An atheist, a Muslim and a Latter-day Saint walk into the Marriott Center and make history.

The atheist (Kresimir Cosic) finished as a Hall of Famer, the Latter-day Saint (Mark Pope) is in the middle of his third season as BYU’s head coach, and the Muslim (Fousseyni Traore) is just getting started.

Cougars on the air

BYU (14-3, 2-0)

at No. 2 Gonzaga (12-2,  1-0) 

Thursday, 9 p.m. MST

McCarthey Athletic Center


Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM

History has the Three Wise Men, music has the Three Tenors, and BYU has the Three Centers — and all with unique journeys to Provo.

For Traore, it began with a slam dunk by Yoeli Childs in 2020.

The former BYU star threw down a two-handed dunk with 59 seconds to play to put an exclamation point on the Cougars’ 91-78 upset of No. 2 Gonzaga and sparked a postgame celebration the program hadn’t seen since the days of Jimmermania.

In the sold-out Marriott Center crowd that frigid February night was a young man who hailed from another world, spoke a different language, and followed a much different faith. But he loved what he saw and felt.

“I was just shocked. The way they played as a team that night, I had never seen a game like that,” Traore said. “I just fell in love with BYU, and I said, ‘That’s where I want to play. For sure, I’m gonna come here.”

What Traore saw was basketball pandemonium. What he felt was an inner peace that Provo was the right place for him, saying later that he prayed to Allah and Allah told him to go to BYU.

“You always have to ask God what the right path is for you,” Traore said. “My faith means everything to me. I feel like we all kind of believe in the same God and we follow the same rules. I’m just excited I’m here.”

‘The chase’ continues as BYU visits No. 2 Zags, who are eyeing another crack at national title
An inside look at how BYU has prepared for talent-laden Zags

The school slogan “The World is Our Campus” is no more evident than the names up and down Mark Pope’s roster.

“I believe this is the best destination of any college campus in the country for faith-based young people,” said Pope. “This is an extraordinary place where students of all denominations can feel safe and welcome.”

Traore is a 6-foot-6 freshman from Bamako, Mali. He speaks French and Bambara, but little English. His West African country is 98% Muslim. BYU’s enrollment is 98% Latter-day Saint. Traore is the first Muslim to regularly start at center in school history and the first to offer the team’s pre-game prayer in Bambara.

“Before each game we have a player take 30 seconds to deliver a message and lead the team in prayer,” said Pope. “Fouss gave his message and then asked the guys to join him as he prayed in his native language. I was so proud of him.” 

Atiki Ally Atiki, another devout Muslim and freshman from Mwanza, Tanzania, is also finding his way into the lineup. Atiki started two games for the short-handed Cougars at the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu over Christmas, but the starting center spot has been Traore’s position ever since and he is making the most of it.

For the second time in three weeks, Traore was named the West Coast Conference Freshman of the Week after averaging 10.5 points and 11 rebounds in the Cougars’ wins against Pacific and Saint Mary’s.

Cosic: The pioneer

Fifty years before Traore’s recruiting trip to BYU, and just prior to the first game at the Marriott Center, there was another young man, from another world, who also spoke several languages but had no faith at all. But he too loved what he saw and felt, and Kresimir Cosic became a superstar.

Cosic changed college basketball forever during his run between 1970-73 and became an early predecessor for current Cougars, including Traore, Atiki, Gideon George (Nigeria), and Paora Winitana (New Zealand) and for every other foreign student-athlete around the world.

“He was the first great international player to play college basketball in the United States,” said former CBS Sports basketball analyst Billy Packer.

The Cosic family holds up a framed jersey of Kresimir Cosic during a retirement ceremony at half-court at the Marriott Center in Provo Saturday, March 4, 2006. | Jason Olson, Deseret News

The 6-11 center from Zadar, Yugoslavia (now Croatia) came to know of BYU and its fast-paced style of basketball through a friend. He arrived on campus speaking Croatian, Italian, Russian and German, but no English. The self-proclaimed atheist also didn’t know BYU was a religious school with an honor code.

Cosic suited up for Stan Watts and went to work. In time, he conformed to the rules, developed a new faith (he ultimately became a Latter-day Saint), and performed in such a fashion that made him the nation’s first All-America honoree for a player who wasn’t American at all.

His career started in the Smith Fieldhouse but moved up the hill to the brand-new Marriott Center in 1971. The facility opened as the largest college basketball arena in the country (22,000) and every seat was taken.

BYU athletics No. 1 in Directors’ Cup standings after fall season, its highest ranking ever

Longtime Cougar fans still remember the catchy phrase — “Watts built it, and Kreso filled it.”

“That’s so long ago, but I do see a connection between Kresimir and now this incredible influx of talent into the United States to play ball,” said Pope, who was born in 1972, just weeks before Cosic’s junior season. “He was one of the leaders.”

Pope makes history

Of these three BYU basketball pioneers, Pope is the only lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but unlike Cosic and Traore, when it came time to pick a school to play for, the 6-10 center chose not to play at BYU.

“BYU just wasn’t the right fit for me at the time,” Pope said. “Washington recruited me hard as a hometown kid. I thought I could be a key piece in rebuilding their program.”

After his second season with the Huskies, Pope transferred to Kentucky, where Rick Pitino made him a captain on the Wildcats’ 1996 national championship team.

BYU coach Mark Pope celebrates the win over Saint Mary’s in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022.
BYU head coach Mark Pope celebrates the win over Saint Mary’s Gaels in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. BYU won 52-43. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Pope’s time at BYU didn’t come until 2011 when he joined Dave Rose’s staff as an assistant coach. He moved up University Parkway in 2015 to take his first head coaching job at Utah Valley before returning to succeed Rose at BYU in 2019.

The Cougars are 14-3 midway through his third season. Pope is the fastest coach to 58 wins in program history.

Traore will play a major role in his additional success over the next three and a half seasons. 

Traore: Next man up

Traore watched BYU’s starting center Richard Harward collapse in front of the bench during the Cougars’ exhibition opener against Colorado Christian on Nov. 4.

Three weeks later at Utah Valley, also in front of the BYU bench, he watched Gavin Baxter go down with a torn ACL.

What’s the secret to BYU’s unprecedented success in NCAA women’s sports this year?

Just like that, both senior centers were lost for the season. Suddenly, the freshman, fresh out of Wasatch Academy in Sanpete County, went from sitting on the bench sipping a cup of water to the starting lineup, where’s he’s been drinking from a fire hose ever since.

“He hasn’t skipped a beat,” Pope said. “Sure, he has moments when he shows that he’s really just a freshman, but those moments are way less often than they should be. He’s ridiculously poised.”

At 6-foot-6, Traore is undersized as a center, but his leaping ability and wingspan of 7 feet and 1 inch makes up for a lot of lost ground. His 19 points against Liberty and 15 rebounds against Vanderbilt is evidence enough that Traore’s trending up.

“In the post, I’m working with him every day on a go-to move and a counter move,” said 6-11 assistant coach Chris Burgess. “We work on screening and rolling to the basket, catching the ball in traffic, and finishing through contact.”

BYU’s Fousseyni Traore blocks the shot of Pacific guard Jaden Byers in Provo at the Marriott Center on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. BYU won 73-51. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Burgess also works daily with Traore on his defensive footwork, ball screen coverage and low-post defense.

“At halftime the other night he pulled me aside and asked, ‘Coach, how can I be better out there? I said, ‘Stop being so nice!” Burgess said. “He’s only going to get better.”

Facing Gonzaga

It’s been a fast two years since Traore sat and watched Childs dunk BYU to its big win over No. 2 Gonzaga. Tonight, he will be the starting center when the Cougars tip off at the No. 2 Bulldogs in the sold-out Kennel in Spokane at 9 p.m. on ESPN2.

“That’s big time, but I’m so excited. I can’t wait,” Traore said. “My goal is to do whatever it takes for us to win.”

“It’s gonna be the first time he’s been in a gym where he can’t hear,” Pope said. “When you can’t hear my voice or your teammates, it’s just a different experience. Plus, he’s facing the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft (Chet Holmgren) and the presumptive John Wooden Award winner (Drew Timme) and they are two different guys!”

Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren stands on the court during game against Pepperdine, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, in Spokane, Wash. | Young Kwak, Associated Press

Traore will reunite with Holmgren for the first time since they competed in the FIBU Under-19 tournament last July in Latvia. 

Holmgren scored 11 points in the USA’s 100-52 victory over Mali. Traore finished with seven points and 10 rebounds for his home country.

Their first-year college numbers are much better. Holmgren is averaging 23.9 points and 8.4 rebounds for the 12-2 Bulldogs. Traore is averaging 8 points, 7.6 rebounds and leads the 14-3 Cougars with 21 blocks.

“We will remind Fouss to focus on things that matter — rebounding the ball, communicating with his teammates and running the floor,” Burgess said. “If he’s doing all that, it restores his focus from all the distractions, like the fans and the officials. What I love about Fouss, is that’s easy for him to zero back in.”

Language barrier

The distance between Mali and Mount Pleasant, Utah (home of Wasatch Academy) is about as drastic as the class sizes from Wasatch Academy to BYU. For Traore, everything is an adjustment.

“At Wasatch Academy we had between six to eight people in a class,” he said. “Here it’s 80 to 85. It was a little rough. It took a lot of hard work, but we have a lot of nice people to help.”

His first semester GPA at BYU was 3.86.

“My religion class was my favorite,” he said. “We learned a lot of new things I didn’t know and there were a lot of similarities to my faith.”

“3.86! Not bad for a kid whose English is his third language,” Pope said.

The language barrier for both Traore and Atiki has forced the BYU staff to alter how it teaches the game. 

“It’s an Achilles heel for me, because I’m a wordy guy,” Pope said. “But when we talk about the things that matter, we are a no-synonym team. We say the same things over and over. The flip side is we run a very technically detailed and complicated scheme. That part is hard.”

Through it all, Pope says Traore is rarely out of position. His effort to understand the concepts without too much overthinking has put him in a place to succeed.

FaceTime and family

Traore’s sport of choice during his youth was soccer, but his dad encouraged him to pick up a basketball and then sent him to America where he arrived in Mount Pleasant in 2018 as a young prospect with potential.

“I love Mali, but here I’m getting a lot of help to achieve my goals,” Traore said. “If I was still in Mali, it wouldn’t be possible.”

Traore’s parents, Lemine and Kadiatou, his sister and two brothers have never been to the United States. They watch his games on YouTube. He fights off homesickness with FaceTime, although the seven-hour time difference between Bamako and Provo can make connecting a challenge.

“A lot of times my dad calls me 10 times because I’m in class or practice. He just keeps calling until we get in contact,” Traore said. “Sometimes he calls around 3 or 4 a.m. (Mali time) and we just start talking.”       

Traore may be in uncharted waters tonight as he wades through the transition from Wasatch Academy to starting at BYU, to facing No. 2 Gonzaga on the road on national television. But he can take courage from his predecessor, Cosic, who made believers out of those who watched him play, including his head coach. In that area, Traore is already ahead of the game.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.