SALT LAKE CITY – It was a French treat, served up to Killian Tillie and Joel Ayayi on a silver platter moments after Gonzaga finished off Baylor 83-71 in the NCAA Tournament.
Boris Diaw watched all 40 minutes of the Bulldogs’ second-round game Saturday in Salt Lake City. Then, to the surprise of GU’s small but proud French contingent, the 16-year pro – whose name is mentioned with the Tony Parkers, Ronny Turiafs and Rudy Goberts of France’s basketball landscape – meandered into the Bulldogs’ locker room.
Diaw greeted Tillie, chatted with Ayayi and offered a few French well wishes to both before leaving.
“He’s big-time,” Ayayi said. “A lot of kids look up to him and me too, especially, because he was from my hometown. I met him pretty young, too, so it was pretty cool to see him today here, too.”
Ayayi and Diaw both grew up in the seaside city of Bordeaux. When Ayayi was a child, a “Diaw” Phoenix Suns jersey bearing the player’s signature hung in his bedroom and replica basketballs that were autographed by Diaw sat on his dresser.
Ayayi also participated in Diaw’s summer camp, held in Bordeaux, and played in a charity game staged by the 2014 NBA champion.
“We kind of looked up to them – him, Tony Parker, Ronny Turiaf,” Ayayi said. “So (Tillie and I) talked about him pretty often.”
Tillie also has an interesting connection to Diaw, who played two NBA seasons in Atlanta, four in Phoenix, four in Charlotte, five in San Antonio and one more in Utah. His older brother, Kim, played alongside Diaw on the French national team, and the two teamed up to win a bronze medal at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
Tillie hadn’t met Diaw in person before Saturday, but a poster of Diaw wearing the “Les Bleus” uniform was plastered on his wall as a kid in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France.
“I’ve always watched his games and tried to learn from him,” Tillie said, “and I think it’s good to see him and talk to him.”
After a lengthy chat with Diaw in the locker room, Tillie murmured to a GU teammate: “That’s the GOAT (greatest of all time).”
Diaw is still close with Turiaf, another former NBA player from France whose four successful collegiate years at Gonzaga helped convince prospects like Tillie and Ayayi that they too could develop their skills in Spokane.
“When I saw him, I was really excited,” Tillie said. He and Ayayi first noticed Diaw in the stands at Salt Lake City during player introductions. “Really wanted to go hard and play hard, so he could see that. It was cool to see him.”
Tillie had five rebounds in 16 minutes on the floor Saturday. Ayayi, a little-used reserve guard, didn’t log any time.
Diaw has followed Tillie’s career closely. The junior forward is a rising star in France who has already represented his country at the youth level, winning a gold medal at the FIBA Europe U-16 Championship and a bronze medal at the FIBA 3x3 U-18 World Championship.
“His whole family has been playing for the national team, so it’s great,” said Diaw, who now resides in Salt Lake City. “I hope he can live it up and keep getting better and play for the French national team one day.”
Diaw said Tillie, who entered the season as a fringe NBA Draft prospect, has shown courage to battle through two serious injuries this season – a partially torn plantar fascia and a stress fracture in his right ankle.
“It’s always tough to come back from an injury, and you never wish that on anybody,” Diaw said, “so he shows a lot of heart to come back and get back on the court and help your team.”
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