It has been awhile, almost two years, and like any kid, this one has grown up some. He’s an inch taller.
Russell Turner confirmed it himself, the UC Irvine basketball coach personally measuring Mamadou Ndiaye. He had to stand on a chair to finish the job.
Russell Turner is 6-foot-7.
“A lot of people talk about someone being unique,” Turner says, “but this dude here … there are none like him.”
Ndiaye, who played at 7-foot-5 at Brethren Christian High, is now a 7-6 Anteater freshman and, as far as anyone around here can tell, the tallest basketball player in America.
We first wrote about Ndiaye in January of 2012, after a game in which he had nine dunks and jumped clean over an opponent, one who stood 5-8 and ducked his head just enough to allow Ndiaye to pass over him without making contact.
We wrote about Ndiaye high-fiving opposing players, joking with the other team’s head coach, and even making the referees laugh with a personality that – quite literally – rains down from above.
See, there’s a reason why Turner today calls Ndiaye “an incredibly positive force,” and why that description has nothing to do with basketball.
Wait. This isn’t right. Ndiaye? The way this kid has fit in and been accepted at UCI, after the way he fit in and was accepted at Brethren Christian, a school of only 250, with his wide smile and warm eyes? Ndiaye isn’t right. Too formal. Let’s call him what everyone else does – Mamadou. Just Mamadou.
It can be entertaining taking measure of a player this big, a player who can reach 3 inches above the rim without jumping, who has a wingspan in excess of 8 feet, who wears size 19 shoes.
The comparisons can even be comical, though. Turner insists it was unintentional that, when it came to matching up roommates, Mamadou was paired with 5-10 freshman Jaron Martin, the shortest player on the team.
Then, Turner jokes, “I needed to find somebody who didn’t need much closet space.”
But feet and inches only measure part of Mamadou’s story, an engaging tale of will, dedication and resilience.
There also is the distance he traveled just to get here – Dakar, Senegal, and Irvine separated by more than 6,000 miles and an untold number of cultures.
And the extra hours he must spend to keep up academically –Mamadou speaking five languages but still needing help to interpret the nuances of the NCAA, an organization, you might have heard, that has a few rules.
And the unrelenting weight of being the object of gawking – cell-phone cameras and meddling curiosity, each lingering stare insubstantial, yet, all of them totaled, placing pounds of pressure on Mamadou’s shoulders and his psyche.
“He’s had an absolutely incredible journey,” says Turner, who traveled to Senegal in the summer to meet Mamadou’s family. “He’s remarkable. He’s a remarkable person who has worked harder than anybody I know to earn this opportunity.”
There are feet and inches and miles and hours and pounds. But how should we measure compassion? Humanity? Generosity? Those are all part of Mamadou’s story, too.
Shortly after he arrived in the United States almost four years ago, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor that was pressing against his pituitary gland. He had headaches and impaired vision. An initial surgery helped, but the symptoms lingered, even worsened.
By the time Mamadou underwent his second operation, a Huntington Beach couple had become his legal guardians, providing him with emotional and financial certainty.
The couple prefers to remain in the background, almost anonymous still, though their support couldn’t command a more obvious presence.
“Mamadou’s ability to overcome the adversity he’s faced is his greatest strength,” Turner says. “That’s more valuable to him than his size. His desire for what he can get here educationally is as strong as his ability to overcome adversity. He wouldn’t be here without both those things.”
It is because of the journey, its starts and stops and detours, both laborious and frightening, that Turner and his assistant coaches found themselves laughing this week.
They were watching video of UCI’s season-opening exhibition against Chapman. There, on the screen, was No. 34 in Anteater colors, Mamadou Ndiaye.
“Man,” Turner recalls saying aloud, “he really plays for us.”
It has been a journey, all right, with a lot of passengers. A journey with a destination unknown.
Mamadou started against Chapman, finishing with nine points, seven rebounds and five blocks in 16 minutes.
He’ll play his first real college game Friday, when UCI hosts Fresno State. He is one of three 7-footers on the Anteaters’ roster, one of eight players who are at least 6-7.
All that height – one of the 7-footers, Conor Clifford, is planning to redshirt this season – has produced expectations that also can touch the rim without jumping. UCI has been picked to win the Big West.
Asked specifically about Mamadou’s potential, Turner says, “I’ve never been unsure about him, but I’m still not entirely sure, you know?
“It’s guaranteed that he’s going to be physically dominant, though, on a lot of nights. When you see him, you’ll see that pretty clearly. Our job is to figure out how we can help him sort through the challenges that he’s going to face as a college player.”
He is athletic, Turner explaining he once saw Mamadou back-flip into a swimming pool. He is focused on the now, Mamadou saying his “dream is to make the (NCAA) tournament,” something UCI never has done. And he is a kid, Mamadou admitting, “I love In-N-Out (Burger).”
He is a positive force, as much off the court as on it, right now. He could be in the NBA soon enough. He might be the most interesting player – the most watchable player – in college basketball this season.
It has been quite a journey so far, an unlikely one from Africa to the O.C., from trying to survive to learning to thrive, from being tall to standing tall.
And just think: Mamadou’s journey is only now beginning.