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Long Beach State’s Traores reunite in unexpected basketball journey

LONG BEACH — Aboubacar Traore and Lassina Traore both grew up playing soccer in the Ivory Coast, a common activity for kids in the West African nation.

But for both of the Traores, who are not related, their paths to the starting lineup of the Long Beach State basketball team started with a recommendation from a friend.

At first, Aboubacar, at the age of 10, didn’t want anything to do with basketball. But after watching a friend practice, he liked the organization of the sport. He came back the next day and told the coach that he was serious: “I want to play.”

“From that day, until right now, it’s like basketball has been part of my life, my daily routine,” Aboubacar said. “Everything I’ve been doing, at some point, is related to basketball.”

Lassina wanted to play soccer professionally. But by age 15, he was already too tall for soccer. People started telling him to try basketball, calling him “Jordan” because of his height. He didn’t like the sport at first either.

But a friend dragged him onto the court, showing him how to dribble, how to shoot.

“Since that day, I decided to play basketball,” said Lassina, who has grown to 6-foot-10.

As Long Beach State (6-6) opens Big West Conference play against UC San Diego (5-7) on Thursday night looking to defend its regular-season title, it will be anchored by the pair of sophomore forwards who grew up half a world away.

“They’re our future and they’re also our present,” LBSU coach Dan Monson said. “They’re our two best inside players. As they play, we play. And yet, they’re still young.”

The 6-5 Aboubacar, nicknamed “Kader,” arrived last season and had a breakout campaign as a force on the boards to earn Honorable Mention All-Big West honors. He led the Big West in rebounding, setting a modern-era program record when he grabbed 23 rebounds in a game against UC Riverside. Aboubacar also averaged 8.3 points per game and had seven double-doubles, the second-most in the conference.

Lassina, nicknamed “Basile,” transferred from Saint Louis University and has made an immediate impact in the starting lineup alongside Aboubacar, averaging 9.9 points and 8.9 rebounds in 12 nonconference games.

Basketball is not nearly as popular as soccer in the Ivory Coast. There is a professional league, but it doesn’t provide enough to make a living.

“You can’t live from basketball in my country,” Aboubacar said. “Even if you play basketball at a high level in the Ivory Coast, you still have to have a side job.”

The Traores met in the national team program in 2018. Lassina had moved from Korhogo, a small city in the northern part of the country, to the capital of Abidjan, Aboubacar’s hometown.

Aboubacar was a year older, and took Lassina under his wing, half-jokingly because “we have the same last name.”

“Traore” is a common surname in the Ivory Coast, but the two became close. Their families share the same culture and speak the same native language, Bamana. Whenever Aboubacar saw Lassina slip up, he objected.

“I said, ‘No, we have the same last name,’” Aboubacar said. “You can’t be weak. They can’t be talking about me (like) I’m here and then you’re way behind, so you have to catch up. We were joking like that, but …”

Lassina finished: “At the same time, he was motivating me.”

“He taught me a lot,” Lassina said. “Every time I needed something, he was always there for me, always telling me what to do. In the post, he literally developed my game.”

Both moved to Canada in 2020 to play at the prep level, and Aboubacar caught the eye of Long Beach State first. Monson was trying to change the culture of the program, and he saw a fit in Aboubacar.

“We just saw an athlete with a high motor,” Monson said. “Everybody vouched for his character.”

When Aboubacar arrived in Long Beach in 2021, he thought it would be hard to adapt. No one else spoke French. But the team welcomed him. Whenever he spoke up, the room grew silent because they knew it was hard for him to express what he was thinking. At practices, coaches “double-explained stuff” to make sure he understood.

“I think that hit different to me, when you see that kind of attention,” Aboubacar said.

Last season, Aboubacar began the year as a guard, but he was limited with his perimeter skills, according to Monson. But injuries to other post players led to Monson moving him to forward – and that changed LBSU’s season. Aboubacar became the team’s best rebounder and provided an interior presence.

Monson said unlike many American-born players, the Traores have a “willingness to do what it takes.”

“They don’t have an agenda, like a lot of American kids who are here because they want to be a point guard when they’re really a small forward,” Monson said. “They don’t care about any of that. They’re just trying to get better.”

Over the offseason, Lassina told his friend that he was struggling at Saint Louis. He wasn’t getting much playing time, averaging 7.8 minutes per game. No matter how hard he tried, he wasn’t getting on the court.

“When he put his name in the portal, I was like ‘Why don’t you come here?’” Aboubacar said.

Aboubacar, joking that he couldn’t really talk about the recruiting process, knew that Lassina could contribute at LBSU. The coaches agreed.

“We wouldn’t have Basile without Kader here, because Kader brought him here and vouched for us,” Monson said.

Whereas Aboubacar had to navigate his first year by himself, Lassina has benefited from the guidance of a close friend – both on and off the court. They roomed together over the summer, and Aboubacar gave Lassina the lowdown on “everything” – the plays, the coaches, the teammates.

That made the adjustment “low-key easy” for Lassina.

“Because I already received education, if I can say it like that,” Lassina said. “He already told me about everything earlier, so it was easy.”

Long Beach State has a relatively young team, having lost several players to graduation and with just one senior (point guard Joel Murray) on this year’s roster. Aboubacar has strived to take on more of a leadership role, though he sees this task as returning the favor.

“I’m not seeing myself as a leader,” Aboubacar said. “I see myself as someone that used to be helped a lot in the past and then trying to give the same energy to the new guys who were like me last year.”

For instance, Aboubacar makes sure that Lassina understands a play before the coaches explain it.

“Then the coach talks, they just have to talk one time and then we’re done,” Aboubacar said.

The two communicate seamlessly on the floor. They speak in French, giving them an advantage over opponents. That even earned the ire of Monson one day, when he admonished them for speaking French at practice because no one else could understand.

“The opponents be looking at us crazy because they don’t know what’s going on,” Lassina said.

Off the court, Aboubacar values having Lassina around. He had help and support last season, but this is different.

“Having someone that you grew up with, came from the same country, had the same culture,” Aboubacar said. “You don’t feel alone.”

The Traores are “for sure the clowns” in the locker room, according to teammate AJ George. They light up the room as soon as they walk in and bring a different perspective to the team.

“They laugh, joke with everybody,” George said. “Even when someone’s mad, they pick them up. They joke with them, make sure they laugh.”

Their chemistry is apparent just watching them interact for a few minutes, breaking into laughter and good-natured ribbing when describing their journey to Long Beach. They both claim each other’s nickname is not “legit.” Lassina, who is Muslim, nicknamed himself “Basile” because he also wanted a Christian name. Aboubacar is unsure how his nickname came about, just that his parents began calling him “Kader.”

“That’s not even legit though,” Lassina said.

“It is legit!” Aboubacar responded. “It came from my parents.”

Both of them know education comes first. Aboubacar is majoring in sociology, and Lassina is studying communications.

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“We know where we come from,” Aboubacar said. “We know what this opportunity means. So we take school very seriously.”

Whenever they call home, their parents encourage them to play well, but the conversation steers toward the books. Graduating college is the priority.

“No matter what happens, no matter how good we play on the floor, at the end of the day we go to our dorm,” Aboubacar said. “Open your laptop. You have some homework to do.”

Monson has been impressed by the Traores. He is well aware of the difficulties they’ve faced – speaking a non-native language, struggling to acclimate to the food options, playing at the Division I level in a sport that is not big in their country.

“They’re way behind as far as how much they played, or the competition they played against,” Monson said. “And yet to be so successful and both be such good players is really an amazing feat.”

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