Senior from Senegal heads into final home game where his mother will see him play for the first time
BY MIKE VORKUNOV
As a child Hamady N'diaye's parents would always ask him a prophetic question.
"You fall, but how quickly can you get back up?," they would say.
For almost four years, in 121 games and countless practices N'diaye has had to ask himself that same question every time he hit the floor diving for a loose ball, trying to grab a rebound, going for a blocked shot, or — as Fred Hill likes to recount in his early days at Rutgers — just tripping over himself.
For N'diaye it's never been about how many times he would fall, but about how many times he could stand back up. During his time at Rutgers he has been the picture of persistence.That, in essence, is the person that will be honored at mid-court Thursday on Senior Night as the Scarlet Knights meet Seton Hall. As much as he has achieved while wearing the scarlet and white Rutgers jersey — and he's had his fair share of success as he stands just nine blocks from the all-time school record in blocks and 11 from the season record — he has never been solely about basketball.
While basketball may have consumed him, it never defined him. He relishes the opportunity to go to college and on scholarship, a chance most Africans don't have as he points out. Even in the midst of basketball season he has an internship.
Around New Brunswick he is the Biggest Man on Campus. The gregarious seven-footer that goes out of his way to exchange greetings with fellow students while he casts a shadow over them. The fraternity brother. The guy that teammate Mike Rosario calls one of the best dancer he knows.
"It's the one thing that I used to tell everyone, I don't want to be the typical basketball player," said N'diaye. "That's one thing I don't like. I don't want to be the typical person, the typical seven-footer, the typical African. I'm not a typical anything. I'm H and what I do as H off the court is the happiest person — smiles at everybody, talks to anybody I can and try to make everybody happy. I enjoy whatever is given to me. I had a tough childhood or whatever you call it where there are better things in life. You have to take the best out of everything. I'm in a country where opportunity is everywhere."
Basketball brought him that opportunity and he knows it. Playing at the RAC for the last time and with his mother watching in-person for the first time, N'diaye's will come full circle.
He left Dakar, Senegal to play in America when he was just 16 years old. He arrived in New Jersey alone, unassimilated and unable to speak English. He was just a lonely teenager in a foreign land.
N'diaye arrived at Rutgers a basketball embryo. N'diaye had only played the game for three years. It showed. On defense he was a pogo stick, jumping to block every shot. On offense, he often looked lost. With every pass thrown his way, he flashed the hands of a lifetime soccer player. Hill took a flyer on him, banking that a seven-footer with his athleticism and passion for the game would work out. You can't teach height and you can't teach heart.
"I don't think people really understand the magnitude of how far he has come," said the coach. "I think when you say that people expect there to be a finished product. This kid in my 28 years, I've not seen a kid develop and come as far as he has. I think when you say that people expect to see Hakeem Olajuwon. It means that when he came in, with the limited experience and ability that he had, to where to he is today it's remarkable."
N'diaye had his bumps in the road, each one crippling in a different manner. He fought through them.
A back injury last season robbed him of his ability to block shots, instead he started taking charges. He left home with little means to an unknown end. Soon he will graduate with a degree in communications and a sure-to-be fruitful career ahead of him. For N'diaye there was never a reason to quit.
"I look back at it a whole lot and that motivates me more," he said. "I think back to where I was and I want to know how far can I make it? How far can I go if I keep pushing myself? It is amazing a lot of players would have given up a long time ago. It's amazing to me that I've made it this far."
There is a reason why N'diaye plays the way he does. Why his motor has no off switch. Why every splash onto the floor is just another chance to pick himself back up.
N'diaye is introspective, constantly questioning his motives and his drive. He never asks if he should stop but whether he has come far enough. Then he thinks back to where he started.
"With the sacrifices I've made, leaving my family back in Africa and coming here at an extremely young age trying to succeed when a lot of people didn't expect me to do anything," he said. "It's like a chip on my shoulder because I want it and I wanted it more than they wanted me to. I wanted my family, my father and my mother to really be proud of me one day and look back at it and say ‘He really worked hard for it.' Hard work pays off anytime of the day. I'll sacrifice anything I have and in the end I believe it's going to pay off."
It is for those reasons and many more why N'diaye will stand in the middle of the RAC Thursday night a few moments before tip-off, already battered and bruised but never slow to get back up. On that court he is definable; an athlete always carries a label.
Off of it, he tries to escape one. It has been almost seven years since he left his family and his homeland. Now, in front of fans, friends and finally his parents, they will all get their last chance to see him play. But they will not see a basketball player. Hamady N'diaye has come too far to be called just that.
"I don't want to leave a mark as the basketball player or the emotional guy that is always screaming on the court, acting crazy on the court. No, I'm somebody else off the court. That's just the image I'd like to leave of myself."