met with each other every summer. In 2011, while the Mill Rats were still in the Premier Basketball League, McCarthy contacted Diarra through Skype to check on his availability to join his squad.

The general manager soon learned that Diarra was finishing off a stint in Libya, where he was playing for a team owned by the Gaddafi family. However, the United States and its allies were soon going to take military action in the area, and the safety of Diarra and his family was at risk. Fortunately, he escaped at the last second and returned to his host family.

Diarra speaks with Mill Rats' David Cooper over Skype (Photo: CBC)

Diarra went on with his career, joining the Mill Rats in 2010 and competing in both the PBL and the NBL Canada. But everything changed when he took a flight to his home country of Mali to visit his family. A military coup was taking place in the region, and Modibo, his wife, and his three-year-old daughter began wondering whether they could ever come back out.

Back in New Brunswick, Mill Rats fans and a group known as "The Africa to Canada Committee" were doing the best they could to bring the Diarra family out of Mali. Within months, they had raised more than $15,000 to pay for the flights and visas. The fundraising continued even as the family arrived in Saint John, as Modibo also had to support 22 other extended family members.

Upon his return, Diarra continued to play with the Mill Rats, until he announced his retirement in 2013. He stuck with basketball even post-retirement, becoming a full-time director at a YMCA in Saint John and running Modibo's Basketball School (MBS). Nonetheless, that would not be the end of Diarra's time with the Mill Rats.

When asked on why he made his surprising return, he said, "The coach needs my help...that is why I'm back to help the team today...I love playing for the Mill Rats, [especially] for my fans all around the world."

Diarra at Modibo's Basketball School (Photo: Rod Stears Photography)