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Bloomington North’s Djibril Kante Joins Monroe County Sports Hall of Fame

‘I’m a team guy’

Former Bloomington North, Indiana State and international star Djibril Kante joins hall

Andy Graham

For the Herald-Times

He was the guy J.R. Holmes wanted at the foul line, and since Holmes was coaching arch-rival Bloomington South, that didn’t really reflect well on Djibril Kante’s free throw shooting.

Kante had done virtually everything else well while emerging as a junior to help the Bloomington North boys’ basketball Cougars race toward the top of the 1996-97 state rankings. But his foul shooting was, well, foul — just 46 percent during the regular season.

Holmes didn’t amass more victories than any coach in the history of Indiana high school basketball by ignoring the obvious. He was playing the percentages, as any good coach should, with a tense sectional championship game showdown going into overtime.

Shooting percentages, however, don’t necessarily measure capacity to come through in the clutch.

“I just remember stepping up to the line and making them and not worrying about it,”Kante said. “I don’t think I realized the magnitude of the moment I was in, honestly. I didn’t know my percentage. I didn’t realize I was as bad a freethrow shooter as everybody else did. I was just a kid caught up in playing basketball and trying to win a game.”

Kante hit all eight of his free throws down the stretch of North’s 48-39 OT win against its city rival that night, and kept on making key free throws throughout the Cougars’ run to the last unified state championship in Indiana history.

That included a 6-for-6 charity showing in the state title game, a 75-54 romp over Delta at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. During the tournament, Kante was an .805 shooter at the free throw line, 33-of-41, as North finished 28-1.

Kante had a will to win

It was all about winning — a whole

lot of winning over a long stretch of time — which is what future Hall of Famers do. On July 19 it will become official when Kante is inducted into the Monroe County Sports Hall of Fame.

North went 66-9 (.880) in Kante’s three varsity seasons, including a 20-4 sectional-title campaign his senior year, during which he averaged 10.9 points despite dealing with a mid-season foot fracture. He again served as the defensive stopper in the paint. He and Cougar scoring leader Kueth Duany, whom he’d known as a close friend since elementary school, were both named 1998 Indiana All-Stars.

The success continued for the better part of Kante’s four years at Indiana State, where the Sycamores won Missouri Valley regular-season and conference championships, and a 13-year pro career overseas, during which Kante’s teams earned national and league titles.

Winning that was bred in Bloomington.

“This recognition is really for everybody I was with along the way,” Kante said. “It’s shared with all those players and coaches that were there with me and for me. I do this with my teammates at North and ISU and the professionals I played alongside. It is fully shared amongst all of them. I’m a team guy.

“I never really had problems scoring but didn’t really look to score. I was able to be successful without that being a focus. I played at HPER (IU’s Bill Garrett Fieldhouse) with a lot of good local players. We shared the court with Andrae Patterson, Sherron Wilkerson, pretty much every IU player at the time when I was at high school. I was always playing college guys in the summer … It was just another benefit of growing up in Bloomington.”

Cosmopolitan hoops culture

Coach Tom McKinney’s 1997 state championship Cougars were a confident crew, a sentiment rooted in shared Bloomington boyhoods and later honed by McKinney’s Hall of Fame-caliber coaching.

They were also an overtly diverse bunch from a high school with 70 nationalities represented in a student body of 1,245. But that was a tad misleading in regard to McKinney’s squad. Several Cougars indeed had families that had come from overseas, and some players were foreign-born, but they were all Bloomington kids.

During the press conference conducted the Monday of every Final Four week in the old all-inclusive tournament, a sportswriter from Gary asked the assembled North players about their team cohering so well despite diverse backgrounds.

Matt Reed, who along with twin brother Ryan helped supply the Cougars an unyielding toughness, replied: “No, really, we all grew up together. We are all just American kids who grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons, playing Little League and eating McDonald’s. Heck, my brother and I are the only foreigners on the team — we’re from Unionville.”

Kante’s father (Mamadou Kante) was from Mali and his mother (Sachiko Higgins- Kante) was a Hoosier from Gary, but they met in Bloomington, where Kante was born. And while his father’s career took the young Kante to Mali along with neighboring Guinea and Niger, Kante always returned to Bloomington and the family decided he would stay there from the eighth grade on.

“My parents told me ‘We’re keeping you here,’ ” Kante said. “They wanted me to have that stability.”

Kante was behind his future teammates in terms of organized basketball by then, though some soccer experience lent him good footwork for his size. He started playing basketball for fun but, at a summer camp following his eighthgrade year, McKinney told him he might get to play junior varsity as a freshman at North. “That’s when I got serious about it,” Kante said.

But it was still fun. “Just hanging with the guys, we had so much fun together,” Kante said. “We were kids, 16 and 17, and were into having fun. The jokes were flowing. Pranks were pulled. Everybody had their own sense of comedy. Mario (Wuysang) was hilarious.

“I see some teams that don’t get along, but we spent time doing everything together. I spent the night at (Jeremy) Sinsabaugh’s house so many times. Same with Kueth and me. It was a true brotherhood.”

And as is often the case among brothers, when joining forces against outside opposition, the brotherhood shone.

“The games we played for North were competitive, and at some points really tough, but we had been going over to HPER and playing against IU players,” Kante said. “We’d go over as a group and hold court for a while. I was just having a fun time with a group of my really good friends, but we more than held our own. We developed a supreme confidence.

“So my own confidence was built off Kueth, Jeremy, the Reed twins, all of them. T the guys were always there and everybody picked somebody else up every night. We were there for each other and developed as a group. We didn’t doubt ourselves. We knew we had reason to believe. We had gone up against college guys.”

Results backed all that up. “My freshman year, I played JV and we went 20-0, and I think 16-4 my sophomore year, so we had considerable success leading up to that state title year,” Kante said. “We were used to winning.

“We weren’t afraid to go for it.”

Memorable tourney run for North

The 1996-97 Cougars’ capacity to challenge for a championship showed all season long, including their lone loss. It came in overtime at Top 5-ranked Anderson on an icy Jan. 11 evening during which Sinsabaugh, later to become State Finals MVP, was sick and limited from his usual role. North shot 62.5% from the field and 78% at the foul line in defeat.

On the long trip home from the Wigwam, McKinney and his staff conversed candidly about winning it all. The grit they saw from their team that night, including a special performance by Wuysang, who picked up the slack for Sinsabaugh against Anderson’s blazing quick guards, convinced them.

Kante recalled: “Coach (McKinney) instilled in us the belief that, ‘Hey, you guys are good enough to do this, and probably should do this.’ ’’ Another subsequent factor in that direction was Kante’s steady development into a force. Against a 12-6 Seymour team that Feb. 17, for example, Kante delivered six dunks while hitting all seven shots he took and snaring nine boards.

After Kante’s free throws helped North survive the sectional, he got his first look at where he’d play his college ball at the regional in Terre Haute’s Hulman Center.

The Cougars saw Terre Haute South hit its first six shots (including three 3s) and North trailed by 14 points with 14 minutes to play. But even with Purduebound Maynard Lewis posting a gamehigh 19 points, North rallied with a 23-8 fourth quarter to win by 10.

In the regional nightcap against Union (Dugger), the Cougars were down 3 at halftime but won by 11 as Kante hit 6 of 7 shots from the field, 5 of 7 free

“The games we played for North were competitive, and at some points really tough, but we had been going over to HPER and playing against IU players,” Kante said. “We’d go over as a group and hold court for a while. I was just having a fun time with a group of my really good friends, but we more than held our own. We developed a supreme confidence.

Djibril Kante

Bloomington North junior Trent Beane presents Djibril Kante with his jersey as a part of the 10th Anniversary celebration of North's 1997 boys basketball state championship, before the home game against Lawrence Central on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2007.

Bloomington North junior Trent Beane presents Djibril Kante with his jersey as a part of the 10th Anniversary celebration of North’s 1997 boys basketball state championship, before the home game against Lawrence Central on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2007.Anna Norris / Herald Times

“Whatever was happening, we were calm,” Kante said. “We had that expectation to win. Once we got out of the sectional, which was always a big hurdle, we felt whatever came our way we could handle.”

Last hurdle to state

North needed a putback at the buzzer to beat Vincennes Lincoln in the semistate opener, then faced a showdown that night with New Albany, which had made the state title game the year before and returned key players — including the man who was then the Bulldogs’ career scoring leader, Chad Hunter, a future teammate of Kante’s at ISU. New Albany, like North, had spent part of the season ranked No. 1 in the state.

“When I was with Chad in college, I heard all about New Albany in the 1996 state final and about the great tradition they had,” Kante said. “I didn’t really realize how good New Albany and Chad were till we played them. They fully expected to go back and win state. And they played us tough. But again, our expectation was to win. We felt we would find a way.”

Kante helped set that tone early and re-set it late. It was 4-4 when Kante got the ball in the paint.

“Djibril and I were in the post,” Duany told Bob Hammel for the latter’s superb book, Hoosiers Classified, that covered the 1996-97 season statewide. “He made a nice spin move on his man (Hunter). I didn’t know what he was going to do.”

What Kante did was soar to deliver a ferocious, scintillating two-handed slam dunk. Not all dunks are created equal. This was a statement dunk.

“That,” Ryan Reed said, “was probably the thing that said, ‘We can do it.’ ” The Cougars caught fire. Kante’s dunk spurred North’s run to a 29-17 halftime lead.

And it was a Kante shot-block that sent a similar message after New Albany had rallied behind full-court pressure for a 51-51 tie late. North had gone back up 57-53, when Hunter worked his way underneath. Kante was having none of it. He arose to swat Hunter’s attempt away. Loudly. Decisively. It basically proclaimed: “This game is over.”

North got two David McKinney free throws to make the lead six at the 3:00 mark, and the Cougars proceeded to score on every subsequent possession. The final was 68-59 and North was headed to its first ever Final Four.

And the Cougars were clearly the best team there. After a slow shooting start against Kokomo in the semifinal, North took control after halftime. Delta was held scoreless for the entire first quarter as the Cougars cruised from start to finish in the state championship game.

Kante told Hammel of the sensation that came over him with North up 63-45 at the 3:47 mark of the title game: “That feeling, the game wasn’t over, the season wasn’t over, you were still playing, but you knew you had won … that was great.”

And McKinney, post-game, acknowledged Kante as a catalyst in the club’s climb to a championship. “Djibril really became a man in the middle there for us,” he said. “Just a tough, physical presence. He really progressed.”

On the banks of the Wabash

Having enjoyed success with close friends in high school, Kante looked for the same sort of scene collegiately.

Kante opted to play for Royce Waltman at Indiana State alongside former foes and AAU acquaintances Hunter, Vincennes Lincoln’s Chuck Hedde and Batesville’s Mike Menser.

“I took unofficial visits to Ball State and Butler,” he said. “I could’ve gone farther away. Had a ton of offers, actually. Lower-end SEC programs of the time. Some good academic schools, too, like Northwestern. (Indiana coach Bob) Knight told me later on he should’ve taken me.”

There were good reasons Knight said that. Waltman, who had served as an assistant coach under Knight for Indiana’s 1987 NCAA champs, twice deployed Kante to help the Sycamores beat the Hoosiers.

The first of those games came during Knight’s final season in Bloomington. It marked the only ever Indiana Classic loss for the home team, which was 51-0 in the event all-time prior. It was also IU’s lone loss during its first 13 games that season. The Hoosiers beat, among others, Kentucky, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Temple, Missouri, Texas Tech and Wisconsin over that span, but not the Sycamores.

And at the Hulman Center the following season, Kante’s rebound and outlet pass to Menser led to the latter’s gamewinning bucket in a 59-58 Sycamore win in the first season at Indiana for coach Mike Davis.

Both those seasons also marked the only time in ISU history the Sycamores earned consecutive NCAA tournament berths. They traveled to Memphis to beat Oklahoma and coach Kelvin Sampson in the NCAA 2001 opening round before bowing out to Gonzaga.

“When Kelvin Sampson was coaching at IU, Coach Waltman was the radio (as color analyst alongside Don Fischer),” Kante recalled with a chuckle, “and he made sure to remind Coach Sampson about what happened in Memphis.”

Kante averaged 10 points and 8.5 boards as an ISU senior. Along the way, he had earned Missouri Valley Conference All-Newcomer, Most-Improved, All-Academic and All-Conference (honorable mention) honors. He still ranks No. 8 all-time at ISU in rebounds (669) and No. 3 in shot blocks (127).

But Kante was dubious about any future as a player upon exiting ISU. Waltman quickly disabused him of that notion.

“I wasn’t confident about playing after college,” Kante said. “But Coach Waltman said, ‘If they get you in practice and see how hard you play, how hard you work, no way they won’t want you there.’

“So I first went over there as a tryout — I had no idea, really — but turned out it was just as Coach Waltman said.”

Foreign courts for Kante

“Over there” meant northwestern Switzerland, specifically the Benetton Fribourg Olympic club. Kante already spoke French, which served him well in his new locale.

“It was an amazing place,” Kante said of Fribourg. “I had a great time. We played in the Euro league, played in Spain, Germany, France, Belgium, all over. Had a blast. I was there till Christmas, ‘til the knee injury.”

Kante tore an MCL, effectively ending his tenure in Europe. Having returned to the States for surgery, a silver lining was Kante could pal around with Kueth Duany again, this time while Duany captained Syracuse to the 2003 NCAA title.

“I basically lived in Syracuse for two months,” Kante said. “And I was able to finish my internship in the ISU athletic department that completed my degree work.”

Then it was off to South America, first Chile, followed by a decade playing in Argentina and a stop in Uruguay before finishing up in Bolivia.

Kante’s teams won Argentina National Basketball League and LigA championships, and he kept playing elsewhere as long as his health permitted.

“My body was failing me,” he said. “And my daughter (Kyla) wasn’t happy with me. When I had my kids down there with me the first couple of years, they were missing so much school. So the kids went back to Bloomington and my daughter felt I was missing her life, and she certainly had a point.”

Kante turns to coaching

He was back home for good, and he was happy about it.

“I’ve always loved Bloomington. It’s a special place. I’ve lived all over, and this is the place. I love the mix of cultures you get. It’s a cosmopolitan small town.”

Kante’s passion for basketball led him into coaching upon his return. He worked with former North standout Derrick Cross’s Bloomington Blades AAU program and then was an assistant for Andy Hodson at North. Kante now works in sales for two Bedford-based companies owned by 1990 Indiana Mr. Basketball and former IU standout Damon Bailey.

“Finding the balance of dad and coach was difficult,” Kante said. “Not just on court. I didn’t realize how intense I was until I coached my own kid (Bril, in AAU ball).

“Now, talking to other kids I coached at North, they actually appreciated how hard I was on them, in retrospect.”

Just as Kante appreciates how demanding were mentors such as Waltman and McKinney. McKinney was inducted into the Monroe County Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.

“You had to stay on your toes and give the effort with Coach,” Kante said. “I worked as hard as I could, and he was like a father figure. You wanted to please him and see some recognition in his face that he was pleased. I don’t know if I ever did, really.

“Coach is an elusive person. We do talk. I’ve had breakfast with him. I was surprised to hear that Coach was kind of fond, if that’s the right word, of me. That he felt highly of me. I really didn’t know that when I played. I worked hard, wanted to please him, to get that, ‘Way to go,’ which never came. His job was to push you to be the best you can be.”

In 2023 Kante was selected to the 2023 Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame’s Silver Anniversary Team.

“I think anything you’ve done being validated like this is an extreme honor,” Kante said. “I played basketball and played hard but never had an expectation to be recognized for it. I didn’t feel I’d done anything special. But going to the Silver Anniversary event and seeing all the guys and sitting at the table with them and being in that wonderful mix of past and present honorees, great players, legendary guys, what an honor to sit there and have a seat at that table.”

And he is especially appreciative of the pending honor coming from the home folks of the Monroe County Sports Hall of Fame.

“Being born in Bloomington and being from Bloomington, and being a part of this community, the Monroe County honor is especially meaningful.” Kante said. “It’s hard to put into words.

“I didn’t expect this. Again, I wasn’t a great scorer. I loved to play defense. I didn’t worry about the stat sheet after the game. As long as we won, I was good.”

Banquet ticket info

The Monroe County Sports Hall of Fame Banquet is Friday, July 19, at the Monroe Convention Center. Tickets are $50 and available through the organization’s website, www.monroecountyshof. org. Reservation deadline is July 12.

Andy Graham covered sports, education and arts for the Bloomington Herald Times from 1982-2017. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Monroe County Sports Hall of Fame.

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