March 6, 2013
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
Click here to receive Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week.
SEATTLE - Aminata N'Diaye loved her first taste of basketball in America.
Her seat was just like her outfit and her experience: Golden.
She was 6,130 miles from her family's modest home in Dakar, Senegal, sitting in the first row at center court at Alaska Airlines Arena Sunday watching her son Aziz play college basketball for the first time. She sat with Aziz's girlfriend, watching in person some of the payoff to a global basketball odyssey that separated her from her boy a decade ago, when he was just 14.
The mother Aziz warmly calls "Amy" will be there again Wednesday night, when her seven-foot son regains a prominent role for the Huskies against big USC. And she'll walk out arm in arm with Aziz through the team tunnel to center court Saturday morning when UW honors N'Diaye, Abdul Gaddy and Scott Suggs on Senior Day prior to the regular-season finale against UCLA.
For more than a decade she's shared countless phone calls, letters and e-mails with her son while basketball has flung him from Senegal to South Africa, to Germany, to remote Twin Falls, Idaho -- and now to his final weeks as a Washington Husky.
Wearing a flowing, gold dress and matching headdress - "that was just a coincidence," Aziz says of the appropriate color -- she saw her son jump a few feet away in the center circle to begin the Washington-Washington State game.
Not that she knew why Aziz was doing that.
When the crowd would cheer for a great Huskies play, she would look around her, smile and only then realize it was OK to applaud.
"That's what she loved about the game, the atmosphere, the cheering, the fans," Aziz said Tuesday, roughly a week into his mom's first visit to see him in the United States.
"She, of course, didn't get the rules."
It didn't help that everyone around her was cheering in a language she does not speak.
Aziz is averaging nearly a double-double in points and rebounds this senior season, but he played a season-low 13 minutes against WSU. That's because N'Diaye opponent, Cougars center D.J. Shelton, is an outside, 3-point shooter better defended by more versatile Huskies big man Jernard Jarreau.
When the crowd would cheer for a great Huskies play, she would look around her, smile and only then realize it was OK to applaud.
Yet Aziz didn't exactly tiptoe through his 13 minutes, even with a doting mom in row one. Eighty seconds after halftime her boy put an elbow into the throat of WSU's Brock Motum while fighting through a screen in the lane. Motum embellished the blow by falling like he got hit with a wrecking ball. Officials went to the scorer's table to view television replays before assessing a flagrant foul to N'Diaye.
Aminata N'Diaye looked incredulously to her left and right at all the howling going on from the home crowd over the questionable ruling.
She still doesn't understand what happened there.
"No, we didn't get a chance to talk about that," Aziz said with a laugh Tuesday.
"She's been following our team, knowing that we haven't been doing as well. She was most happy that we won."
Mama N'Diaye is staying in Aziz's rented home he shares with Suggs in northeast Seattle, about 15 blocks north of Alaska Airlines Arena.
She's made this one of the happiest weeks of Aziz's life.
"You know he's happy. You know he's excited about his mom being here," coach Lorenzo Romar said. "You can just tell by looking at him."
This last week has been so familiar to Aziz. Mother and son have talked of home and of his brother and two sisters, all in their native language of Wolof. It's one the four languages Aziz speaks, along with French (Senegal's "official" language), Spanish and English.
She has cooked his favorite fish and rice dish for him. But he says, "I haven't had her cooking for me the whole time. I've wanted her to eat what we eat here."
So what American staples has he exposed his mom to?
"I took her to McDonald's," Aziz said.
Perhaps it's a credit to her love for her son that she didn't fly home immediately after that.
"I took her to the mall," he said, offering another slice of Americana. "(Monday, a Huskies' off day) I took her downtown. We went to Pike Place Market. She liked that."
"AZIZ IS ONE OF THE NICEST PEOPLE ON EARTH"
Aziz turns 25 in May, and he acts like every one of those years in caring for and protecting his mom. He politely declined my request to interview her with an interpreter for this story. He said she was a tad overwhelmed by photographers and others that crowded around her following Sunday's game.
It's not a stretch to say that being here in Seattle is for her like it is for Aziz: truly another world. That watching her son play big-time college basketball on a nationally televised stage in a multi-million arena with more than 8,000 paying customers screaming from seats that cost $35 per and up may be a bit difficult to readily comprehend.
Consider where they've come from.
This season, for the first time, the Huskies know. Late last summer, UW ended a six-game, preseason exhibition tour of Europe and Africa in N'Diaye's hometown. Romar built the Senegal leg into what was going to be a trip through France, Spain and Monaco as a thank you to N'Diaye. It kept with a tradition of Romar scheduling the Huskies to go back to his far-flung seniors' home areas.
None have ever been as far flung as N'Diaye.
So Romar said thanks by taking N'Diaye's Seattle "family" to see his native one in a neighborhood considered middle class -- by Dakar standards.
When the Huskies arrived on the evening of Sept. 5 at Dakar's Radisson Blu hotel overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Aminata and Aziz's two sisters welcomed them. It was the first time N'Diaye had seen his family in two years. His teammates took pictures on their cell phones of the reunion in the lobby.
That was the first time Romar had met N'Diaye's mother.
"We never had a home visit with Aziz," Romar said. "He trusted us to come here and play for us."
We never had a home visit with Aziz. He trusted us to come here and play for us.
He had learned of the raw 7-footer through former UW assistant coach Raphael Chillious and Chillious' previous work with the Nike-sponsored Sports for Education and Economic Development Academy in Senegal. The SEEDS Academy is where N'Diaye got his start in basketball as an eighth grader after years in soccer. It is in Thies, two hours inland from Dakar.
That was his first time away from Aminata and home. He was up at 5:30 a.m. for conditioning runs - runs that groomed N'Diaye to eventually stun his first Huskies team with a conditioning mile he ran in an astounding 5:20 in the fall of 2010. At SEEDS he attended high school-level classes. N'Diaye took French classes, plus mandatory English and elective Spanish. He also had science, math, history and geography courses before practice each day.
From SEEDS, N'Diaye joined the Basketball Without Borders program. He went to Johannesburg, South Africa, and made that country's junior national team. He went to a camp in Germany, where he met and trained with NBA players. Eventually, that led to the U.S, and ultimately to UW by way of the College of Southern Idaho junior college.
He arrived in 2010 as the one asset Romar had not had in his first eight seasons at Washington, a 7-footer that was a true enforcer and intimidator in the lane.
He's since proven to be so much more than that.
"Aziz is not low maintenance; he's no maintenance," Romar said. "He does everything you ask him to do. He's just so mature. He handles his business."
On a recent road trip I asked the people who would appreciate and know - the team's student managers -- who have been among the best Huskies recently to deal with as just people, as good dudes?
The managers wash the players' practice and game uniforms, prepare those outfits in tidy packages for them each day, rebound for them during extra shooting drills, pick up the team's meals on trips - and do just about everything in between.
"Aziz is one of the nicest people on earth," not one but two of the managers told me, separately.
N'DIAYE'S DREAM: GIVE BACK TO SENEGAL
After the Huskies met his family in their Dakar hotel last September, the players and coaches went to N'Diaye's house for about an hour. There, his mom made his favorite fish-and-rice dish - enough for the entire team.
"Aziz's house was fine," Romar said. "I would think it was made out of stucco. It was three levels. It wasn't three levels in the way we think of three levels, like `MTV Cribs' or something. It wasn't like that. But it was a small, modest bottom floor. The second had a bedroom and the third had a bedroom.
"Aziz's house, if it were here, you'd look at it and say, `It's OK.' There, it was like an upper scale, upper-middle-class house."
Romar was struck first by how beloved N'Diaye is in his neighborhood then by how many young children roamed Dakar's busy, dusty streets as beggars, seemingly with no care givers around inside a city of 2.5 million people.
A fact sheet prepared by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency states 48 percent of Senegal's population was recently surveyed as unemployed. That was 193rd out of 201 nations the CIA listed. Fifty-four percent of Senegalese lived under the poverty line.
Imagine what a three-year, fully paid scholarship to UW, nice hotels and meals with his basketball team plus a college degree mean to N'Diaye. Heck, the 7-footer doesn't even complain when crammed into a window seat on a commuter plane taking the Huskies between, say, Salt Lake City and Denver. When that happened last season, the pilot even came back to apologize to him.
"People there walked everywhere," Romar said. "I saw in Senegal why Aziz, whatever he got anything from us - gear, tennis shoes, all that -he was extremely grateful. You could see why he was grateful for all that. I also saw why Aziz has told me his dream is get his college degree and make money playing this game beyond the college level, and go back and help his people.
"I totally understand that now having been there. I can see why that would be a mission of his."
N'Diaye brought mom's fish-and-rice dinner back to the hotel for the Huskies' pregame meal, hours before they were supposed to play an exhibition against a university club team from Dakar. That was supposed to be the first time Aminata saw her son play a college game in person. But the game was cancelled because the arena's roof leaked, making the floor unplayable.
"We went to Aziz's house (and) even that was a humbling experience," Gaddy wrote in his blog on the trip for GoHuskies.com.
"A lot of things you see in Senegal make you not want to take for granted things back home. Something as simple as clean water, having clean surroundings, having clothes and shoes -- you don't think about that at home. In Senegal, you see people struggling just to get stuff like that. It was humbling experience to witness."
And it brought each Husky closer to the 7-foot center for N'Diaye's final UW season.
A lot of things you see in Senegal make you not want to take for granted things back home. Something as simple as clean water, having clean surroundings, having clothes and shoes.
"For our guys to see his world, to see that there weren't giraffes in elephants in his back yard, that he lived in a regular house - to see how they view him as a prince back there - I thought it was just fun on both sides," Romar said.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Now the three years of fun as a Husky is weeks from ending. N'Diaye is about to get what he cherished since the day he left home in Dakar to begin his basketball trek: a college degree, in American Ethic Studies, and a chance to earn money for his family and hometown.
Though he remains unpolished in some aspects of basketball - catching passes in traffic and rushing contested shots remain issues - professional scouts will give more than a casual look to a 7-footer who runs as well as N'Diaye does, who is averaging more than nine points and nine rebounds at the highest level of college basketball. They are intrigued at how often N'Diaye controls games inside with his defense and wingspan.
N'Diaye sees the bigger picture here. He knows the USC game, Saturday's against UCLA, next week's Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas - think staying and playing at the MGM Grand might be cool for him? -and then whatever games await the Huskies in the postseason aren't the final ones he'll ever play.
He - and "Amy" - haven't gone through all they have for basketball to end now.
"It's been a great experience. I'm going to miss it here, my teammates, this school, the fans," he says. "But at the same time it's just life. You move on.
"I want a chance to enjoy these last games here."
That is pretty much a guarantee.
After all, Mom will be watching them from the first row.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.