Rutgers' Hamady N'diaye, Wyoming's Djibril Thiam and Cincinnati's Ibrahima Thomas bonded by friendship and a love for the game
BY MIKE VORKUNOV
Theirs is a friendship that knows no geographical borders. It is bound by an affinity for each other and consumed by a love for a sport that helped bring them together, but now keeps them apart. And it was cemented under the moonlight and reflective glow of the Atlantic Ocean, along the Cape Verde coastline of Dakar, Senegal, as three nascent basketball players were beyond exhaustion.
Hamady N'diaye still remembers that night, and its foreboding prescience. It was the first time he questioned his devotion to basketball, the irony dripping from that thought only matched by the beads of sweat falling from his forehead.
He and the two teammates he would grow to call brothers caught a cab from the Babacar Sy Basketball Academy to continue their training on the unrepentant sand of a nearby beach. Sy, their coach, was unhappy with how their practice had gone and now their punishment was to run, seemingly interminably.Once they earned their break, Sy sat them down on that same sand to teach them another lesson. From here on forward life was going to be unforgiving, you better be prepared for it.
They would not need to wait long for their proof.
N'diaye and his two teammates, Djibril Thiam and Ibrahima Thomas, have come a long way from that night in Dakar, both literally and figuratively.
Thomas is now at the University of Cincinnati, a 6-foot-11 junior center averaging 5.0 points per game after transferring from Oklahoma State. Thiam, after initially attending Baylor, now averages 10.9 points per game at Wyoming as a 6-foot-10 forward. And N'diaye, a hyperkinetic 7-foot center at Rutgers, is the nation's third leading shot blocker at 4.8 blocks per game.
The three Senegalese friends are more like siblings separated at birth. When they speak about one another, each is more likely to describe the other as a brother rather than a friend.
They talk frequently, ubiquitously connected by 21st Century means of Facebook, text messaging and phone calls where they converse in their own mellifluous mix of English, French and native tongue of Wollof. They rarely miss a chance to catch up on each other's lives despite infrequently ever being, at the closest, 622 miles apart.
"Basketball is the only thing that is separating us right now," said Thiam.
It is through basketball that the three came to know each other. It is because of basketball that they became so attached. And it is because of their commitment to the sport that they are hardly together.
N'diaye, Thiam and Thomas developed their friendship as teenagers at Sy's school in Dakar. They spent their childhoods playing soccer but transitioned to basketball because of the opportunities it presented to make better lives for themselves.
The trio lived within half an hour of each other in Dakar, a port city on the Cape Verde Peninsula along the Atlantic Ocean that is the capital of Senegal. They met playing basketball for their individual club teams but became almost inseparable at the Academy,
They weren't together for long. Soon after their friendship blossomed, N'diaye became the first to take advantage of why they had started playing basketball and moved to Florence, N.J., to play at the Life Center Academy in Nov., 2004.
"My first year I was like the sheppard," said N'diaye with a laugh. "They sent me and they said ‘H you go first and you report to us how it goes over there.'"
It was his role to be a fact finder and pioneer. He embraced the role, learning English in three months and assimilating to the culture. But Thiam and Thomas soon landed at Florida Prep in Port Charlotte, where their old coach, Sy, had taken over the basketball program, N'diaye moved again in the summer of 2005.
Things quickly soured at Florida Prep. When Sy left for a trip abroad to reassure the parents of his players, a mixture of French and African internationals and Americans, that they were being treated properly, things went downhill.
Soon the players became malnourished and mistreated. They went to class and practice hungry, complaining of empty stomachs. When the administration did provide them with food it was not compatible with their diets. Most of the players were Muslim but were provided with food like pepperoni pizza, which they could not eat because of Islamic law prohibiting pork ingestion.
"We are human beings," N'diaye said recounting those dark days. "Being from Africa doesn't mean that we gotta be disrespected and not taken care of when people know that we didn't have any families [there]."
He and Thiam assumed the roles of big brothers, assuaging their international teammates. Ultimately, to escape their conditions they came up with a surreptitious plan reminiscent of a jailbreak in a Hollywood production that they hid from their American coaches and even teammates.
Feigning sleep, they waited until there was no more supervision, packed their suitcases and escaped at 3 a.m. via a van available to them and driven away by an assistant coach.
They laid low at a hotel in the area waiting until Sy came back, this time with a job offer at Stoneridge Prep in California. Then they were on the move again.
At Stoneridge, there were no more complaints. They lived in the same house, dominated on the court and developed into major recruits. N'diaye was the 68th best prospect according to Rivals. Thiam was 93rd. Thomas, a year behind, was the 85th best recruit according to Hoop Scoop.
The three once again were split up when it came to college, going their separate ways, each treating their choices as business decisions, forsaking an opportunity to be united for four more years.
Instead of choosing each other, they chose basketball and what it could provide them down the line, knowing that a journey as tortuous as theirs cannot always have the happy ending.
"We have a goal in coming to [America]," N'diaye said. "It's not just to take a trip."
For the last four years they have been content to be separated, zealously finding ways to keep in touch as often as they can. It has been two years since all three have been in the same place at one time.
Understandably it leads a man to think if the whole ordeal was worth it, whether their passion for basketball is worth all that they have given up.
"Somebody asked me one day ‘Do you really love the game? Do love the game that much that you really left everything just to play basketball?' and I never really thought of it that way," said N'diaye. "I started thinking about it and I was just like if you don't love the game, why are you doing it? I sacrificed everything that I have. My entire life changed because of basketball. I would do anything just to keep playing. It went to a point where I don't think it's loving the game, you have to adore it to a certain level.
"It hurts sometimes, when you think about it. For anybody to leave their family and not be able to see the people that you love for a while, at a certain point you are going to stop and think why am I doing this? But I think It's all for a good cause and that it's really going to be rewarding if we all keep our heads straight and keep fighting for what we really want."
For four years basketball has kept them apart, but N'diaye can think of a day in the future when it can bring them together again. When they will share a basketball court again, as they did back on the playgrounds of Dakar, when basketball was still pure and simple joy.
In those days the trio was almost unstoppable in the three-on-three games they used to play when Thiam, N'diaye would patrol the post and Thomas would camp out on the wing.
If they were to be reunited, surely it will be basketball that brings them together again, because it has left them apart too often.
"We didn't go through this, I don't think I've been through all this just for nothing," said N'diaye, determinedly. "I think there is a reward at a certain point."
For more Rutgers and Seton Hall basketball coverage follow Mike Vorkunov on Twitter at @Mike_Vorkunov