EAST LANSING, Mich. — The truck rumbled along, chewing up the orange-dirt ruts that double as roadways deep in the heart of Mali. Only 360 miles separate the village of Tangafoya from Bamako, the nation’s capital, but the unyielding terrain turns what would be, under typical highway circumstances, a six-hour drive into a 10-hour trek. Sitting in the backseat, Mady Sissoko watched his country pass by from the side window, as everything he knew receded behind him.
Just 15, he was leaving home with a man he knew only slightly, to live in a country he barely considered, all to play a sport he understood vaguely. So foreign was the entire concept of Western civilization and so wide was the language gap that when Sissoko started sniffling on the flight out of Mali, overcome by allergies, his guardian handed him a pill. Mike Clayton motioned to his nose, trying to explain it would help with Sissoko’s breathing. “He put the pill up his nose,’’ Clayton says.
Sissoko left Tangafoya that day to chase a better life, spurred by his older brother and pushed by his parents to ride basketball as far as it might take him. This past summer, he made the trip in reverse. A junior center for a Michigan State team that likely will start the season ranked in the top five and a two-time academic All-Big Ten selection, he has found his better life. When Sissoko rounded the final corner to his village, children dashed out to greet him with a hero’s welcome. They were impressed with who Sissoko had become, but more, they were grateful for what he’d done.
He had given them a better life, too.
The squat one-story building seems to rise from the ground, colored the same as the golden earth beneath it. Structurally, it is simple. Archways carved out serve as open-air windows, and long wooden tables and chairs fill the rooms. There is, however, so much more to the Mady Sissoko Foundation School than what meets the eye. Within its walls lies the one thing people in Tangafoya crave but often can’t find. “People there, they don’t have the opportunities,’’ Sissoko says. “I got an opportunity. Ever since I came to the United States, I wanted to give that back.’’
Sissoko is sitting in the recruiting reception area upstairs at the Breslin Center. The largesse of an American athlete’s life sprawls around him – private tables to study, big-screen TVs to watch, games to play and even a cook to prepare meals. It is a life to which Sissoko has grown accustomed, even if it is not the life he imagined. At best, he thought, he might follow his oldest brother, Modibo, to France and find a job as he did, at a pharmaceutical company.
He did not think, at 22, he’d be funding his village’s first school, establishing a well to provide people their first drops of running water and even an irrigation system to help with the farming. He could not envision a world where he could foster future dreams to help his community — next a tractor, who knows, maybe, someday, a hospital.
It happened logistically because of the name, image and likeness opportunities afforded NCAA athletes since July 2021. Depending on whom you ask, NIL is either equity finally coming to roost in college athletics or the certain downfall of the entire enterprise. On the good side of the ledger sit stories such as Sissoko’s, of athletes using their money to help others. As an international student, Sissoko’s situation is complicated. While his teammates cut deals for cars at area dealerships and earn paychecks off other endorsements, Sissoko cannot profit off of his NIL while in the United States.
He can, however, create a foundation and solicit charitable contributions. With the help of Clayton and his other guardian, Paul Olson, that’s what Sissoko did. Sissoko set a goal of $50,000. He surpassed it by “quite a lot,’’ Sissoko says, though he does not wish to give an exact amount, and in February officials broke ground on the school. It opened in September, with four classrooms able to serve 60 to 70 students apiece.
But just that’s the bricks and mortar and the finances. The building may exist because of the foundation, but the school’s foundation is built on Sissoko. ’’Surprised? No, I’m not at all surprised,’’ says Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo. “That’s the kind of kid he is. He never worries about himself. He’s always thinking about other people.”
Each morning Sissoko would leave the house somewhere between 6 and 6:30 and start walking, heading out with other kids from the village to school. An hour and a half later, they’d arrive. Tangafoya is home to about 900 people, but its remoteness is hard to comprehend, especially when viewed from a world where everything is just a strip mall away.
When asked if he had to worry about cars as he walked to school, Sissoko laughs at the naivete of the question. “Maybe a few motorcycles,’’ he says. Virtually everyone works as farmers, subsisting on the corn, beans, peanuts, rice and millet they harvest. Their homes are made of mud and thatched roofs. No electricity and, until Sissoko, no clean drinking water. Disease is common.
Formal schooling is a luxury, classrooms plopped where the funding allows to serve kids who find a way to get there. Plenty of Sissoko’s friends did not go to schools simply because Tangafoya didn’t have a school to go to. But Sissoko is the youngest of 10, and though his parents are uneducated, they and his siblings did not give him much choice. They insisted he go. Only the rainy season, which made travel impossible, gave Sissoko permission to skip.
For a while Sissoko had a priceless commodity — a bike. But when it broke, he just had his two feet and determination. “You wake up in the morning and you can just think, ‘Nah, I’m not going today,’’ says Sissoko, who usually didn’t get home until nearly 6 p.m.
“You definitely have to have a vision that no matter what, I’m going to do this.’’
That grit never left him. Instead, when life became easier, it mixed together with a heightened awareness of just how lucky he was, the idea of doing something for his village percolating long before Sissoko had the means to pull it together.
Clayton recently returned from his 42nd visit to Mali. He made his first in 2011, joining a team of eye doctors, including Olson, for a humanitarian aid trip. In 2015, one of the Malian Armed Forces soldiers offering protection asked the men if they’d be willing to meet his string bean of a little brother. Souleymane Sissoko, Mady’s middle brother, is tall. Mady, he told them, is taller. When they agreed, Souleymane hopped on his motorbike and drove eight hours to fetch his brother.
But even after Sissoko showed how he could dunk, Clayton and Olson weren’t quite sure what to do. They were there to offer eye care, not foster would-be basketball players. A year later, when Souleymane brought Sissoko around again, they considered it more seriously and started down the bureaucratic rabbit hole to see if they could even make it happen. This time, it was a skeptical Sissoko who needed convincing. “I was like, ‘Why? Why do they want to do this?’ I really wasn’t going for it,’’ he says. But Souleymane convinced him it was a good idea, and when Clayton and Olson showed up in Tangafoya to ask his parents’ permission to take him to the United States — he’d wind up in Utah — Sissoko was convinced.
The transition wasn’t easy on anyone. Sissoko spoke French and Bambara; Clayton and the Applegarths, the host family that took in Sissoko, spoke neither. Nor did anyone in Sissoko’s new school, Wasatch Academy. Everyone did a lot of charades. Clayton remembers trying to explain to Sissoko what toilet paper was, and how to use it. Sissoko had never used a pen or a pencil. Upon arriving in Utah, Sissoko gawked at the merchandise sprawl during a shopping trip, and giddily delighted in a swimming pool. “One day we visited a farm,’’ he says. “I was like, ‘OK, this I can do.’’ He battled homesickness and second-guessing, especially as his failure to comprehend the language compounded his ability to succeed on the basketball court.
Yet he remained uncompromisingly determined. He studied flash cards and people, trying to understand through their mannerisms and inflections the meanings of their words. When he arrived at Michigan State — by the end of his high school career, the 6-foot-9 Sissoko fielded dozens of offers after soaring to the 41st-best player in his class, per 247Sports Composite — he failed the English language test given to all non-English speaking students. To enroll for fall, he had to take five six-week condensed ESL classes in the summer of 2020.
Beginning in May and through August, Sissoko and Hannon Roberts, the team’s academic coordinator, spent between five and six hours a day working through the coursework. “He has to work a lot harder, but not once did he get frustrated,’’ Roberts says. “I just always got the sense with Mady he knew he had such a great opportunity to come to the United States and get an education, so he was going to put the time in. He does the work.’’
Sissoko has finished with a 3.0 or better grade point average every semester.
The kids kept coming, dozens of them running toward him, their extended families following on their heels. It took a minute for Sissoko to understand. This wasn’t just people from Tangafoya; these were people from neighboring villages, too — hundreds of people there to see him; there to thank him.
He had returnd to Tangafoya before, in 2021, and still considers himself first and foremost a citizen of Mali, not America. That is his home, his culture, the epicenter of his Muslim faith. Still, it felt different this last time. He went not as the recipient of the kindness of others but the giver.
The kids tugged him into the classroom, and the adults talked to him about the well. Soldiers escorted him around like a celebrity, everyone giddy at what Sissoko had become.
Even more, they were grateful for what he had done.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Courtesy of Mike Clayton; Jeffrey Brown / Getty Images)