Senegal: A New Wave of Basketball Players Has Big Plans for the NBA

interview

Photo: Louisville Athletics
Gorgui Dieng

Former Senegalese basketball player Makhtar Ndiaye is a sport agent and mentor to Louisville college basketball star Gorgui Dieng (pronounced GOR-gee Jeng), one of the 30 players picked in the first round of the 2013 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft held in June. Originally selected by the Utah Jazz as the 21st pick in the draft, Ndiaye saw Dieng traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves where he will start his professional basketball career when the 2013-2014 NBA season begins on October 29. Ndiaye and Dieng are following in the footsteps of African basketball legends such as Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo and Manute Bol. They are also changing the face of Senegalese basketball as they lead a new wave of African talent into the NBA.

Born and raised in Senegal, Ndiaye played a season with the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1999 after finishing school at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Dieng also was born and raised in Senegal and is the second product of the Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal ("SEEDS" Academy) to be drafted by an NBA team. Located in Thiès, the SEEDS Academy is a college-preparatory boarding school (grades 9-12) created in 2003 to provide Senegalese boys with a year-round, rigorous academic, athletic and leadership development curriculum. The first SEEDS alumni to make it all the way to the NBA was Mouhamed Saer Sene, who was drafted in 2006 by the Seattle SuperSonics and now plays professionally in France.

Dieng's selection in the first round of the draft is indicative of Africa's growing presence in the NBA and, conversely, basketball's growing presence in Africa. In addition to Dieng, the 2013 NBA Draft saw three other players with direct ties to Africa – Victor Oladipo (Nigeria), Dennis Schroeder (The Gambia) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (Nigeria) – drafted in the first round. "It was just bigger than the kid getting drafted and just shaking the commissioner's hand," said Ndiaye. "It was like a symbol."

According to Ndiaye, basketball is creeping into Africa and has been for some time. But the sport's potential on the continent remains largely untapped with soccer still reigning supreme in the African sports landscape. "Basketball is the same everywhere you play," said Ndiaye. "Africa's got some of the greatest athletes, if not the greatest athletes on Earth. But some kids, they're not exposed to the game enough." Ndiaye is ready for that reality to change. By pairing with a fellow countryman Dieng, Ndiaye sees potential for them to have a bigger impact. "Gorgui has a vision just like I do," said Ndiaye. "I think his vision is to take SEEDS Academy to the next level."

As evidenced by this year's draft, the door to the NBA is open and teams are prepared to roll out the red carpet for African players. But, according to Ndiaye, it will take a concerted effort from African players to make it happen. "At some point we have to take care of our own," said Ndiaye, "and make sure that we handle our destiny just like everyone else. As long as we're sitting here and just waiting for somebody else to do it, it's not going to get done." AllAfrica's Bradley Parks spoke at length with Ndiaye about Gorgui Dieng, basketball's capacity for development in Africa as well as the continent's impact on the NBA.

You were the first NBA player from Senegal. What does it mean to you to see a player like Gorgui Dieng go through a similar process? Does it feel like he's paving the way for more players from SEEDS Academy or Senegal in general?

The thing about Senegal, we have a lot of basketball players. I was not the most talented guy in my generation. Same with Gorgui. But I think what set us apart is that we really believed that we could make an impact and then change things – change the way things were with Senegal. For me the NBA was never a dream. It was like it was a goal. That's what I see in Gorgui. We clicked right away because we kind of have the same vision about the NBA. So does Amadou [Gallo] Fall. Gallo, his vision was of the SEEDS Academy and in the beginning it was not really just to build NBA players. It was to change the culture. We're in a country where basketball is not that big, but people love the game. We have a lot of basketball players because of … the way we are, just naturally. We're tall and lanky and can run up and down the floor. We figured that we can use basketball as a way to change lives, grant a wish to kids and force them to go to school and improve their lifestyle and their living in general.

On draft day it was bigger than the kid getting drafted and shaking the commissioner's hand. It was a symbol. Before Gorgui, there were those other guys like Desagana [Diop]. They did what they had to do for themselves and they did stuff for the country. Desagana, he's been involved with the SEEDS Academy, giving money and all those things. I think that we needed a face and we have it now in Gorgui because he's a true product of the academy.

How close do you work with Fall? Do you talk to other players involved in the SEEDS Academy? Do you help out in any way?

I've known Amadou since I was 14 years old maybe. And I'm 39 now, so we've known each other a while. My first NBA check went to SEEDS Academy. It was in the very beginning when I was in college and Coach [Dean] Smith was involved with it. We always had a relationship. He's a friend, a confidante. When it comes to SEEDS Academy, with my job now, I have to be very careful. As much as I want to help, I don't want to put kids' careers in danger because with NCAA rules and all that. A lot of things I'm not allowed to do. But I'm there when they need advice. I try to help as much as I can within the rules.

How did you connect with Gorgui Dieng? He was a junior and it was up in the air if he was going to return to Louisville or enter the NBA Draft.

I knew Gorgui. We all know each other. Senegal is not a big country. Everybody in Senegal knows who I am. I think I'm like an example for those kids that you can make a living and play basketball and achieve your dreams. I came here [to the United States], went to two Final Fours and all that stuff. So some of those kids want to follow in my footsteps.

Getting [Dieng] to represent was not an easy task. It was one of those things where being Senegalese could have been a disadvantage because I'm so close to them, but I'm still trying to walk that fine line where I don't want to have the kids just come with me because I'm Senegalese. There are a lot of other kids that come out of SEEDS Academy that I won't represent because it was not the right fit. It just happened that Gorgui was the right fit and so far so good. I'm going to try to the best I can, not only to represent him, but myself and the whole country.

With this draft there were a lot of players with direct ties to Africa, guys like Victor Oladipo, Giannis Antetokounmpo and, obviously, Gorgui Dieng. It seems like Africa's impact on the NBA is growing. How do you see that growing in the next few years?

We have been [having impact] over the years since Hakeem [Olajuwon], Dikembe [Mutombo], Yinka Dare – you name it – Julius Nwosu, Cheikh Samb. We always had players here. I think what's happening now is all these European countries, the talent is starting to die out in Europe, so they go to Africa and they get the Serge Ibakas and the kid from Greece [Antetokounmpo]. So they go over there, they get these kids at an early age and naturalize them and give them whatever name they want to give them. But at the end of the day, we all know that they're Africans.

I think there's a lack of names [in the NBA] because families don't have the means. Federations don't have the help that they need. FIBA Africa doesn't have the money to take care of basketball. We need to organize ourselves better. We need to do the work better. I'm glad that the NBA finally decided to open up an office in South Africa, but that's not enough. Basketball is the same everywhere you play. Africa's got some of the greatest athletes, if not the greatest athletes on Earth. But some kids, they're not exposed to the game enough. The thing is that's frustrating.

I went home two years ago. I'm driving my car around the city and I see this big kid – seven-footer, big, strong. I ask him, 'How old are you?' He's like, 'Twenty-five.' I'm like, 'Have you ever played basketball in your life?' He looked at me like I was crazy. He didn't even know what basketball was. He's like, 'I play soccer.' A seven-footer, he's never played basketball in his life. That's a kid who can have everything. He's big, strong, healthy, can run up and down, but he never had that chance. We need to build arenas. We need to build playgrounds. We need to do all those things and we need help, not only from the NBA, but we need help from players in the NBA now. We need to give back. The guys in the NBA need to give back. Oladipo is Nigerian, he was born in the States. I'll tell you, it would be nice if he goes back like Joakim Noah's doing it now – he's got a camp in Cameroon giving back. I think those things are very important moving forward. If we can get those guys to realize that they're the ones that can help, they're the ones that can bring in knowledge of the NBA experience, that can kind of lead the NBA into that world. Because Africa's still a virgin continent when it comes to basketball. I mean, China – people went to China for a while. For about 12 years everybody went to China. China dried out. Now, it's time for people to realize that we got this – the Serge Ibakas of the world. We've got plenty of Ibakas. We've got plenty of Desagana Diops. We've got plenty of Gorgui Diengs. It just comes down to giving them the opportunity at the right time.

Conversely, how do you think the NBA can have an impact on Africa? With a large African presence in this draft, what's the new capacity for impact?

I just hope that our leaders pay attention to what we're doing here. It might not be big, but, but President [Barack] Obama, when he went to Senegal, in his speech, begging the [Chicago] Bulls to draft Gorgui. A few years back when Bill Clinton went to Senegal as president in '98, in his speech he came and watched when North Carolina was playing Navy and I was playing against Sitapha Savane, one of the Senegalese people in the Naval Academy, and we played against each other – he mentioned it in his speech. It's good. All that stuff is good, but we need some stuff to get done. We need to take advantage of this situation. As an African, I'm very frustrated because we go over there, the NBA goes over there, players go over there. They do things. They want to help. But there's nothing else after that.

What kind of promise do you see in a guy like Gorgui? You have a direct impact on him now as his agent. What do you see in him as far as his potential to give back?

Gorgui has a vision just like I do. I think his vision is to kind of take SEEDS Academy to the next level. Because SEEDS right now only cares for like 20 to 30 kids. They just opened up a women's division now where they can have like 15 or 20 young girls come in. I think Gorgui wants to take it to another level where it can host like 100, 200 kids. With that, not only does he have to work his ass off to stay in the league, make some money, if he wants to help and then pass on his message.

Just like guys helped Dikembe Mutombo, took him to help people in Congo, we need guys to help Gorgui take SEEDS Academy to the next level, to help Amadou Fall to take SEEDS Academy to the next level, to help me take SEEDS Academy to the next level. And then Joakim Noah can one day have a SEED Academy in Cameroon and Luc Mbah a Moute. Oladipo could have a SEED Academy in Nigeria. I think that's how it's going to be. We can't just expect others just give to us and us just be receivers. At some point we have to take care of our own and make sure that we handle our destiny just like everyone else. As long as we're sitting here and just waiting for somebody else to do it, it's not going to get done. I mean, Gorgui just got in the league. Hopefully, with the help of God, he'll be in the league for 15 years and I'm sure he will accomplish great things.

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