Stretcher to stardom: Diallo’s rise to fame for Thunder

Hamidou Diallo of the Thunder writhes in pain after spraining his left ankle in November.

CHARLOTTE — Hamidou Diallo writhed in pain, repeatedly kicking his right foot on the hardwood floor while his left leg remained motionless.

The 20-year-old rookie propped his hands over his forehead, laying on a stretcher surrounded by teammates with the supportive roar coming from the packed house at Oracle Arena on Nov. 21, 2018…

It was the kind of scary scene that put a damper on arguably the Thunder’s biggest win of the campaign — a 123-95 rout over the defending-champion Warriors.

From stretcher to stardom — Diallo found his way back.

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A five-judge panel crowned Diallo the 2019 NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion on Saturday at the Spectrum Center, three months after medical personnel wheeled him off the Golden State floor.

It was the kind of spectacle that put an exclamation point on arguably the NBA’s best night of the year — a trio of events that feature the game’s best ball-handlers, passers, shooters and dunkers.

Diallo, the clear underdog of the dunk contest according to Vegas odds, launched himself over Shaquille O’Neal and violently slammed the ball and half of his right arm through the hoop. The jam earned a perfect 50, and drew comparisons to Vince Carter’s arm-in-the-rim dunk in 2000 and Nate Robinson’s high-flying slam over Dwight Howard in 2009…

“I just went out there and I knew if I did what I had to do, I was going to bring a trophy home,” Diallo said. “That was exactly what I did.”

But there was a time when Diallo’s first year in the NBA was far from certain, when his eyes stayed shut and the Oracle Arena stayed silent.

“We’re a family here,” Russell Westbrook said to reporters after winning despite Diallo’s injury. “We gotta have our brother’s back and that’s what we’re going to do.”

What looked to be a gruesome injury ended up being a left ankle sprain, which kept Diallo sidelined for five games until he returned on Dec. 5. Since then, he has registered double-digit points twice, and filled the stat sheet with 21 points, eight rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block in a G League appearance with the Oklahoma City Blue just a week ago.

The trials and tribulations of the winter months still carved out Diallo a spot on center stage.

“I mean, it was definitely a long thought process, but I had great help with the Team Flight Brothers. My guy Chuck (Millan), he really helped me out, and he knows what I could do, I know what I could do,” Diallo said. “So it was all about being creative. We knew from day one that this was going to be what was going to happen.”

Millan is the official dunk contest coach of the NBA and the CEO of Team Flight Brothers, a social media brand featuring the best dunkers in the world. Westbrook, though, may have been Diallo’s best supporter, both as a teammate all season and as the one who assisted his first jam on Saturday — a windmill slam with the off-hand…

“Playing with Russ, from Day 1, it was — I was just a little bit happy, a little bit nervous to see what type of person he was, try to get along, trying to fit in and stuff,” Diallo said. “From Day 1, it was like a bond. The bond was there. That was my vet, and I was the rook.”

Westbrook had his brother’s back through thick — on the night he suffered a gruesome-looking injury in Oakland — and thin — on the night he wowed a sold-out crowd in Charlotte.

“He’s taken care of me all the way up to here, and nothing has changed about him since Day 1,” Diallo said. “He’s been the same person. He just tries to tell me what are the tools I have to have to stay in this league and just make sure I’m working harder than anyone, because when he was my age, he was doing that, and that’s what made him the player he is today.”