In normal times, Ibrahim Wattara, a leading college-basketball prospect in his senior year at Mount Saint Michael Academy, would be in the final rounds of the university recruiting season.
This spring, with college campuses and the Catholic school for boys in grades six through 12 in the Wakefield section shut down due to the spread of COVID-19, his future is more uncertain.
Across the country, prospects who have not yet committed and the colleges that want to sign them are grappling with how to move forward. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has suspended on- and off-campus recruiting, eliminating any face-to-face contact. Phone calls and digital communication are a permitted but limited alternative.
“It is a killer,” says Thomas Fraher, the school’s head basketball coach. “For basketball, everybody is handcuffed.”
Wattara, a 6-foot-5-inch shooting guard, has offers from Bryant University, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Iona College, Saint Peter’s University—all schools in the nation’s top college division. He finished his final year as a first-team all-league selection in the Catholic High School Athletic Association after becoming one of seven players ever to surpass the 1,000-point milestone at Mount Saint Michael.
The 17-year-old had shortened his college list to Fairleigh Dickinson and Saint Peter’s. His next step was to schedule campus visits and interviews so he could make a final decision on which school to attend in the fall.
“I was planning on visiting these schools on an upcoming weekend,” says Wattara, who plans to study business administration and management. “But now I cannot do that because the virus stopped everything. I am just sitting around til everything gets back to normal.”
Wattara, who was born in the West African nation of Togo and moved to New York at 11, lives with his two sisters in the Morris Park section of the Bronx. He started playing basketball around the time he came to the city. He didn’t dream then that the sport could eventually help him pay for college.
“I realized I had a chance at basketball when I received my first Division 1 offer, as a freshman,” says Wattara.
Fraher had hoped that the suspension of recruiting would end in time for Wattara to make his visits while still in high school. But the NCAA extended the recruiting “dead period”—in which college coaches are forbidden from having face-to-face contact with prospects and their families—until at least May 31.
Extending the dead period does not allow Wattara time to comfortably decide which school to commit to for the fall. The signing period for men’s basketball recruits enrolling for fall is currently set to end Aug. 1.
Another recruiting staple, the Amateur Athletic Union basketball season, also has been suspended. Undecided seniors like Wattara often use their final AAU summer season as a last chance to attract colleges before the final signing date.
“Since I did not commit, I would definitely be playing AAU basketball,” says Wattara. “It would have been an opportunity for more coaches to get a look at me.”
And those are not the only challenges Wattara is facing. He had planned to retake the SAT to try to get his scores high enough to reach the requirements for some of the schools that had expressed interest.
But the College Board canceled the exams scheduled for March 14 and May 2. The next possible exam is scheduled for the first weekend in June.
“He is frustrated,” Fraher says.
The coach says he hopes more schools will waive some of their academic requirements, as the University of California announced it would on April 1.
Wattara says he will continue to study for the SAT as he does what he can to stay in shape while stuck indoors. There’s no way to practice most of his court moves.
“I cannot do much running because I am not going out,” Wattara says. “I am doing pushups and core workouts.”