By DAVID SKAGGS
Willy Kouassi transferred to KSU from Auburn University, but before that, he was a highly touted prospect originally from the Ivory Coast.
“I did not plan on coming [to the U.S.] until I got tall,” said Kouassi. “I used to play soccer but then I got taller, and my family was like: ‘you have a good chance to be a really good basketball player.’ So I gave basketball a chance before I came [to the U.S.]. I started playing. By grace of God, everything is OK.”
Kouassi, who is 6-foot-10, was lucky enough in that he did not have to go through this journey alone. He had a friend in Bernard Morena, the valedictorian of their senior class at Central Park Christian Academy in Birmingham, Ala. Kouassi and Morena have known each other for seven years, and having Morena there helped Kouassi adjust, especially at the start.
“You don’t feel as alone as [other international athletes],” Morena said about coming to the U.S. “Especially being away from your family, and the only way you can talk to them is by phone or Skype, so it helped out a lot.”
“It really helped [having Morena there],” Kouassi said. “At first, I did not really speak English. I could only speak French. So when we came to [the] U.S., he had to be by my side and tell me what people are saying, so I am grateful. But now, I know [English] and can speak to people.”
“I was wishy, wishy at first [about speaking English],” Morena said. “I learned a lot actually [after coming to the U.S.]. It made me commit to the language a bit faster. Because I wanted to make sure what I said was right, so I would just stay on top of it every day.”
The coordinator of the KSU men’s basketball team, Kory Keys, said if you saw them in the gym, you would have no idea that they were any different from any other person in there.
“They are just like any other guys,” Keys said. “Their English is good. If they do not ever understand something, they will ask.”
The only real challenge Kouassi said he has faced, other than the language barrier, is his stand-out height.
“People are always stopping me and saying, ‘Hey, how tall are you? How tall are you?’” Kouassi recounts. “I stop and tell them I am 6-foot-10.”
And Kouassi would not mind getting taller either.
“If I could be 6-foot-11, 7 foot, I would take it. If that’s what God blessed me with.”
KSU has typically only had two men on the roster whose height was at or around 6-foot-10.This year there will be four.
“We had a couple guys before [who] were 6-foot-10, 6-foot-11” said Keys. “But this year, we’ll have four guys that are 6-foot-10, 6-foot-11, three of whom are new; but we will be 6-foot-7, 6-foot-9, 6-foot-10, 6-foot-11, so we will have a bigger lineup, and we will be able to run everything through the post …
“You got that length [with Kouassi and Morena]…they are both long and are elite defenders. Offensively, because of their individual skill work that they’ve been getting, they are both getting better and better as the weeks progress. So yes, we are excited about both of them.”
Kouassi, out of high school, originally decided to go to Auburn University.
“At the time it was the best fit,” Kouassi said. “But I felt my future would be better somewhere else.”
Morena said there were other reasons for him transferring.
“I would say there was a little bit of drama, and I didn’t think I was getting as good as I could be over there, so it was time for me to move away from that and do what was best for me,” Morena said.
After one season, with minimal playing time, Kouassi chose to transfer to KSU, even though, according to NCAA rules, he had to sit out a season, and lose a year of eligibility. Kouassi and Morena will play for KSU this coming season as juniors, having already sat out a season.
“[KSU] was the best fit,” said Kouassi. “They had no big men. The first time I came to visit, coach Preston and the rest of the coaching staff they made me feel at home. It was really important to me. Then, I saw…what coach Preston was doing with this program. I just wanted to be a part of it.”
Kouassi is majoring in sports management, but he is still not sure about what he will do with the degree, or even what will happen once he graduates. However, Kouassi is taking the intelligent route and getting his college degree first.
“After Kennesaw, I have a chance to go [professional],” said Kouassi. “But just because I am big does not mean I will go pro. I will have to work hard. [Professional] basketball is my first goal. But I can [get hurt] at any time, so I go and get my degree and then go pro somewhere, but then I could get injured.”
So how does Kouassi feel about KSU so far?
“I don’t like Kennesaw, I love Kennesaw,” Kouassi said.
And how do Keys, Morena and Kouassi feel about the upcoming basketball season, after now having Kouassi and Morena sit out a year?
“We are excited,” Keys said, “with practice starting Friday, just to get use [of] those pieces and [Kouassi and Morena], you know what I mean?”
“I would say excited,” said Morena. “I can’t wait! Basketball, I mean, I love game, and it’s a blessing to do what we do actually. So I can’t wait to get out on the court.”
“I am ready,” Kouassi said. “I am looking forward to a great season.”