Welcome To The Family, Satou
The Dallas Wings forward and social justice advocate talks about her multicultural upbringing, being nicknamed “the unicorn” and joining the Jordan Brand family.
Words: Elle Clay
Photographer: Rena Akbas
Satou Sabally’s journey to the WNBA started even before she was discovered by a coach, on a Berlin playground, at the age of nine. The third of seven children, Satou had support from her German mother and Gambian father, who put family and culture first. They provided her with a strong sense of self, one that grounded her when she was the only girl, or one of few Black players, on her basketball teams.
In hindsight, 2017 was a pivotal year for Satou — one that showed how years of hard work can pay off. In April, she became the first international player to participate in the Jordan Brand Classic girls’ game, and in July, she won MVP after helping Team Germany’s division B women’s team secure a European championship. In September, Satou started her collegiate basketball career at the University of Oregon, beginning a chapter where she’d be nicknamed “the unicorn” for her awe-inspiring versatility — from blocking shots in the paint to draining 3s. Her younger sister, Nyara, would later join her at U of O basketball.
After three successful seasons and earning a degree in crime, law and society, with a minor in legal studies, Satou entered the draft. Selected second pick by the Dallas Wings, she became the highest-drafted German player and highest-drafted Muslim player ever. During the virtual draft day festivities, Satou made sure to rep her heritage, starting with a custom hoodie that read “Mehr als ein Athlet” (German for “More Than an Athlete”) before changing into a patterned suit from well-known African-American clothing line, Kutula.
Equally motivated by a desire to take care of her family, Satou specifically credits her mother with both her confidence and humility. In her first WNBA season, Satou earned WNBA All-Rookie Team honors and was the only rookie to serve in a leadership role on the WNBA Social Justice Council. She continued her work off the court, partnering with UNICEF and other organizations.
Satou understands that with great success comes great responsibility. Her track record shows that she’s ready to change the game and the world. Welcome to the family, Satou.
How does it feel to be a member of the Jordan Brand family?
It feels amazing. It means everything to me as a basketball player. When I first heard that there was interest, it was obviously mutual, and I was so excited. It’s a dope brand that shows what family means on and off the court. The brand comes with a lot of swag, from MJ to the greatness of this sport and its power to move culture.
You’ve grown up and developed your game globally. How has your love of basketball evolved while playing and living in Germany, Turkey and the U.S.?
With each year that passes, I develop an even deeper feeling of gratitude. I don’t take any of these opportunities for granted. Basketball has opened so many doors for me. Every time I’m in a new country, I just think, “Wow, basketball has done this for me.” It’s connected me with different people all around the world. My love for the game runs deeper and deeper each year that I play.
Growing up, how did you embrace your identity, despite being one of the only girls on your early teams, and a lot of times, one of the only Black players, too?
By always staying true to myself. As the only girl on the boys’ team, it can get really rough, but you just fight through it. You have to be proud to be a girl. I loved being the best one on the boys’ team. I would talk trash like, “Hey, you can’t guard me!” [Laughs]
I always remind myself that I’m representing a community who’s proud of me. It makes me want to keep playing better. Even when I got to U of O, I wanted to stand out like, “Hey, we’re out here, and we’re hooping.” I was out there for all of us.
People often refer to you as “the unicorn.” What does being a unicorn mean to you? How would you say you’ve achieved this status?
I appreciate the nickname. I’ve always felt that I’m living in this fairytale world of being able to play basketball and get paid for it. I’m just being myself, and I feel lucky to be in this position, to be celebrating all of the different, unique elements of my heritage and my game. I create on the court. I can handle the ball, even though I’m really tall. I can score, or I can play for other people. I take pride in my versatility because I love being able to help my teams in different ways. My coach at U of O came up with the word “unicorn.” I thought it was cool, and I’m into traditionally girly stuff, too. I feel like the nickname fits me because there are so many facets of my game. I embrace all the ways I am different and unique off the court, too.
You’ve been very open about the gratitude you have for your mother and your sister. You’ve also been part of some incredible basketball teams and families. How does your own family ground you as a person?
They ground me by expecting humility from me! [Laughs] We push each other every day. It’s not always easy to grow up with six siblings. You don’t always get what you want. Coming from humble beginnings, you have to fight for everything. Every time I go home, I’m reminded of where I come from, and the expectation is that I keep working hard. My family always pushes me to strive for more, because they believe in me, are proud of me and love me.
Absolutely. You mentioned the swagger that comes with the Jordan Brand family. How else would you describe the confidence that comes with being a Jordan Brand athlete?
To me, the brand brings together streetwear, style, performance and fashion. There’s an elevated edge. There are iconic colorways that can be both laidback, bold and chic. It’s both court and culture. Growing up in Berlin, I felt like Jordan Brand and its athletes represented the intersection of all of these things.
In your experience, what are the most important features of a basketball shoe and why?
For me, it starts with the appearance, because you always look at a basketball shoe first. You wouldn’t grab an ugly basketball shoe, right? After that, it’s all about comfort and staying low to the ground. I like feeling the ground underneath my feet when I cut and do quick movements. I’m tall, so I need a shoe that will absorb impact when I hit the ground, too.
Having played in the Air Jordan XXXIV, what are your first impressions of the Air Jordan XXXV?
I love the tongue, because it’s a little thicker, and the colorways are really, really dope. I’m rocking Zion [Williamson]’s “Bayou Boys” colorway right now, and they just have an edge on the court. I like how they stand out and flash color. Both shoes are super comfortable; there’s a little more cushion in the XXXV, which I love.
What are your favorite Air Jordans or MJ memories?
My favorite Air Jordans are the XIs and Is, for sure. My favorite MJ memory is from the Jordan Brand Classic in 2017. I was able to meet him, and I was so nervous! That doesn’t happen every day. I gave him a hug.
The Jumpman has grown to represent more than just basketball and even sports. What does the Jumpman represent to you?
To me, it represents excellence, diversity and inclusion in sports. It brings together so many layers of community, and I love that it uplifts the Black community. It’s the peak of sports, empowerment and culture.
Jordan Brand has also committed to a mission of action over words, when it comes to supporting the Black community. You’ve studied law, partnered with UNICEF and have been very explicit about being more than just an athlete. Why is giving back and working towards equality important to you?
I’m finally in a position where I can give back in the way I’ve always wanted to. [That means] financially, but also by using my platform to create opportunity and recognition for other people.
Like I mentioned, I came from humble beginnings, but I also had people who supported me along the way. My mom always made sure that we had everything before she got something for herself. Those are my values, too. I’m here to not only serve myself but primarily to serve others. Uplifting the Black community internationally is a big part of that.
As Black women, we have to work harder for everything. Progress and acknowledgment can be hard to come by because of the intersectional challenges we face. Growing up, I saw how many struggles and additional obstacles people face, just based on what they look like or how much money they have. I’m in a position to help and serve. And I believe that it’s my duty to do so.