Maurice Ndour had heard much about American basketball while growing up in Senegal, but still he was shocked when he arrived in 2011. It wasn’t the size and athleticism of U.S. players that was astounding. It was their lack of work ethic, an unexpected laziness in their games.
He discovered the fundamental difference in his first 2½ months in the United States. The kids here could play, but they weren’t hungry. They spent too much time partying and sleeping and not enough time practicing and studying. It was as if they felt entitled to an education and took college for granted.
“Coming from Africa, you don’t have everything handed to you. Your parents pay for your education,” Ndour said. “Having an opportunity to go to college, have fun and play basketball – for free? There’s nothing better than that. When you get that chance, you have to take it with two hands.”
It was that kind of thinking Saturday that made the difference for Ohio in a 73-70 victory over UB. The Bulls looked content on offense after building a 10-point lead over the Bobcats with less than 10 minutes remaining. UB hadn’t lost a game in Alumni Arena all season. Maybe the Bulls thought the game was over.
For whatever reason, they looked comfortable, too comfortable. They gave Ohio, and its junior-college transfer, an opportunity.
It was all Ndour wanted since he left Senegal five years ago. He attended high school in Japan on scholarship with the idea he would develop enough to someday take his game to the United States and get an education. He was the only black student at his school and, at 6-foot-9, was a foot taller than most of his teammates.
He stood out, as you can imagine.
What stood out more than anything Saturday was his performance, particularly late in the game after UB tried waking up from its second-half slumber. Ndour finished with 17 points, a team high he shared with Nick Kellogg. He accounted for all five blocked shots for Ohio, most of which came inside against UB star Javon McCrea.
Ndour capped a 12-0 run with a 20-foot jumper that gave Ohio a 65-63 lead with about 4½ minutes remaining. He gave the Bobcats the game when he fed reserve Antonio Campbell for a layup with just more than a minute remaining and followed up a missed shot with 11 seconds left. He’s still raw and learning the game, but he showed intangibles that are universally appreciated.
UB had more rebounds, more assists and fewer turnovers than Ohio, but the Bobcats won because they never stopped competing. It’s a way of life for Ndour, whose presence has made an impact on his teammates. Ohio has won seven of its last 14 games this season after trailing by 10 points or more in the second half.
“It makes me hungry every day,” Ndour said. “I came a long way. I’m not going to come here and just go through the motions. You always have to be the hardest worker on the court and off the court, which means going to classes and getting your education right. I’m trying to not take anything for granted.”
Too many college athletes convince themselves they’re on campus to play sports and lose sight of the fact that they’re attending school. Arguments are waged every year about whether college athletes should be paid because they generate millions of dollars for their programs. Ndour knows darned well that he’s stealing.
“The American guys, they have everything,” he said. “All they have to do is work hard. Some people get that. Some people don’t. That’s the difference.”
Ndour is fluent in five languages: French, English, Japanese, Serer and Wolof. His father was the first English-speaking television anchor back home. His mother was a secretary who worked for the government back home. He grew up playing soccer and fell in love with basketball after he was introduced to the game in middle school.
He attended a junior college in New Rochelle for two years before signing with Ohio. He had other offers, but he accepted an offer from Ohio because he wanted a good education and liked the idea of playing for a mid-major. He figured he would have an opportunity to stand out rather than get swallowed up by a major Division I program.
Ndour certainly stood out Saturday with his skinny frame and long wingspan. He packs only 203 pounds on his 6-9 frame. His braided hair looks like a blooming onion when bundled atop his head. He wears fluorescent green, low-top basketball shoes with red and gold laces that represent the colors of his nation’s flag.
Looks can be deceiving. You never know for sure what’s burning inside based on appearance alone. The red in his shoelaces, he says, reminds him of blood that was shed by his forefathers so he could have the opportunities he enjoys today. It explained plenty about who he was, and why he won Saturday. It stood out.
“We’re able to do a lot of stuff because of them,” he said. “For people to not know about their past is like a tree without roots. You always have to know where you come from, and where you’re roots are. That’s what keeps you motivated. That’s what keeps you hungry. That’s what makes you work hard.”