PITTSBURGH — Karim Coulibaly has had a unique journey over the past five or so years. His most recent stop on that journey is at the University of Pittsburgh. Coulibaly is working his tail off to not only get playing time in the most historically dominant basketball conference in college basketball, but he’s also working at adapting to a brand-new culture.
Coulibaly moved from Mali to the United States when he was just 14-years old. Basketball was always going to be there for Coulibaly, but once he left his home country where everyone he’d ever known had lived, reality set in, and it became clear that his transition wasn’t going to come without some tough times.
“I never believed I’d live without my family, without my friends,” Coulibaly said in a recent media briefing.
But now, with being away from home for a majority of his teen years, Coulibaly is trying to put much of his focus into the Pitt basketball program and his individual development as a player and person.
The 6-foot-10 southpaw came to the U.S. with dreams of making a living out of a game centered around a round object, and ever since he set foot in this country, he’s shown that he’s on the right path. Coulibaly finished his high school career at the Scotland Performance Institute in Chambersburg, PA as the all-time leader in scoring, rebounds, single-game points (42), and single-game rebounds (22).
Coulibaly’s family has yet to see him play in the U.S.
But before setting foot at Pitt, they did get to see him in action, when Coulibaly represented Mali at the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup in Greece. He was a key player on that team, and they won the silver medal – which was the first medal for an African country in any FIBA competition.
With that all under his belt, he’s currently going through the rigorous daily battles of Division-1 basketball. Coulibaly is still adapting to the unknowns of life as a freshman in college while being someone who’s also trying to get over the hurdle of getting more intuned with a new language.
“I keep praying to God to focus and help me,” Coulibaly said. “It’s hard. But it’s part of life, so I keep pushing.”
The language battle also can be stressful in such a high-paced game, that requires a significant amount of communication in order to be successful.
“When I’m on the court, I have to make sure I understand what coach says and what my teammates (say),” Coulibaly said. “I memorize that and repeat it in my mind so I can focus in the game. … When I compete, I’m always focused. Everything you do, you have to be ready for.”
In the Panthers’ most recent win at home against Georgia Tech, Coulibaly found himself in a situation where he most certainly had no other choice but to be ready for what he was about to get thrown into.
Pitt’s two veteran big men (Terrell Brown and Eric Hamilton) – who are in front of Coulibaly on the depth chart – both fouled out with 4:50 remaining in the game, with the Panthers holding on to just a three-point lead. Pitt coach Jeff Capel looked down his bench and told the freshman to check into the game. Coulibaly hadn’t seen any action up to that moment.
Pitt eventually won by nine points, while Coulibaly finished the game with just one point and one steal. But his impact was greater than those numbers would indict.
“For Karim (Coulibaly) to sit for 36 minutes and to be ready to come in and have energy right away, he got a big steal right away, (it) was huge,” Capel said after the game. “The four minutes that he played were really good.”
These are the types of challenges that most newcomers have to endure, but with his different obstacles, it’s been that much more impressive. Coulibaly has averaged 9.1 minutes per contest (17 games) this season in a Panthers uniform while recording 31 points and 21 rebounds.
With those day-to-day obstacles, it’s understandable for Coulibaly to maybe not have his best stuff each time he steps on the game/practice floor. But according to his coach, he’s continued to plug away, regardless of the circumstances.
“I’ve definitely seen him make some strides,” Capel added Monday on the ACC teleconference. “Karim is an interesting guy in that he’s better in games than he is in practice. When we’ve put him in games, he’s done some really good things. In practice, he’s been OK and not necessarily great. The way he stepped against Duke (notching career-highs with eight points in 22 minutes) and the way he stepped in last game against Georgia Tech in the last four minutes. He’s done some really good things for us.”
Everything that he’s gone through to prepare himself for this stage will likely continue to help him succeed in the very, very near future — primarily because of the way that he views his current situation.
“I’m always a hard worker, and I trust myself,” Coulibaly said. “(I want) to make my coach proud, my teammates proud, and myself proud. I’m not playing that much, but I say ‘anytime you (go through) a change in life, just do your best.’”