Just a signature away from Division 1

NEW YORK -- At an early age, Amadou Sidibe made the switch. Both geographically and in his favorite sport.

He made the transition from defending a goal to defending a basket. From kicking a ball to dribbling one.

In moving from the Ivory Coast back to his native North American soil, Sidibe gave up soccer and eventually became a basketball player.

"My job was to protect the post as a goalie in soccer," Sidibe said. "So it was just easier to use that skill and take it to basketball."

And now, years later, as college approaches in two years for the 6-foot-8-inch, 220-pound junior center on the Cardinal Hayes boys basketball team, that tradeoff in sports has rewarded Sidibe with an opportunity to play Division I basketball.

Sidibe's basketball acumen has already grown to the point where, entering Thursday's game against Xaverian, the 16-year-old was averaging 19 points and 15 rebounds per game. He's being looked at by schools from the Ivy League, Big East, MAAC and other conferences and already has received scholarship offers.

And there's still plenty of potential to tap.

"It shows that I've come a long way," Sidibe said. "When I was 12, I didn't think that I would see myself where I am now, so it shows how hard I've worked."

Born in Brooklyn, Sidibe moved to Ivory Coast with his mother, Aissiata, at the age of three to become immersed in the culture. It was in Africa that he first fell in the love with the beautiful game.

When he was about six, Sidibe started playing soccer like the rest of the kids his age. He didn't want to be the only one missing out on the fun. He played a few times, then played some more, and was hooked. He'd go to school, come home and play soccer with his friends for about four to five hours a day. He developed into a wiry goalie.

"I was tall and I was able to jump," Sidibe said. "I was good with my hands so I was the goalie.'

At the age of eight, though, Sidibe had a conversation with two of his relatives that changed his life and steered him away from his love of soccer. Even though he was still smitten with the sport, his uncle, Mamadou, who watched basketball late at night, and his cousin, Foday, told him that with his above-average size (he was roughly 5-foot-3), that basketball might be a better sport for him.

His father, Ibrahim, concurred.

"Basketball is part of the United States," Ibrahim said. "It's kind of more normal to be into basketball. I wasn't surprised."

While it took him three years to finally pick up a basketball, it was well worth the wait.

As a middle school student at Sacred Heart School in Highbridge, one of Sibide's former teachers, Ms. Zenor, who was the girls varsity basketball coach, asked him if he wanted to practice with the girls team. There was no boys team at the school at the time and Sidibe took his teacher up on her offer

While he said he was a decent soccer player, basketball didn't come easy to Sidibe.

"I didn't know how to dribble or how to make a lay-up, so practicing with the girls team helped me out," Sidibe said. "It helped with getting a feel for the game and she helped me with the mental aspect of the game."

Sidibe was hooked. He played on his middle school team the following two years before heading to Cardinal Hayes, where he joined the freshman team. He suffered a broken ankle and broken leg along the way, but kept plugging along.

His height gave him a building point for his game but he was still too raw and inexperienced. Soccer gave him the footwork he needed to navigate the trenches as a big man, but that only carried him so far. The easiest of shots were like trick shots for him.
Dribbling wasn't his strong suit. The fundamental of his game did not come easy to him, except for rebounding, where he could just use his size to grab the boards.

But he was eager.

"When I first saw him, he was raw but the two things I figured out right away were, one, he was pretty tall and two, you could see from meeting him what a great attitude he had," Cardinal Hayes coach Joe Lods said. "He's a got a big smile and he's a great kid and he said 'I'm tall I don't really know what I'm doing but I want to work and I really want to be good' and that's all I really needed to hear from him. He's really put forth the effort."

Leading up to each season, the coaches at Hayes have offered morning workouts for the team. There was always one consistent: Sidibe. He was there every morning working with assistant coach Justin Simon, developing his post game. They worked on catching and making lay-ups. How to defend an opponent. How to score on a jump hook. How to expand his game further and further away from the basket. How to become a more complete player.

As a sophomore, Sidibe averaged 11 rebounds a game. Perhaps more impressive, in just his fourth year playing basketball, he earned his first scholarship offer. During an open gym session at Hayes, former Fordham interim head coach Jared Grasso stopped by to watch the local talent. He studied Sidibe for a short time before offering him a scholarship on the spot. While Sidibe didn't commit, and he remains uncommitted, he still was left feeling like a young kid on Christmas morning.

"I couldn't wait to get home and tell my father," Sidibe said. "I know that's what he wanted for me to go to college for free and Fordham's a good school so I knew he would be excited."

To watch Sidibe play this season is to watch a work in progress. As he plays against Wings Academy on Dec. 18, the potential is there for everyone to see. He rebounds selflessly and hustles up and down the court on every play. With his tall, lanky frame, that could still use some bulking, he navigates the floor like a soccer player.

He's even added dunking to his repertoire, having slammed home 12 baskets in Hayes' first eight games of the season. While his offensive game is not polished, there is the noticeable malleability for a player with such little experience. With more and more practice, he can improve his offensive game, which he even admits is behind his defensive game this point. He hasn't peaked yet and his best days could be ahead of him.

For Sidibe, those best days would include adding some hardware to his collection.

"This season I want to win a city championship, that's my main goal and that's the only thing I'm focused on," Sidibe said. "Next year I want to repeat and then go to a good college."

If he was still playing soccer, still patrolling between the posts, Sidibe believes he could have had Division I offers. Instead, he's now a signature away from making it in basketball.

He's had his taste of both sports, falling in love with each one in a different way on a different continent.

"I love basketball now. It's the thing I do every day, it's my passion," Sidibe said. "I breathe and live basketball."

Matt Ehalt is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.