The562’s coverage of Long Beach State athletics for the 2022-23 season is sponsored by Marilyn Bohl.
You might assume Aboubacar Traore and Lassina Traore are related.
The Long Beach State sophomore forwards both hail from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire where their budding basketball skills earned them the opportunity to attend an American university. But according to Aboubacar, “Traore is like ‘Smith’ where we come from.”
“We share the same background, religion, culture, language and the same everything really,” Lassina said. “So we’re brothers, we’re just not sure if we’re related or not.”
The Traore parents have met, so they know there’s no relation there, after Aboubacar and Lassina met while playing for the Ivory Coast national squad that competed in the 2018 FIBA U18 African Championships.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re my brother… So you can’t suck (at basketball),” Aboubacar joked.
Aboubacar ended up being an important mentor and friend for Lassina, who had only been playing basketball for a few years. Now the two Traores are key pieces to the Long Beach State front court where they lead the Big West Conference in rebounding. Lassina is first with 9.5 rebounds per game and is averaging a double-double with 10.7 points. Aboubacar is right behind his compatriot with 9.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.
“We haven’t had a true big in awhile so they’ve changed a lot of what we do since they came here,” LBSU coach Dan Monson said.
Without many athletic options for kids growing up in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire the Traores both played soccer exclusively before being convinced to try basketball by their friends.
“I never saw basketball as an opportunity,” Aboubacar said. “For us growing up, we saw basketball as a women’s sport. That’s not soccer. But for me seeing how organized (the basketball team) was… They had uniforms and shoes, so I wanted to play too.”
Aboubacar was 11 when he started playing basketball for his school, and Lassina was 15 when a growth spurt ruined his lifelong goal of becoming a professional soccer midfielder.
“I’ve still got (soccer) skills to this day, I can still play,” Lassina said. “I used to hate basketball because I was in love with soccer. But basketball was easy for me because I was the tallest so I would just catch the ball and put it in the basket. When they showed me how to dribble that’s when I started taking basketball seriously.”
One of the people teaching Lassina to dribble and play in the post was Aboubacar.
“I met (Aboubacar) and the national team and that’s when I fell in love with basketball because they were really good,” Lassina said. “At the time it was the best players of our generation, and then we became friends while he was showing me how to play basketball. At the beginning I wasn’t open to criticism, it was like ‘Let me play and go through it.’ But I understood (Aboubacar) was way better than me and if I wanted to get better I had to follow what he was telling me.”
“That’s where we became friends,” Aboubacar added. “We lived about 20-25 minutes away from each other so even after the national team I’d call him for pickup games with really good players and introduced him to my friends. That’s when we got closer.”
The Traores were hand selected by Ivory Coast native Monny Niaimke who played college basketball at Louisville and professionally in France. She used her connections to disseminate information about the Traores, and one of those connections ended with LBSU assistant coach Senque Carey taking notice.
“She’s basically like our sister,” Aboubacar said of Niaimke, who doesn’t take money for her guidance and mentorship. “We text and call all the time to make sure we’re doing good in school. Back home we have millions of kids who want the same opportunity you’ve got. So she’s always on us.”
Carey takes the same approach with the Traores.
“I feel like they can come to me and talk about anything, and it doesn’t have to be basketball,” Carey said. “They’re great kids who you would want your daughter to date.”
“When you see that someone is doing all of that extra work for you and the only thing they’re asking me to do is to be focused and don’t take anything for granted,” Aboubacar said. “We want to be grateful for the opportunity given to us. Right now we’re doing our best.”
Aboubacar, who goes by the nickname Kader, came to LBSU where he was recruited as a guard after going to high school in Canada. However, he sacrificed himself to fill a team need in the front court and he was key to LBSU’s success that led to a Big West regular season championship. The 6’5” 195-pound forward averaged 9.9 rebounds per game in conference play after setting a modern era LBSU record with 23 rebounds in a single game.
“He has a motor and that’s something you can’t teach,” Carey said of Aboubacar. “He uses his motor as a skill. He plays with a mentality that he still has something to prove every time he’s out on the court.”
Lassina, who goes by Basile, landed at Saint Louis University last season. However, it wasn’t a good fit for the 6’10” 230-pound forward and he entered the transfer portal where LBSU was waiting for an inside presence.
“It wasn’t hard to come here because (Aboubacar) talked to me and told me what it was like and he’s why I came here,” Lassina said. “It’s easier to play with him in the paint because we’ve been doing it since Ivory Coast.”
Chances are when you see the Traores talking to each other on the floor, it’s probably communicating in their native French.
“It’s easier for us to communicate on the floor because it’s easier for me to talk fast in French,” Aboubacar said. “I don’t even need to look at (Lassina). If I talk in French he knows who it is. We talk a lot off the court about how we can be more aggressive in the key and for the team.”
Even though they’re more comfortable speaking French, and may not know all of the American slang that their coaches and teammates use, the Traores don’t feel left out or behind.
“The coaches know where we come from and they make sure we understand everything and everything is going well for us,” Aboubacar said. “Even like where we eat. They make sure it’s the right type of place.”
“When I say I feel at home here a big part of that is when coach says a slang word and stuff he knows that English isn’t our first language, so he looks at us and asks if we know what he means. It’s not because we’re not smart, he’s just making sure we’ve got it.”
The same is true in the classroom where Aboubacar is studying sociology, and Lassina is studying communications.
“For me I don’t think it’s hard because I see stuff that I was doing in grade six,” Aboubacar said. “And having English as not our first language makes us focus more.”
Neither of their families have been able to come see them play basketball, but the Traores have each other to feel like they’re still comfortable as relative strangers in a strange land.
“We can open the door for others (from the Ivory Coast) to come and play,” Aboubacar added.