JACKSON, Tenn. – July 11, 2008– Former Union basketball player DJ Sissoko is getting the opportunity to do what most people dream of - playing in the Olympics.
Originally from Mali, Sissoko was contacted by the country's Olympic officials to play on its 2008 Olympic qualifying team.
"The coaches and players here are so proud of me," Sissoko said in an interview with the Union University student newspaper Cardinal and Cream. "It was a goal of mine. I'm so happy to be playing with my national team."
The Mali women's team qualified for the Olympics by winning the 2007 African championship. Mali beat Senegal in the championship game and will be the first basketball team from the northwestern African country to ever compete in the Olympics next month in Beijing.
The Mali team participated in exhibition games in France this past week. Union women's basketball coach Mark Campbell said Sissoko averaged 18 points and eight rebounds in those contests.
Sissoko was a member of the Lady Bulldogs' 2006 national championship team and the semifinal team in 2007.
"She was the second-best rebounder I have ever coached," Campbell said. "I have never coached a player that played with more joy than she had. She was a great encourager for our team."
She spent this past season on the bench as a student-assistant to Campbell as the team went undefeated before falling in the national semifinals for the second straight year.
"She really wasn't a student-assistant; she did everything a normal player would except play in the games," Campbell said. "She knew that she had the Olympics coming up, but instead of playing with her national team, she stayed on here and played with us.
"I have never seen anything like it because she knew she wasn't going to play a minute."
The 6-foot-2 forward regularly provided game-type competition for the players during practice.
"DJ continues to practice with us all the time," said 2008 NAIA player of the year Josephine Owino during an interview in the season. "[She] continues to give her best effort to become a good player.
"[DJ] is one of the best, hardest workers; she makes others better. For example, she will explain something if you're down. She helps you get it right, even will spend time with you after practice."
Campbell said Sissoko was the best post-player Owino and Beatrice Awino faced all season, and Sissoko would benefit from competing against the 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6 players.
Sissoko is happy with the decision she made.
"The best part of [playing for Mali] is being there and supporting my country 100 percent," Sissoko said. "If we could win it all that would be most exciting."
Even though this is the first time Mali women's basketball is playing in the Olympics, this is not the first time Sissoko played for Mali.
Sissoko started on the 2001 junior national team where she averaged 10 rebounds a game. The junior national team qualified to play with 12 other teams in the junior world championship in the Czech Republic.
Sissoko is familiar with the basketball players from Mali despite living in the United States for the past few years.
"This is not my first time playing with them," Sissoko said. "All the players from Mali know each other. We play club basketball together, so we know each other that way."
Sissoko said she hopes to help a Mali team that is spread out all over the world.
"We have a lot of players. Two play in the WNBA. Some play in Europe, Algeria and many other places," Sissoko said.
The Mali team is lead by Hamchetou Maiga-Ba, a forward who last year averaged nine points and four rebounds a game for the Houston Comets. The other WNBA player on the Mali team is Nare Diawara, a 6-6 center who plays for the San Antonio Silver Stars.
She returned home in June to train with the rest of the Mali team for two months. The Olympic tournament in Beijing will begin Aug. 9.
By Dylan Riekeman, The Jackson Sun
Matt Vines also contributed to this article.