OLEAN - St. Bona-what?
Youssou Ndoye never heard of the place until assistant basketball coach Steve Curran first made contact in 2010. Curran told him it was in New York, so naturally Ndoye imagined living in the general vicinity of tall buildings, crowded streets and bright lights in the jungle known as New York City.
That’s what he learned from television.
Americans hear Senegal and think Africa. Many hear Africa and imagine lions chasing zebras through tall grass and rare snakes slithering through the rain forest. Or we think of poverty-stricken children with bloated stomachs, living in small huts with no running water, no electricity, no education and no future. We think of a jungle.
That’s what we learned from television.
Ndoye’s home and his current home are vastly different lands, indeed, but for reasons opposite of what people from both countries would expect. Olean is a sleepy town stuffed into the rolling hills and wildlife of the southern tier, some 350 miles from the Big Apple. Ndoye was born and raised in Darkar, the bustling capital city of 1 million.
“It’s not like you walk around and see lions,” he said with a laugh. “That’s what [Americans] see on TV, so they think that’s what it is.”
Ndoye connected two continents with a mission, if not his Pterodactyl-like wingspan, to build a better life and give back to his community. In 15 months, he became a cult hero in the town jewel known as the Reilly Center, where he flashed his wide smile and mugged for pictures after an easy win last week over The Citadel.
As likable as he is lanky, the 7-foot sophomore with the 7-2 wingspan is greeted with “Youuuuu” every time he checks into a game or makes a significant play. He will get the biggest test of his brief career this afternoon when the Bonnies visit N.C. State in Raleigh. Another lesson awaits him in another strange environment along Tobacco Road.
The gentle giant is a hoops beginner, a project more than a prodigy who knew little about the sport five years ago.
It’s difficult to fathom him living in a prep school dorm in northern Maine, near the Canadian border, a scared and lonely teenager who often cried himself to sleep and begged his mother to let him come home. His fears were natural, his life unlike most others. He was too young and too green to comprehend his own potential.
After all, he must have been the only high school student in Maine, or anywhere, described as a 6-foot-10, 16-year-old African soccer player who spoke French and Wolof, but not English, and viewed basketball as the vehicle to education rather than a pastime.
“It was culture shock for me,” he said. “I didn’t understand English. None. Zero. It was really hard to talk to people. You don’t know anybody. It was really hard for me. I was the only black person. You don’t know what they’re talking about. I was like, ‘Are they talking about me? Do they want me around?’
“It was crazy. You go to Walmart, and everybody is looking at you. I’m like, ‘Are they trying to kill me or what?’ I didn’t know if I wanted to do this. You sit in your room and cry. I didn’t think I belonged here. But once you get used to it, you love it.”
His name is pronounced Yoo-soo EN-doy, and he’s able to look back and laugh now that the hard part is over. He’s 21 years old, the son of a mother banker and a father secretary, a friendly, fun-loving college student who dared to venture. The sophomore is a reserve at Bona, and his career is prepared for takeoff.
“He’s a nice guy,” teammate and close friend Jordan Gathers said. “He works hard, loves the game of basketball and takes school seriously. He’s like any other kid. Just because he’s 7 feet doesn’t make him different.”
Oh, but he is very different, indeed.
Ndoye’s favorite sport was soccer, a fact that still rings true. His mother was a basketball player, but she didn’t push him into the sport. She pulled him away from soccer after growing tired of him playing after school and ruining his clothes. Once he felt the euphoria of his first dunk, he bid farewell to soccer and Senegal and hello to America.
He spent two years at Lee Academy, a private prep school outside Lincoln, Maine, where he was led by Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal. The SEEDS program was founded by former NBA scout Amadou Gallo Fall with the hope of developing players and connecting them with U.S. colleges. Bona had a connection at the school, and thought he could compete in the Atlantic 10.
“The education was first,” he said. “I didn’t come here and say, ‘I want to get to the NBA.’ [Earning a degree] is still my first goal. Without an education, you can’t go anywhere. I’m not taking that for granted. I really want to help my family and the people at home any way I can. You never want to forget where you come from.”
For now, he’s trying to figure out where he’s going.
By the time they reach the collegiate level, most big men are more equipped from the waist up more than the waist down. They’ve spent thousands of hours working on their shooting, know how to block shots and can process the game. Their careers often end because they lack quickness required in the NBA.
Ndoye was the opposite - there’s that word again - when he arrived. He’s waiting for his hands and his head to catch up to his feet. His soccer background gave him above-average footwork, but he wasn’t accustomed to having a ball in his hands. Simply, he was a gawky 7-footer with potential. Now, he’s trying to maximize his possibilities.
“He’s only been playing a couple of years,” Bona coach Mark Schmidt said. “Every day, you look at him like, ‘whoa.’ He’s got a motor. You don’t have to motivate him. He’s always in the gym. He can really run. When he’s doing that, he’s into the game. He has a bright future. He really does.”
Ndoye came off the bench and had a career-high 13 points, including seven of eight free throws, in the win over Cleveland State. He had 10 points and five rebounds in 15 minutes against The Citadel. Ndoye has developed a nice, soft hook shot with each hand around the basket. His size and agility make him tough inside.
The next step will be expanding his offensive game to the 10- to 12-foot range. He needs work on finer points such as rolling the right way after setting screens, understanding angles when positioning himself on the boards and making sure he’s in the right spots on defense. It will come with experience.
If it does, when it does, look out.
The NBA, like most things in his life, is within his reach.
Ndoye didn’t need to look far for evidence that professional ball was a reasonable goal. Canadian Andrew Nicholson was raw when he first arrived, but he became a terrific player and NBA draft pick. He’s with the Orlando Magic. Nicholson guided Ndoye through his freshman season. They’re in contact via phone and texts a few times a week.
“Now, I’m starting to understand how good I can get,” he said. “I want to be as good as I can be. I want to play basketball after college. I need to be confident when I get on the floor. I need to be more comfortable.”
The big man with the big smile and bigger dreams already has given back to the people from home, by the way. SEEDS product Jean Yves Toupane followed him from Dakar to Maine, from Maine to Olean. The 6-7 freshman swingman has played in the past two games and unveiled his smooth shooting stroke against The Citadel.
Ndoye led him to St. Bona-what.
Funny, but it all began with a venture.