Living the Dream with Melissa Diawakana

by | Apr 29, 2020

They say nothing is impossible. And that is exactly the attitude that has seen Melissa Diawakana achieve her teenage dream of becoming a professional basketballer and play Euro League Basketball.

It was a big dream for a twelve year old girl to have, especially someone born in Congo, and living in Paris for only a few years, but Diawakana was determined to do it.

She gave her all and grabbed every opportunity that came her way as she went on to achieve her dream at 26 when she signed her first professional contract.

Her eyes light up when she talks about the moment her life changed as a little girl in a big basketball arena.

“…I looked at my coach that day and I told her, like you know what, I’m going to be there. I am going to be a professional basketball player and I am going to play Euro League. This is what I told her…”

Now a Point Guard with Belgium’s Royal Castors Braine – either Belgian champions or Belgian cup winners (or both) in the past 5 years – Diawakana wants to inspire others to follow their dreams, to help them see that nothing is impossible.

She counts two of the world’s most dominant athletes, Caster Semenya and Serena Williams, among her favourite sportswomen.

About Semenya, she says: “She is powerful, she is amazing, she is the champ…”

It hasn’t been an easy journey, dealing with prejudice of various kinds but at the same time, it has given this proud French citizen the opportunity to travel the world and learn more about herself through experiencing other cultures.

In a frank and honest chat with gsport, Diawakana spoke openly about the highs and lows of her  journey to achieving her greatest dream and her desire to play her part in helping others realise their dreams.

 

Melissa, thank you for talking to gsport. You were born in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo in 1992. How old were you when you moved to France?

I was born in Africa – Congo, the capital! How old was I, when I moved to France? I moved to France when I was five.

 

What’s it like living life as a French national?

I would say it’s a big privilege. It’s a big privilege because, as a French citizen, I have a lot of rights. I have the right to express myself however I want. I have the right to complain and protest…

The lows of the government when things are not going our way. I have the right to travel around the world sometimes, without showing my papers, or if I have to show, it’s going to be easier for me because I am French, so borders are open to me. So, as a French, I have a lot of privilege.

“I would say to be French is cool, and French is a beautiful language. I am proud of it, proud to be a French citizen.” French professional basketball player Melissa Diawakana

That’s definitely I would say is a big privilege. There is a lot of rights. There are a lot of things you can do. And I know what it is like to be different, to be a stranger in certain countries.

 

When did you decide you want to be a professional basketballer?

I was twelve. I remember that day.

We went on an away game with my hometown team, and my coach took me with the main team.

I was young so I couldn’t play, but she always took me with them everywhere.

So, after that game, we were invited to stay for the professional game just after. I remember it was the first time for me to go that far away from home to see the professional basketball world, the environment, the vibe which was dope and it was the first time for me to see all that and it was a big game. It was a Euro League game and.. well, …

I looked at my coach that day and I told her, like: “You know what, I’m going to be there. I am going to be a professional basketball player, and I am going to play Euro League.” This is what I told her so I was twelve.

 

What have been your greatest career highlights?

I played in UK, I played in Germany, I played in France, I played in Slovakia, I played in Poland, I played in Belgium. I would say my best career highlight would be in Mexico…

Yes, in Mexico, because I didn’t expect that, in Mexico there is leagues.

So, in 2017, I had the chance to be summer league after the season in France and Europe so the window was not closed yet so they called me and I went there. They were playing basketball there.

“It was just amazing to me to discover a new world, a new country.” French professional basketball player Melissa Diawakana

It was just amazing and I never expected that. It was dope, it was the best time. In my career, I think I would say, and I play… it wasn’t Euro League, it wasn’t Euro Cup, it wasn’t that high in terms of basketball but I had fun, I enjoyed people.

I enjoyed everything out there. It was just amazing. I would say yeah, definitely Mexico was amazing (speaks Mexican) and we were champs, so, you know … (laughs).

 

You have played basketball in different parts of the world including UK, Germany, Slovakia, Poland. What were those experiences like and which was the best?

I played in different parts of the world including UK, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Mexico, Belgium, France. What were those experiences like? It’s hard… it’s hard in just one question to respond because I changed, it changed me. It changes you as a person when you have to be in those countries which is not yours.

It changes and impacts you as a person because you discover  that the world is just not what you think or what you imagined it was, you know.

It impacted me as a woman because I could see who I was and I could see myself be changing in the fact that in those countries it works like this, in this country it works like that, in this country it’s different… so as a human being you learn so much so to me I would say the experiences are really hard to just respond in one question respond and tell you exactly what it was because it was just amazing.

“It impacts you, it impacts your mind, it impacts everything..” French professional basketball player Melissa Diawakana

You constantly changing your mind, you constantly opening yourself to these people, to the new world, to everything you meet, and yeah, it really impacted me and changed my life, changed the person I am. It changed my perception of life and I feel like you grow, you always grow, you continue to grow.

Because you know, you can always travel and be in different places in the world, but if you don’t open yourself and you don’t try to understand and learn from different things and just, you know, like, it breaks down what you think, if you let yourself break down and be rebuilt, you will not change and you will not learn anything.

But if you are open to it, if you are open to the new world, to the new people, to everything you meet, which is not what you know, then I think it can make you grow in a beautiful way so this is what I would definitely say and the best… I can’t choose which one was the best, because they were all different, and I learn a lot from each of them.

 

What is the biggest challenge you have faced and how did you overcome it?

It’s really hard for me to pick one and explain how I did it, because my whole life has been a challenge.

My whole life till today is a big challenge by where I come from, by my colour.

I have been through so much. I have been through a lot of situations that I had to face humiliation. People doubted me, people didn’t believe in me. My whole life, I can tell you how I did the things, and how I overcame any situation can happen to me.

My life is lived by my faith. I believe in God and my prayer everyday is: Ök, God, lead me where you want me to be, give me now what I want but give me what you want. Give me your will. Whenever, I ask God this, and whenever something happens to me, I’m like ok, if something happened to me, it means God allowed it to happen.

So, it means it’s for me.

It’s something good and whatever like… because I believe good or bad, it depends on our perceptions, right, so for me whenever something happens to me, whatever it is, I’m like, if it happened to me, then God allowed it to happen, so it’s for me, and it’s going to help me be tough, it’s going to help me be better, it’s going to repair me so this is how I overcome any situation.

‘I’m like: “Ok, this happened, it’s hard, but let’s go, let’s go because I’m not alone, I’m not facing this by myself.”‘ – French professional basketball player Melissa Diawakana

I know I have God’s strength, I know I have God’s power so it’s going to be ok and I just need to be strong and go for it and its not my strength, it’s not my… it’s just God helps, you know, so this is how I overcome any situation.

 

How would you describe the state of women’s sport globally?

It’s hard to have an objective opinion because I am not everywhere and I don’t know everything but what I can say and what I see today, from where I have been, is that we are in a better place than we were before.

There are a lot of things for women, and there is a lot of possibilities for women today in sport than what we had in the past. I would say there is a progression. How big it is?

“It may be not as big as we want it to be, but there is a progression.” – French professional basketball player Melissa Diawakana

I can see even in Africa, in Europe, times are changing, times are changing so I believe there is progression, but it is not the best. We can do better. There are so many things that we can do, even in terms of media, in terms of a lot of things, like money and stuff.

I believe we can do better, but it’s going to take time.

Its going to take a lot of time, because for women – I believe – its always a couple steps behind, but I am happy to see how things are changing, and people are doing a lot to make moves, so I believe it’s a good thing, it’s a good thing, there is a lot of progression.

 

Who are your favourite sportswomen and why?

I don’t know if I would say these people are my most favourite but there are two women that I look up to.

The one is Serena Williams, and the second one is Caster Semenya (I don’t know if you say it like that, but I like to say it in French, because it is way better – Caster Semenya!)

So, the is one Serena Williams. I was looking at the commentary one day, and before going to a game, she said: “I hear a lot, and people say a lot about me, and expect a lot, but sometimes I just don’t know who I am.

When I heard that about somebody, from somebody who wins titles, somebody who is just great at what she is doing, and she is still looking for her identity, it really makes her the favourite in my eyes because I believe this is what we should do.

We should constantly look for who we truly are, and yeah, so I think this was beautiful, so from that day, she became one of the persons that I look up to, because she is just great.

She is great in what she is doing, she succeeds but she is constantly like looking for her identity.

“Why Caster Semenya? Because she is different from Serena. She knows who she is, and she really assumed that.” French professional basketball player Melissa Diawakana

Through the world’s eyes she is different and special, but this is funny: They say she is different, they say she is special, because she is not like everybody – for them. She is different, so, for me, why is she considered to be different or special? Because she is not what people expect her to be, or not to be, like everybody else.

No. she is a human being and she is just like you and I, so …

But she is just gifted, she is blessed, and what’s why I like this woman, because she represents for me, like: She is powerful, she is amazing, she is the champ! s

So, by her attitude, and her personality, and the fact that she just assumes who she is, she’s my favourite. Yeah!

 

What can the rest of the world learn from France about the promotion of women’s sport?

I would say France does a lot for women in sport but its not perfect. It’s not perfect, for sure its not, but they invest a lot, because the success of women – just like the success for men, but we are talking for women: Is going to be a good thing for the country.

Whenever women succeed, its going to be great for the country, its going to be great for the economy, its going to be great for them. So, they have this want, they want to be successful, they want to be proud, so this is the system.

“The more you are successful, the more you are powerful.” – French professional basketball player Melissa Diawakana

They tried to invest so like I say, its not the best, but they try to do as much as they can, because my success, your success, is going to be the success for France, so they don’t look just for the individual, they don’t look for one person being great.

They look for when they are great, when a lot of people are great, it makes the country be proud. It makes the country be powerful so this is what I would say about what you guys can know about France.

 

How has Covid-19 impacted your life and how are you keeping fit during lockdown?

Well, it hasn’t changed a lot for me, because I am a home person. I can stay at home 24, or 48 hours, it’s not a problem, but it impacts my life in the fact that it gives me so much time to do other things that I couldn’t do, if I didn’t have this time.

“So, for me, if changes my life, because it helps me and gives me more time to learn others things.” – French professional basketball player Melissa Diawakana

It gives me more time to learn about myself, to think about what I want in the future, it gives me time to really think about a lot of things, so I challenge myself to learn as much as I can, because I believe this is what will make you successful in life: Whenever you know, whenever you have the knowledge, you will be successful.

So, I believe that knowledge is a way of power and everybody can get it. So, this time has given me the time to learn.

How I keep fit?

I totally stopped doing sport, and I am, like everyone right now, at home.

My sport every day is to learn. Every day I work on my body, every day I go to the gym, every day my job is there, my job is to stay fit, my job is to be ready physically but right now, the same way I would be working my body to get ready for games, to get ready for everything I want to do, Im working my brain the same way.

Right now, it’s my brain doing sport, I learn as much as I can learn, every day. Every day I learn something. I can’t just spend 24 hours doing nothing, watch Netflix and waste my time.

No! I want to learn from books, look up the commentary and search everywhere, everything I can… Yeah, to get smart, and gain knowledge.

 

What is your greatest sports ambition?

It’s funny because like I said at the beginning, I was twelve when I told myself I would play Euro League, and I would be professional. At 26 exactly, I signed my first contract in Euro League, so I made it!

I did what I wanted to do with my sport. That was my challenge, to play Euro League.

Where I come from, it was impossible but I made it. So, I would say my ambition today is just to impact other people’s lives, to tell people you can get what you want in life if you work for it, if you believe and if you don’t give up.

This is my ambition, it’s to give hope and faith to people that whatever you dream about, whatever you want… I’m not the greatest, I’m not the best. I’m just me but I did what I wanted to do.

My goal is achieved, so I can go to another step or I can go to a different way and dream again, about something different.

“So, if I made it, knowing where I come from, going through what I have been through, you can do it also!.” – French professional basketball player Melissa Diawakana

So this is my ambition: to give back hope, to tell people that: “Hey, listen, don’t give up. Go for what you look for, go for your dreams, and don’t give up.” So, this is what I want.

 

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About the Author:

<a href="https://gsport.co.za/members/kass_naidoo/" target="_self">Kass Naidoo</a>

Kass Naidoo

Passionate sports broadcaster and founder of gsport4girls

1 Comment

  1. Barbs-Babzee

    Determination and commitment is key. And when you have people who can support you in achieving your dreams.. take the guidance.

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