Out of Africa

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

By Todd Pitman

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) _ He moves across the sand-specked basketball court swathed in the glossy dark blue jersey of his old Japanese pro team, a keepsake from a career that propelled him around the world.

Now back home in Africa, playing among friends, Ndongo Ndiaye is in no hurry to impress anymore. But when a crosscourt pass comes his way, time stands still for a moment.

The 7-foot-1 Senegalese hoop star snatches the ball from the air with remarkable swiftness, slamming it home in one deft motion _ just like the old days.

Not long ago, Ndiaye lived the life of a professional international athlete, scoring kudos, cash and respect on courts from the U.S. to Lebanon to Japan.

Plucked from teenage obscurity by an American scout, he turned basketball into a 14-year trek across the globe, experiencing things along the way that people in his tiny West African village never had, from hot showers to the finest sashimi and sake.

Earlier this year, Ndiaye moved back to Dakar to start a new career in business, imbued with a fresh perspective on the world. But the nation he left is unchanged. It's still full of kids just like he was once: naive and inexperienced, desperate to escape the continent's crushing poverty and unemployment.

They are there in the basketball academy in Senegal's interior that he visits, the promising high school students hoping for professional careers in the West. They are there, sometimes, on his doorstep, the young kids who cannot afford school, who may never play the game well.

"Basketball helped me to have an education, see new things, travel, make a little bit of money," Ndiaye said in an interview. "And the best thing I can do with that is come back here and help."

As the number of African players in the United States begins to climb, The Associated Press counted more than 170 of them in U.S. colleges last season.

With many more pursuing the great American hoop dream, Ndiaye's story offers a glimpse of what it takes to break out _ a combination of talent, work, timing and flexibility.

"The potential in this country is unbelievable as far as basketball," Ndiaye said of his native Senegal. "But most kids here are never given a chance."

When Ndiaye was growing up in Sadio, a village some 130 miles east of Dakar, everyone he knew seemed to have the same goal. "Get out of this country and start a new life," he recalled.

The aim: find a job, make enough money to come back, support family and friends.

He had never heard of basketball before. In Sadio, there were no courts or even TV.

The first time he picked up a basketball was when he went to high school in Dakar at the age of 16.

Already a head taller than his peers, Ndiaye stood out. Boys teased him. Girls wouldn't have anything to do with him. The alienation proved advantageous: with little else to do, he was soon playing _ and improving _ every day.

He joined the high school team, and in his senior year, an American recruiter from the University of Maine showed up.

The man looked at Ndiaye and said, "Holy God, you're 7-foot-tall!" Ndiaye recounted. "Why don't you try out?"

The recruiter left, and two weeks later called _ offering a one-year scholarship to a U.S. prep school where Ndiaye could learn English and try his chances at college.

The prospect was daunting. America, from the movies he'd seen, appeared to be a violent frontierland.

"I thought I'd be armed, live with black gangster-rappers or white cowboys," Ndiaye said.

Before leaving, his father handed him a good luck charm, a small pouch made of goatskin to be wrapped around the waist on a thin string. It contained a prayer written in Arabic _ "to protect me against guns," Ndiaye shrugged with a smile.

In the fall of 1995, Ndiaye boarded a plane for the first time in his life. Soon, he was gazing down at the world from above the clouds.


Instead of Wild West gunbattles and gangland drive-by's, the Senegalese teen discovered quiet American suburbia and lived in a dorm on the campus of Suffield Academy, a private Connecticut prep school founded in 1833.

He fell in love with it, and America.

It was everything Senegal was not. The cars were big. The houses were big. The roads were trash-free and paved. And unlike Senegal's dry and dusty climate, greenery was omnipresent _ in neatly trimmed lawns, in lush swaths of treetops.

His coach took him shopping for clothes _ the school dress code required blue blazers and khaki pants _ and tied his tie each morning because Ndiaye didn't know how.

He took his first shower with hot-running water. And then, in the campus dining hall, he spied something bizarre: a drink dispenser filled with cold milk.

"They told me you don't have to drink it all, if you need more, it's still gonna be there," he said. "But I was hungry. My mind was hungry. It was all so overwhelming."

Ndiaye gulped down five glasses at each meal one day. By nightfall, he was in bed with stomach pains so bad, he never tasted milk again.

Ndiaye felt no racism. But people sometimes stared or joked at his height. When they did, he turned their comments into a conversation-starter, winning instant friends with a capacious smile and a warm personality.

He deciphered the world by looking and listening. He barely spoke English, and history class sounded more like gibberish. After a few months, though, he began to understand, and excel.

He won a basketball scholarship to Providence, which recruited him to play center. Wanting more time on the court, he transferred to Delaware in his sophomore year.

By the time he graduated in 2000 with a degree in business administration, he was good enough to take a shot at the NBA.

He signed for a two-week training camp with the San Antonio Spurs. It paid $25,000, and put him "right up there in heaven," he said.

The NBA dream, however, quickly crashed. Ndiaye was cut and for a time, crushed. But he settled for the next-best thing: the minor-league American Basketball Association. He helped the Detroit Dogs to victory in the nascent league's first-ever championship, and realized second-best wasn't so bad.

"I was doing something I loved, and getting paid for it," he said.

The ABA didn't pay enough, though, so Ndiaye sought more lucrative salaries with professional teams outside of the U.S., "living out of a suitcase" in countries as far-flung as Japan, Lebanon, France, Syria, Tunisia, Angola and Saudi Arabia. The pay was much less than NBA standards but still allowed for a comfortable living.

"Basketball was the same everywhere, but every country was a new experience," he said. "You play a few hours a day and the rest of the time you learn about a new culture, a new religion, how to live with other people. That's where I really grew up as a person."

And most important, perhaps, Ndiaye felt he had become a man.

He could take care of himself, so he bought himself clothes, shoes, a gold necklace.

He could take care of others, so he sent money home.

In 2001, he built an eight-bedroom house for his mother and family. A year later, he got married to a Senegalese woman he met through a friend and started a family.


Pro sports is a young man's game, and after one last pro stint in Saudi Arabia, Ndiaye finally moved home in February to settle down.

His countrymen, he noticed, regarded him differently than before.

"When you come back with money in your pocket, people expect that now you can help them out," he said. "You have a certain status in your family. You have respect. People love you more."

These days, Ndiaye sits in the living room of his small Dakar apartment on a brown leather couch. There is a large flat-screen TV, a Persian rug, gold-colored curtains, and in his hand, a small, sweet cup of coffee.

A poster on the wall shows him staring fiercely ahead with the Japanese team Fukuoka Rizing, who he played with in 2007-08. He had enjoyed a special status there _ as the league's tallest player.

At home, Ndiaye exudes an American-style, can-do spirit of entrepreneurialism.

He keeps an apartment in Delaware. And the apartment he owns in Dakar is part of a complex he is building to rent out.

He fiddles with his cell phone and pulls up the number of Senegal's most popular traditional wrestler, a muscle-bound man named Tyson, and says he wants to promote him stateside.

He recounts Senegal's woes _ corruption, trash, lack of development _ and expounds on improving agricultural production.

He's gotten involved in politics and goes to opposition party meetings, something he never thought he'd do.

"We are not a poor continent. But we live very poorly because of the way we behave and handle things," he said. "I want to see what I can do to help, and I think the best way is to change people's mentality."

He marvels at the American concept of personal responsibility, the unity of Japanese society, and wonders why there is so much trash in Dakar's streets.

Basketball "opened my eyes and allowed me to see things from a different perspective," Ndiaye said. "I've seen how other people live, how other governments function, and I always say, why not us?"

A few years ago, Ndiaye spotted the legs and head of a young mechanic sticking out from under a car in the Senegalese town of Thies.

"Do you play basketball?" Ndiaye asked.

The teen said he didn't know anything about the game.

"Well, you should," Ndiaye shot back.

The mechanic was Mouhamed Sene. Now aged 23 and 6-foot-11, Sene is a center for the New York Knicks.

Ndiaye takes no credit. He simply introduced Sene to fellow countryman Amadou Gallo Fall, a chief scout for the Dallas Mavericks who created a basketball academy in Thies that Sene attended called SEEDS, short for Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal.

Founded in 2003, SEEDS did not exist when Ndiaye was growing up. If it had, he believes, he might have made the NBA himself.

Ndiaye tries to visit the academy each week or two, helping mentor the couple dozen kids there being groomed for a chance at pro careers. The teenagers sometimes meet NBA coaches and players. A pictorial flier recounts each student's physical assets and wingspan for recruiters.

A decade ago, only a handful of foreign scouts visited Senegal each year, Ndiaye said. Today, they come by the dozens.

"If you qualify, you are definitely going somewhere, because the connections are there, the routes are done," Ndiaye said. "Coaches are calling me all the time, asking, 'Do you know any interesting kids?' Back when we were growing up, it was not that way."

Ahead of a recent practice match on the waxed wood floor of SEEDS' only indoor court _ which looks like an American high school gym _ two dozen lanky teens gathered in a circle and listened to Ndiaye talk about the importance of body language on the court.

"Be confident," he told them. "Show you have the desire to win."

Asked what they want to do in life, the students answers are prudent: Accountant. Businessman. Scouting agent. Doctor.

Ndiaye says they all dream of the NBA, but "the reality is, their chances of making it are small," he said. "Those who succeed are those who do more than others, who try more than others, everyday."

Still, most have a good shot at winning scholarships to American universities or playing in European clubs. And even if they don't, the art of basketball can teach a lot more than court skills.

Ndiaye spoke of a 16-year-old who comes to his home on Sundays, a boy abandoned by his father, whose mother has diabetes and can't walk. The boy is a good point guard, but not good enough for SEEDS. Ndiaye buys him shoes, makes sure he's got food and what he needs for school.

"We want every kid to learn they don't have to be a failure. They can be successful at whatever they do in life," Ndiaye said. "Basketball can teach you that."

Copyright 2009 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.