Satou Sabally Is a Unicorn

The 2020 WNBA No. 2 pick is a Rookie of the Year candidate for the Dallas Wings—and a political firebrand off the court
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On her draft night, Satou Sabally told everyone she felt amazing. The truth is, she felt anything but.

“I felt stressed out. I woke up and I was stressed,” Sabally says. Ahead of her were interviews galore, including with NBA champion Dirk Nowitzki and Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. Sabally also had to prepare her space for the first-ever WNBA virtual draft and pick her outfit, of course.

Eventually Sabally settled in and pulled off a flawless and unapologetically Gambian and German look. By day, she wore a custom hoodie that read “Mehr als ein Athlet,” which is German for “More Than an Athlete.” By night, she wore a stunning suit designed by African-inspired clothing line Kutula. The women-run company also provided the tapestries for her backdrop.

Sabally didn’t wait long to hear her name: She was selected second, behind Oregon teammate Sabrina Ionescu. Hearing her name called by WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert activated a wave of relief, and Sabally finally started to enjoy her night.

“Looking at it in retrospective, we've planned on this for a long time,” Sabally says. “I really think that so many little things came together. It was really like a puzzle that in the end was just perfect.”

The highlights for her were having two of her younger siblings and Ducks associate head coach Mark Campbell by her side while the rest of her family joined via video chat. Also, her suit—she really loved her suit.

At 22 years old, the Dallas Wings’ 6' 4" forward was a No. 2 draft pick who has been in conversation for the 2020 Rookie of the Year. She has all the makings of a successful and influential professional career. Yet that is only part of what makes Sabally stand apart: She is also fiercely committed to social justice and humanitarian causes.

Satou Sabally in a colorful printed suit holding up a Dallas Wings jersey

Sabally's draft-night look.

***

Ask Sabally where she is from, and you will get a beautifully thorough answer.

“If you have lived so many places as I have, I would really say that I'm kind of from everywhere,” Sabally says. “I'm strongly proud that I'm African and German, well, Gambian and German, which is also a distinction. A lot of people in Germany would always be like, ‘Oh, Africa!’ In my head, it's like saying you're from America and exclude Canada and Mexico. But people really want to know why you're Black, and not where you’re from.”

Sabally was born in New York City. By the age of two, she and her family were living on a compound in Gambia. Her father, Jerreh, is a Black man from the West African country. Her mother, Heike, is a white woman from Germany.

Satou, or Isatou, is named after her father’s sister. Although Gambian tradition is for the eldest daughter to take her aunt’s name, the WNBA rookie, the third-oldest of seven children, was given it. Sabally carries her name with great pride—the name Isatou is a derivative of Aisha, one of the wives of the prophet Muhammed, according to Sabally.

Aisha is often described as an astute leader in politics and religion, and well-respected by others. Many describe Sabally in the same way, especially her family.

“We grew up like that, like the older ones take care of the younger ones, too,” said Nyara Sabally, Satou’s younger sister and Oregon teammate and roommate for the last two years.

In Gambia, the Saballys’ childhood was fun and familial. Children played in open fields, and families looked after one another.

“We never had the most money. We were from humble beginnings. But in the end, I know what kind of priorities I have in life, and that is my family,” Satou says.

Her worldview changed when she arrived in Berlin to complete first grade. Sabally quickly realized Germany was not what she’d grown used to. For starters, the sense of a loving community did not stretch as far beyond her home as before.

“In the Gambia … people have an interest in you and they really care about one another, which is not really in Western culture,” she says.

Adjusting to city life took time. Luckily, she had a large family at home to help re-create the feeling of community in Germany. As she grew older, Sabally realized that in Deútschland, the color of her skin made her noticeably different, noticeably “other” in the eyes of most around her.

“That really comes with growing up biracial, especially in a primarily white country like Germany,” she says, once again emphasizing the question of where she’s from is a query into her Blackness, not her hometown.

She was even more isolated when she moved from Berlin to Freiburg in 2015 to play for the professional basketball team Eisvögel USC. In Freiburg, Sabally was one of three Black students and more than 500 miles away from family. Each day she lived under a white gaze, a constant need to explain and justify her mere existence. While away, Sabally’s mother was her North Star. She internalized her mother’s sense of duty to family and that kept her close to them from afar. It also motivated her to succeed.

While in Freiburg, Sabally’s basketball career began to take flight. The summer before her freshman year at Oregon, she led Team Germany to a 2017 FIBA U20 Women’s European Tournament Division B championship. Sabally won tournament MVP, averaging nearly 17 points and just more than seven rebounds per game. The next year, she was named to the U-20 Division A All-Tournament team and led all players in points and rebounds.

Sabally kept herself together, even in the face of isolation. At that time, she didn’t have the confidence to express out loud what she was feeling and seeing in the world around her. That would change when she arrived at the University of Oregon for college.

A Nike billboard featuring Satou Sabally

A Nike billboard in Germany, where Sabally lived for a time.

***

At Oregon, Sabally continued to shine on the court. Satou the athlete is a unicorn––like Dallas Mavericks forward Kristaps Porzingis, she is efficient in all aspects of the game. She makes her teammates better because she can do it all. In three years of college, she averaged 14.5 points and 5.6 rebounds. She won the 2020 Cheryl Miller Award, given annually to the best small forward in women’s college basketball. She was also named to the 2019 All Pac-12 First Team and was a 2019 WBCA All-American.

In the locker room, she was Oregon’s rock, as her head coach Kelly Graves put it. Like her teammates Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard, she is a strong leader. Her default style was making everyone else comfortable, like her mother. She brought the best out of others by creating a welcoming and trusting environment, which she learned from her Gambian commune.

Graves sees Sabally as caring but firm. He describes her as one of the few players who could easily check Ionescu, a fiery and intense leader on the court. Although not her usual demeanor, Sabally could be protective. If Hebard and Ionescu helped catapult Oregon to national recognition, Sabally helped refine the program.

“She kind of stepped into a position where we started to get established and made an Elite Eight run,” says Ionescu. “We ended up relying on her a lot during that season because of how talented she is on the court. I think she was able to just bring players along with her through her work ethic and through her production on the court and really everything that she did off of the court as well.”

Away from the court, Sabally worked toward a degree in general social sciences: crime, law, and society, with a minor in legal studies. Through her coursework, Sabally began to learn critical race theory and develop language to explain her lived experiences as a biracial woman.

At 19, her path began to come into focus. Her time in Africa, Europe and North America blended with her love of community and the ferocity with which she approaches learning. Her appetite for education put her on track to graduate in three years. She also sought conversations among athletes and other students about leadership, the law, and activism. Graves says he has never coached an athlete as determined to make a difference in the world.

If Ionescu was Oregon’s captain of intensity on the court, Sabally was the captain of intensity off the court. As a sophomore, Sabally was selected as one of two Pac-12 representatives at the NCAA 2019 Leadership forum. Graves learned early on that Sabally thought differently about social and political issues than her teammates did.

During the 2017 WNIT preseason tournament, Oregon visited the Muhammad Ali Museum in Louisville. After an hour or so, most of the players grew tired of the exhibitions. Not Sabally.

“That day was awesome! There were so many things I did not want to miss. … I remember being in this dark room with the big picture of him standing there fearless and strong, like really the symbol of a warrior. He's just super inspirational to me,” says Sabally.

She sees Ali as a role model, especially for a Muslim athlete like herself. Sabally hopes she can carry her name with the same honor Ali did throughout his life.

“I tell her all the time it would not shock me if she is the chancellor of Germany one day, or the president of the WNBA Players Association,” Graves says.

Sabally is determined to be known as more than just an athlete. It’s a position she isn’t afraid to share with teammates, family, social media, and, yes, her head coach. Since meeting Sabally—a young woman he consistently calls the most interesting player he’s ever coached—Graves has become more empowered to speak out about social justice issues.

“She's given me some confidence and told me that I should put myself out there a little bit more,” he says.

When it came to deciding whether Sabally would finish her last year of eligibility or enter the 2020 WNBA draft, there were plenty of factors to consider. On the one hand, Oregon was on the cusp of history: The Ducks had already advanced to their first first-ever NCAA Final Four and were heavy favorites to win the 2020 national championship game. Sabally could have returned and been the unquestionable leader of the team and a No. 1 draft pick prospect. Sabally watched the attention Ionescu received her senior year, and access to that type of platform was appetizing.

But ultimately, the decision came down to providing for her family. WNBA salaries are notoriously small, especially through the eyes of an NBA rookie salary. The second pick in the NBA has historically made slightly over $6 million in salary alone. As the second pick in the WNBA, Sabally will make $68,000. However, just as was the case as a child in Gambia and then Berlin, the quicker she becomes independent, the better off her family will be.

Additionally, going pro allows Sabally to earn supplemental income through sponsorships and an overseas contract. She will no longer be constricted to the stringent NCAA rules and can fully capitalize on her name, image and likeness, making money for herself and to send to her family. Ultimately, that is why Sabally decided to leave an Oregon Ducks team on the rise.

It will be tough for Oregon to lose Hebard, Ionescu and especially the team rock, Satou Sabally. That said, Graves is happy for all his players in the WNBA and believes each of them have landed with a team and players that perfectly suits them.

Sabrina Ionescu, Satou Sabally, and two of their Oregon teammates on the bench

"I think she was able to just bring players along with her through her work ethic and through her production on the court and really everything that she did off of the court as well," says Sabally's Oregon teammate Ionescu.

***

For Sabally, that is the Wings. Dallas has struggled to find its footing since international All-Star Liz Cambage forced a trade, followed by Team USA guard Skylar Diggins-Smith the following year. The Wings are young, and the franchise has a lot to prove. No player on the active roster has more than four years of WNBA experience.

Head coach Brian Agler told the media during training camp that his team will meet success only if a cluster of his rookie or second-year players step forward. So far, this has been a role Sabally is suited to play.

“What I've liked so far with Satou is how coachable she is, how smart she is, her ability to make plays with the basketball in her hands, Agler says. “We want to use all of her versatility skills, especially at the offensive end.”

In nine games, Sabally averaged 11 points and seven rebounds before missing four games with a back injury. In only her second game since returning, Sabally dropped a career-high 28 points and three blocks. Head coach Brian Agler believes Sabally’s time on the sideline helped her shorten her own learning curve.

“It's almost like the improvement a rookie will make from one year to the next … she sort of went through that a little bit, just within our little season here. She had a chance to get away from it and watch it. So I think it's helped her,” says Agler.

It is unclear whether Sabally agrees, because in her first media availability since her return, she did not answer any basketball-related questions.

“I just want to say that I won't be answering any questions, because we need justice for Jacob Blake,” says Sabally. “There's a lot of things happening in this country and we need to put the focus on that.” Police officers shot the 29-year-old Black man at point-blank range in Kenosha, Wis.

Sabally did answer questions about the WNBA Social Justice Council, a new initiative in conjunction with the players association where she’s the only rookie serving in a leadership role. Layshia Clarendon, New York Liberty guard and current WNBPA executive vice president, has been very impressed with Sabally’s ability to navigate her social justice work. Additionally, her experience being biracial on three continents was a boon for the U.S.-based council hoping to speak about global racism.

“Sabally has been outspoken already so she was a great fit,” says Clarendon.

Another veteran and fellow European, Amanda Zahui B. was very excited to have Sabally serve on the council. “In Europe, we really don't talk about racism like we do in America. So for her to use her platform and her young voice, is beautiful,” Zahui B. says.

Over her college years at the University of Minnesota and her five WNBA seasons following, Zahui B., the Liberty and Swedish national team center, has embraced her role as a Black European with a platform. The two have discussed how to bring a much-needed conversation to their respective home countries.

“I think it's really important that she reaches out to the people at home, so I'm very, very proud of her,” Zahui B. says. “She's young, but she's very mature and she is really putting herself out there, and that is beautiful.”

In addition to the Social Justice Council, Sabally has landed two key partnerships to progress her passion and future profession in international law. She has partnered with the United Nations International Children's Fund, or UNICEF, and will be one of several WNBA players to sign with the beauty brand Alaffia.

Sabally described UNICEF as a dream partnership.

“I think it's really important to know what's going on internationally because stronger countries, economically, need to be able to help other countries and … I think that starts especially with the children. Children need to be internationally accepted and seen as humans and every human should be treated the same in a good way,” says Sabally.

As part of the Alaffia partnership, Sabally will travel to Togo to meet the women who harvest the raw ingredients for the company, Lindsay Kagawa Colas of Wasserman told Sports Illustrated. Alaffia follows a social enterprise model. The company provides work for more than 12,000 women in Togo, a West African country along the Gulf of Guinea. The Alaffia deal marks the third Black-owned company Sabally has partnered with.

“I do think it's important to highlight those kinds of companies, you know, with everything happening right now,” says Sabally, “supporting women, supporting fair trade and really creating educational opportunities or medical opportunities. … I really just have to respect my beliefs and what I stand for.”

Graves wonders whether Sabally will eventually have to cut back so she can be the best basketball player she can be. He’s seen it happen before. At one point, Sabally got so involved with the Student Athlete Advisory Committee that her coaching staff had to ask that she dial it back. He wants her to push herself to be an All-Star-caliber professional.

“I think if she does that she would find that her platform as one of the best players in the world, like Diana Taurasi or whatever superstar, can have even a greater impact, socially, and on other things that she's interested in,” said Graves.

Nyara also believes her sister can have a successful and lengthy pro career. Yet, her concern is the opposite. She hopes her sister stays on track with her justice pursuits.

“I think it would be really sad if something would come in the way of that,” Nyara says. “Obviously I want her to play a really good career, but she should never give up, and I know she won't, on the other path of social justice. She wants to go to law school, so I really hope … eventually that she goes to law school because I know she really, really wants that.”

As for Sabally, she knows the road ahead will be tough and that even the mere proximity to social justice causes will be mentally and emotionally draining. But she is named the unicorn for her versatility. Off the court, she is determined to show she can exist in the sports entertainment and social justice worlds. She also knows some paths, such as being a politician, would come with limitations.

Sabally was quoted in a German publication saying she’d rather be known as an advocate than a politician.

When SI asked her whether that rings true, Sabally clarified that if she were to commit to politics and say something like “Black Lives Matter,” there would be people who would automatically stop listening. In the advocacy space, if she were to say “Black Lives Matter,” she feels her message has a better chance of being heard.

“I think that comes from my belief that politics are a hard world and a lot of things get twisted in it. When I really advocate for Black Lives Matter I want you to actually listen, learn, and educate yourselves on why I'm saying that and why it is important that we still fight for Breonna Taylor. There’s so many other Black people's lives, women, men, transgender people that we have to fight for so that we can have a functioning society with norms and values for people as people.”

Satou Sabally wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt

"People really want to know why you're Black, and not where you’re from," Sabally says.

***

Sabally has thought about a life that is just basketball, a life where she can use all her energy to build her body and her mind into the best version of a professional basketball player possible. It would be nice, but that is not her nature.

“My mind just keeps going, and going, and going. I have that sense for justice,” says Sabally.

It was evident on Tuesday night when, despite a dominant performance against the Las Vegas Aces that nearly catapulted her team to victory, she couldn’t stop thinking of Jacob Blake. “When you can just go to sleep and haven’t thought at all for the whole day, haven't thought about anything at all what's going on in this country right now, I think something is wrong and maybe you should just think about the world a little more.”

Sabally is more than an athlete—and destined to prove it.

A family rock? Undoubtedly. A rookie with All-Star potential? Without question. A rising politician? Perhaps. But is Satou Sabally a unicorn? Unequivocally.