Unleashed: The Huskies' Amazing African Experience
Oct. 10, 2012
Members of the UW men's basketball team investigate what's beyond the Door of No Return.
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Lorenzo Romar has won four consecutive conference regular-season or tournament championships. That includes Washington's first two outright league ones in more than a half century.
He's been to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 three times in seven years.
He's played in the NBA. He's learned directly from John Wooden. He and his wife Leona have raised three successful daughters. He's as universally respected a coach as there is in college basketball.
But for all they have accomplished, he and his Huskies have never experienced what they saw early last month.
While UW fans were focused on the football team's nationally televised game at LSU, the undefeated start to the volleyball team's season and the strong debuts for the men's and women's soccer teams, Romar's men's basketball squad was on a 45-acre island off Senegal at the westernmost point of Africa.
"I just don't think our guys were totally prepared for what they were going to see," Romar told me on the eve of preseason practice starting Friday afternoon.
Was he prepared?
Goree Island is three kilometers west of Dakar, the hometown to Huskies 7-foot senior center Aziz N'Diaye. According to Africana, The Encyclopedia of the African American Experience, an estimated 20 million Africans were processed through Goree Island between the mid-1500s and mid-1800s.
This was Africa's anti-Ellis Island. Those who came to Goree were not gaining anything remotely resembling freedom.
They were shackled. Upwards of 30 men were crammed into a single, eight-square-foot cell and fed once a day, maybe. Women were separated across a courtyard from their crying children.
Goree Island was the site of atrocities on an entire civilization, daily for 300 years.
And in the warm West African sun in the first week of September, a conscientious coach and his college hoops players felt that sting.
I think guys were stunned. We weren't taught that part of history. Never had seen that in a history book.
"I think guys were stunned," a still-impacted Romar said in his office at Alaska Airlines Arena. "We weren't taught that part of history. Never had seen that in a history book.
"But we know it's a reality. We were there. We saw the conditions that the prisoners, that the slaves lived under, that were totally inhumane.
"And that was the best part. They hadn't gone to the States yet."
The prisoners on Goree Island were awaiting ships that took them to a life of slavery in the United States. The island was a symbol for a brutally fractious time in the African society. Tribes across the continent turned on each other to capture their brethren and send them to Goree Island to fulfill slave quotas, lest they be captured and sent there themselves.
The Huskies were there as part of their four-day stop in Senegal, the end to their 16-day exhibition tour of France, Spain, Monaco -- and N'Diaye's home country.
Romar and all of his players outside of N'Diaye had never been to Africa. The coach said "several things stuck out in my mind" about his visit to Goree Island.
"There was a room probably half the size of this (office) that children lived in, and they would just lay them down like sardines so they could all fit in," the 53-year-old father said. "There was a room, solitary confinement, where when someone got out of line, they'd put them in there -- and that room was even smaller and it didn't matter how many bodies."
Romar said the camp's guards determined that room's capacity was by seeing if the door could close behind them.
"It's dark. There's no water. There's no food. And there's nowhere to go," he said. "The normal prisoners were allowed to use the restroom one time a day and that's it. If not, they just had to go right there. Now, remember, everyone was just flesh to flesh. Just imagine."
That wasn't even what chilled the Huskies the most.
At the edge of the prison, facing the west to the Atlantic Ocean a few yards away was a solitary, foreboding and narrow rectangular passage at the end of a stone corridor. It's still known as "The Door of No Return."
Those who passed through it became slaves at that point, an almost certain life sentence.
"If you went to that door, you were getting on a ship never to see your family again and to become a slave in the United States," Romar said. "That's why I said, in that prison, it got worse after that. At least you were still around people you knew somewhat (on Goree Island). You still spoke the language.
"Once you went to the United States, you knew no one. You were beaten. You worked. You were ... a slave. You worked like a slave, all day long."
Some died before getting there. When the ships full of slaves left Goree Island, they were trailed by swarming sharks. The sharks had learned how the slave traders treated the weak or sick on the trip across the Atlantic.
"If someone got sick, they'd throw them overboard because you couldn't have it spread," Romar said. "If someone was close to death they'd just throw him overboard to the sharks. It's not something that you could just torture, so my eyes were opened.
"Like I said," Romar added, shaking his head, "it's not something I'd ever seen in the history books I've read."
Reflecting on the Door of No Return, Romar said: "If not by the grace of God, I could have been born there in that time... That just opens your eyes to so much more when you see that."
Lance LaVetter has been Romar's director of basketball operations for all 10 of the coach's years at UW. He's used to the Huskies razzing each other and cracking jokes in most off-the-court situations, like any 18-to-21-year-old good friends do.
But LaVetter of seeing "The Door of No Return": "I've never seen our players that quiet before."
I asked Romar if the visit particularly hit his group of young American blacks who were never taught that part of history, either.
"I thought it hit home, yeah," the coach said. "Whether you think that somewhere along the line, `Those were my ancestors.' Or, `What if I was not born when I was born but I was born back then and that could have been me?' And, `How could that possibly happen?'
"I think not only did that give them a different perspective, but (a perspective on) what Jewish people went through in the Holocaust, all that.
"If not by the grace of God, I could have been born there in that time. Maybe some others were thinking the same way. That just opens your eyes to so much more when you see that."
That's exactly the term senior point guard and co-captain Abdul Gaddy used.
"I really wanted to go there with open eyes and learn some history," he said. "It was definitely a different experience to see where all the slaves lived. We ended up learning lot and I think everybody took a lot back home from that experience."
That was just one reason the visit to Senegal was so meaningful.
In Spain, the Huskies toured Barcelona's Sagrada Familia church first built by Antoni Gaudi in 1882 - "real cool," Gaddy said. They saw the basketball arena for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Montjuic Hill, where the U.S. "Dream Team" played and which Gaddy called "really cool."
I've never seen our players that quiet before.
The toured the Eiffel Tower and River Seine and even had an "Amazing Race"-like event in Paris. They spent time in the warm coastal sun of Nice, on the Mediterranean. But their time in Senegal was the most impacting.
When the Huskies arrived on the evening of Sept. 5 at Dakar's Radisson Blu hotel overlooking the Atlantic, N'Diaye's family, including his mother Amy and 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.
It was also the first time Romar had met N'Diaye's mother. He had learned of the 7-footer through former UW assistant coach Rafael 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.
Romar had decided to add the four days in Africa to the end of the foreign tour the NCAA allows Division-I schools to take once every four years after viewing an advance copy Chillious had obtained of the documentary "Elevate." It's about the SEEDS Academy and featured N'Diaye.
"I was so moved by their journey, the kids out of that program," Romar said. "When you saw the program, you saw what they went through and how big a deal that was, and you just got a glimpse of how they lived out there. I just thought, `We're already going on a foreign tour. If it were possible, it would be great. Aziz hasn't been back home.'"
Romar makes it a point to try to get his players home by scheduling road games he might not otherwise. The Huskies played at Saint Louis last season for Missouri native and Huskies now fifth-year senior co-captain Scott Suggs. Romar says UW will be playing soon in Louisiana for redshirt freshman Jernard Jarreau.
"To go back there and let them meet Aziz's family out here (at UW), the group that he's been with, I thought would be special for Aziz," he said.
The coach got that right.
Days before he left, an excited N'Diaye told me the trip home as a Husky was going to be "the highlight of my time here so far."
Romar believes the real value in the tour is all his players learned about each other in 16 consecutive days living and traveling across three continents together.
"I think they learned the most about Aziz," he said.
The team didn't just visit their big center's home city. They went to the SEEDS Academy, where their hero N'Diaye - who speaks French, Spanish and English -- led a clinic to wide-eyed, appreciative kids. At SEEDS, the Huskies unloaded as many shoes and UW gear as they could carry halfway across the world.
The players and coaches also visited N'Diaye's house.
"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 a middle-class, upper-middle-class house."
The Huskies ate N'Diaye's mother's specialty, a homemade dish of fish and rice. N'Diaye had brought that back to the hotel for their pregame meal, hours before they were supposed to play an exhibition against a university club team from Dakar.
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."
The Huskies were struck that Dakar, Senegal's capital and largest city with a population of more than 2.1 million, was full of people on foot. Adults with no cars, bikes or any mode of transport. Children seemingly alone.
"There were kids there that had their hand out that were four or five years old and there was not a parent around," Romar said. "To see so many women carrying their groceries in a big basket, no telling how far they were going to walk. Just things weren't as easy there. They don't get things as freely as we do out here."
Such as clean water. When the Huskies checked into the Radisson Blu, one of the finest hotels in Senegal, they were told to not let the water into their mouths while showering -- just in case.
"Even the ghettos here, some of the really, really poor areas that you see in the United States, their conditions were head and shoulders better than the conditions in a lot of places out there," Romar said. "And we were in a city, let alone some of the areas (in rural Africa). We weren't in their ghetto, you know."
Husky center Aziz N'Diaye got to introduce his Husky family to his family in Senegal on the trip.
3-3 - AND TWO REFS IN BLUE JEANS
Oh, yeah, the Huskies also played basketball on the tour.
Adjusting without NBA early entrants Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten, UW went 3-3 in six games playing college and pro-level teams in Spain, France and Monaco. Some opponents had former U.S. collegians such as Sean May from North Carolina and Michael Roll from UCLA.
The lone game the Huskies played in Monaco was officiated by two guys wearing blue jeans, after the scheduled referees didn't show up.
That was the same game in which the arena's lights went out during play.
"So it was a little bit different conditions there," Romar deadpanned.
Through it all, Gaddy and Suggs each averaged 13.5 points per game in the exhibitions. Sharpshooter C.J. Wilcox averaged 13.2. Washington attempted 59 fewer free throws while shooting 61.7 percent from the foul line. Turnovers were a problem, with some 20-plus turnover games.
Romar attributed some of that to slick floors, a different ball - and in one game weird, incessant traveling calls on his guys for not taking a dribble immediately upon receiving the ball.
"So there were some things that were in place that you can't look at it and say, `This is how our team is going to be,'" Romar said.
The trip was invaluable for giving Romar a bonus 10 days of practice the NCAA allows before international tours plus six exhibition games to continue installing his new, high-post offense.
From game one to game six I thought we made a big improvement with our team.
"From game one to game six I thought we made a big improvement with our team," the coach said. "I thought we were more efficient offensively. I think we defended better.
"I thought guys like Jernard Jarreau and Shawn Kemp Jr. took some steps in the right direction, based on being able to play in those games (compared to if) we started the year without those six games, those 10 practices. Whatever they did, they don't make that jump until mid December or beginning of December, as opposed to those jumps being made day one now.
"So there were a number of ways I think we benefited from it on the basketball floor."
And many more ways they benefitted in something far more important - life and the larger world around them.
Last week, the Huskies made their annual visit to Seattle Children's Hospital. I've been on that trip with the team before, and it is special - for the players and patients. "Always a blessing to be able to go to children's hospital and make kids days," Gaddy (@gaddy253) tweeted last week. "We take pride in it. It's about somethin bigger than bball. Love giving back" I've followed teams nationally for 14 years in sports journalism. I've never seen one - professional or college - better in its community than Romar's Huskies.
It's all class. And it starts at the top.
"Seriously, if we were fortunate enough to have won six straight NCAA titles in a row -- that'd be awesome -- but people would be wanting you to win the next one," Romar said. "The more you win the more people want you to win, and the more you want to win. But when you can do those things that affect people beyond basketball for the rest of their lives, that's what it's all about.
"If we don't do well, I'll lose my job. I know that. But I also see this as a platform to teach things aside from the game of basketball. There are so many people that love this game, that you can just use it as a tool to teach life lessons.
"And that's what we try to do."
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.