LAHAINA, Hawaii — If the Kansas Jayhawks reach the Final Four like so many pundits predict, they’ll probably say their road began a few hundred yards from the beach here in Hawaii.
No, not on the hardwood of the Lahaina Civic Center, where Bill Self’s squad came from behind to beat No. 19 Vanderbilt in Wednesday’s championship game of the Maui Invitational. But rather in a first-floor meeting room at the $425-per-night Westin Hotel.
It was there that Self and a group of Kansas administrators summoned freshman Cheick Diallo around 10:25 a.m. local time. As the embattled forward walked through the door, Self rose to his feet.
“Do you know why I called you here?” Self said.
Nervous, Diallo spoke softly.
“I think so,” he replied.
“You’re eligible,” he said. “It’s over now. It’s all over. You can play.”
The MVP of last spring’s McDonald’s All-American game, Diallo dropped his head and covered his face with his hands before embracing his coach. There were no tears, Self said, but certainly a sense of joy—and, even more so, relief—during a moment Diallo had waited six months for, not knowing if it would ever come.
“[At times] I wanted to let it go,” Diallo said. “I wanted to quit because it was getting so hard.”
Self refused to let him.
It was June when Kansas was informed that Diallo’s New York high school, Our Savior New American, had been under review by the NCAA since 2011. As a result, the coursework Diallo completed during his three-and-a-half years at the institution was being scrutinized.
Diallo, though, wasn’t informed the school was under investigation when he began classes there in 2012. Otherwise he would’ve enrolled elsewhere after moving to the United States from Mali.
The longer the process took, the more frustrated Self and Kansas’ administration became. According to athletic director Sheahon Zenger, university officials made six trips to Our Savior New American to meet with Diallo’s former teachers and coaches, and Self said they also hired two independent investigators to examine his high school curriculum and whether it should count toward his eligibility.
Firmly convinced the NCAA had erred and that Diallo should be cleared, Zenger wrote a vicious letter to NCAA vice president Oliver Luck on Nov. 10 that detailed Kansas’ findings while accusing the NCAA of running a “misfit” investigation in which the enforcement staff made zero visits to Our Savior New American.
Finally—after a few additional haymakers by Self on Sunday in a national conference call that left the NCAA looking even more foolish—the group announced via press release Wednesday that Diallo had been cleared to play beginning Tuesday, Dec. 1.
“Everyone is calling and texting and saying, ‘We’ve [heard the] great news,” Diallo said. “I’m so happy.”
So too are Diallo’s teammates, some of whom ran from room to room at the Westin on Wednesday afternoon to spread the word that Diallo was eligible. Just as they had during the first two rounds, fans at the Lahaina Civic Center chanted Diallo’s name repeatedly throughout the Jayhawks’ 70-63 title-game win over Vanderbilt.
Prominent ESPN commentators Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale, who had been critical of the NCAA during the process, sent tweets of approval after hearing the news.
As Diallo left the arena, he stopped and signed autographs and took pictures with a pair of fans holding a sign that read “Mahalo Diallo.”
During a press conference following the game, Diallo expressed appreciation for everyone who continued to fight for him during the six-month process. According to Zenger, the fees Kansas incurred during the Diallo ordeal—everything from lawyers to travel—fell just short of six figures.
Diallo joked that he texted Self nearly every day since June seeking updates. The message was always the same: “What’s up?”
“He knows exactly what I [meant],” Diallo said. “Sometimes I cannot even sleep. I [am] only thinking about, ‘What am I going to do?’
“I don’t have anything to do if I don’t play this year. I wanted to play this year so [bad]. I was getting frustrated. I’m trying to stay strong, then this happened today. I’m so excited.”
So is Diallo’s coach.
Still, as elated as Self is to be adding Diallo to the mix—he’s projected as a lottery pick in this summer’s NBA draft, according to DraftExpress.com—he was also livid at the ruling that indicated Diallo couldn’t play until Tuesday because of a five-game, NCAA-imposed suspension retroactive to the beginning of the season.
According to the press release, Diallo committed minor violations of amateurism rules that reportedly stem from his relationship with Tidiane Drame, who became Diallo’s legal guardian after he moved to the United States from Mali.
Don Jackson, Drame’s attorney, told Jesse Newell of the Topeka Capital-Journal Wednesday that Drame gave Diallo $165 for, among other things, a cellphone bill during a 20-day span before he became his legal guardian. Also included in that sum, Jackson said, is money for gas that was used when Diane drove Diallo to Wal-Mart.
The mere suggestion that Diallo violated amateurism issues (as a ninth-grader, no less) infuriated Self. Although he wouldn’t say it publicly, he likely believes it was a way for the NCAA to save face following a shoddy investigation—and also an opportunity for the organization to get back at him for verbal, public lashings that have caused the NCAA so much embarrassment these past few weeks.
Diallo said he is still confused by everything that went down.
“I mean, I’m kind of mad because I’ve been suspended five games,” he said. “I don’t even know what I did. I don’t know what I’ve done.”
Luckily, none of that matters anymore.
Without Diallo, Kansas went 4-1 and took home the championship trophy of the Maui Invitational—its first since 1996—after coming from behind to defeat a Vanderbilt squad that’s much better than its No. 19 national ranking.
With Diallo, the Jayhawks will be even more salty. Self said he’s never coached a player, not even a point guard, who runs the court as well as Diallo. His bounce and energy will set the tone for the entire squad.
“It may not happen immediately,” Self said, “but Cheick will change our team.”
Kansas has also lacked an intimidating rim protector since Jeff Withey graduated. Diallo could fill that void. His first game as a Jayhawk will come Tuesday against Loyola Maryland at Allen Fieldhouse.
“I’m ready,” Diallo said. “I can’t wait. I can’t wait.”
Indeed, after six months, Cheick Diallo has waited long enough.
Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JasonKingBR.