It’s only fitting that one of the most international prep schools on the east coast should have a 6-foot-11 player from Africa as the centerpiece to its postgraduate basketball team.
Touba Traore, who is from Bamako, Mali, isn’t just the tallest player for Massanutten Military Academy’s PG team, he’s also the captain of HQ company and an honor roll student. Though he’s excelled at Massanutten Military Academy, success was not preordained.
When he arrived in the country in January 2017, Traore didn’t speak any English.
“It was tough being away from my parents for the first time,” he said. “I spoke no English at the time. It was very tough learning English. I could not learn it by myself.”
With an uncle living in Minnesota as his closest family member, Traore lived with a foster family while he attended Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy in Stephens City, Virginia. To learn English, Traore said he used subtitles to movies and began listening to popular American music. While most basketball pregame gyms are filled with hip hop music, Traore said he prefers R & B more, with his favorite musician still being Salif Keita, a singer-songwriter from Mali known as the “Golden Voice of Africa.”
Just as his musical tastes harken back to his homeland, so, too, does his choice for favorite meals. Asked what he misses most about Mali, Traore didn’t hesitate.
“I love fried plantains with beef, that’s my favorite,” he said.
When pressed to identify his favorite food in this country, the towering center didn’t drift too far from his first love.
“I’d have to say steak,” he said, laughing. “I’m a beef guy.”
By the time he was 14 years old, Traore said he could dunk. Guessing he was about 6-foot-3 at that time, the 18-year-old now commands attention whenever he enters the room. Of course, that’s going to happen when you’re less than an inch from being 7 feet tall.
“It does feel weird sometimes going into a room and everyone is just looking at you because you’re so tall,” he said.
The tallest person in his family by far, Traore said both his parents are more than 6 feet tall, but that none of his relatives – not even a distant cousin, uncle or aunt – come close to the cloud-scraping height he’s attained.
With that size has come attention. Several schools have inquired about Traore including James Madison University, George Mason University, Radford University, and Hampton University. After the Holtzman Invitational in early December, seven more schools contacted Massanutten coach Curtis Peery to ask about the Malian center.
“I try to be aggressive on the boards with rebounds both offensively and defensively,” Traore said when asked to describe his playing style. “Running up and down the court. I have a good shot out to 15 feet. And I just keep working to get the shot.”
It should be no surprise that Traore’s favorite players in the NBA are all big men like himself: Giannis Antetokounmpo, who plays with former Massanutten Military Academy guard Frank Mason III in Milwaukee, the Lakers’ Anthony Davis and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, who is also from Africa (Cameroon).
Though having all eyes on him when he enters a room may feel “weird” at times, Traore conceded that knowing coaches across the state and region and paying attention to him is a pretty nice thing.
“That,” he said with a deep laugh, “feels great!”