PHILADELPHIA — The original Cinderella run began with a transatlantic flight and discomfort.
Two lanky teens crammed into compact airplane seats and, as their high school classmates prepared to graduate, they jetted off to Mali. They’d go from there to Greece, and chase history at the under-19 basketball World Cup, but come on, some friends thought, who were they kidding?
Mali had never qualified for the Olympics or World Cup. No African team had ever medaled at a major international basketball tournament. Mali, Africa’s 19th most populous nation, had even struggled in continental competitions.
But the Drame twins, who moved from Mali to New York in 2016, had developed a basketball worldview rooted in hope. They carried it with them across the Mediterranean Sea that summer. They helped stun Latvia, Canada and France en route to the U-19 World Cup final. As semifinal clocks struck zero, Fousseyni fell to his knees in prayer. Hassan bounded across the court in ecstasy.
Then they returned to the United States, and joined a men's college basketball program coming off a 10-22 season. Saint Peter’s University, with decrepit facilities and one winning season in its past eight, had little reason to hope at the time. But the Drame twins would tell their new teammates, again and again: “We're going to make a run.”
When anybody doubted their vision, they’d respond just as they did ahead of the World Cup, with three simple words: “Time will tell.”
And so, with time telling a miraculous tale again, with the 15th-seeded Peacocks of St. Peter’s on the cusp of the Final Four, their run, Hassan Drame says, feels “like déjà vu.”
Nowadays, he and his brother are fueling that run, as main characters in the drama that has captivated America. They’re high-energy forwards and fearless defenders who’ve corralled key rebounds in upsets of Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue.
Six years ago, though, they were high school underclassmen facing the toughest decisions of their lives.
They left family and friends, structure and comfort in West Africa to pursue basketball dreams at a tiny religious high school on Long Island. They knew three words of English, Hassan says — “OK,” “yes” and “no.”
They moved in with a host family. They dove into the most basic English-as-a-second-language books, with dedicated ESL teachers in small groups. They immersed themselves in American culture, which was initially shocking, but they learned. They flashed infectious smiles as they went.
They also grew as basketball players, and attracted the intrigued eyes of several programs, but there was a catch.
“They [were] a package deal,” St. Peter’s head coach Shaheen Holloway says. “These two guys [are connected] at the hip.”
Some schools recruited one but not the other. Some had only one available scholarship. Holloway had two, and had recruited both since they were juniors, so the twins committed to St. Peter’s.
After they starred at the U-19 World Cup, bigger programs came calling. “But we stayed faithful to St. Peter,” Hassan says. Because the program embodied an American cliché that the twins had adopted.
“We all have [a] chip on our shoulder,” Hassan explained last week. “We have one mentality: Whoever we're playing, if they put their shoes on, and put a jersey [on], we do the same thing.” The names on jerseys don’t matter, Fousseyni agreed. When basketball begins, history becomes irrelevant.
“No matter what,” Hassan says, “one thing will not betray you: The work that you put in.”
The twins began trying to explain this even before the Kentucky upset. Hassan reiterated it earlier this week — “when we step on the court, it’s five versus five. They don’t have two heads. They don’t have four legs,” he told The Ringer — and again on Saturday.
“We don’t see height. We don't see talent,” he said when asked about the imposing bigs the Peacocks had conquered in March. “With [all due] respect, I don’t even know who [7-foot-4 Purdue center Zach] Edey is.”
“It’s true,” Fousseyni confirmed. “We don't really know those names. All we see is a player.”
Perhaps it helps that when they arrived in New York six years ago, Hassan says, they didn’t even know that college basketball existed. They hadn’t grown up on the mystique of Kentucky or North Carolina, their Sunday opponent. “I thought from high school, you just go to the NBA,” Hassan says.
He learned, of course, that “there's this tournament … and it’s big-time.” He began to dream. Nowadays, thousands of Malians are dreaming with him. “The government is following it,” Hassan says. Phone calls come from “everybody,” from old friends to the president of Mali’s basketball federation.
But he isn’t overwhelmed by any of it. “This not my first time to experience stuff like that,” he says. The World Cup run, in a way, was even more improbable, “so I kinda expect it.”
He and his brother are now two-time Cinderellas, and the previous experience, Hassan says, “definitely” prepared them for this one. They relayed lessons to their teammates, both this week and “since the day we stepped on campus.”
They embraced that “nobody believed in” them, and applied “the same mindset we apply on the national team.”
They promised: “Time will tell.”
“The twins always said it,” senior KC Ndefo confirmed.
“It's cool to see that they spoke that into existence,” classmate Doug Edert said last week. “And we’re here now, we're going to make the most of it.”