SEATTLE — Standing a head taller than everyone else has put Aziz N’Diaye in the spotlight from a young age. And when the rising basketball player showed up at Lake Forest Academy outside of Chicago in 2007, as a 17-year-old African who stood 7-feet tall, his every move shadowed by a camera and microphone, he might as well have been 30 feet high.
For almost N’Diaye’s entire life, people have been staring at the giant, asking themselves questions that only a few would dare say to face … or, make that, chest.
“If you’re 7-foot tall and you look different, like you’re from somewhere else, people are going to look at you. They’re like: ‘Who’s he? Why’s he here?’” said N’Diaye, who first moved to the United States from his native Senegal five years ago while a film crew for the documentary ‘Elevate’ followed his every move. “Some people aren’t shy to address you, to ask all these questions.
“I just look at myself as a normal human being. So I’d just answer the questions politely and tell them my whole story about coming here.”
N’Diaye’s story, as remarkable as it may be, is not all that unique in the sport of basketball. He was one of an annual pool of two dozen teenage basketball players from Africa who are invited to attend SEEDS (Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal) Academy, with a shot at getting into a U.S. prep school on the line.
Now, as the only remaining player from his SEEDS class to have a shot at the NBA as he enters his senior season at the University of Washington, N’Diaye hopes the spotlight shines on him for a few more months.
“I know this is my last year and everything, but I don’t want to put so much pressure on myself,” N’Diaye said late last week. “I just want to try to get better every single time I step on the court — each practice, each game. At the end of the day, after the season’s over, if the plan works out the right way, then I’ll be happy. I’ll be very happy.”
Whatever happens in the future, N’Diaye is just happy to have gotten the opportunity to leave Senegal — and feels just as fortuante to have gotten to return. In August, N’Diaye got to bring his UW teammates back to his hometown during an exhibition tour of Europe that coach Lorenzo Romar decided to expand to Africa. That trip has brought N’Diaye, who always felt a bit disconnected to teammates in his previous U.S. stops, closer to his current team than he has ever been since moving to the States.
“It did, definitely,” N’Diaye said. “I’ve been with different teams, but I’ve never had the fortune to take a whole team back home, to show them my house and the lifestyle I used to lead. It brought us together. They have a better idea where I’m from and what I’m all about. That was definitely a good experience — for me, but for them too.”
While living in Dakar, N’Diaye grew up in a house that he called “middle class” — with two bathrooms and his own bedroom. The city is the capital of Senegal, where the average annual income is said to hover below $1,000 in U.S. currency. Going back there brought out some unexpected emotions in the typically calm N’Diaye, who was recognized by family, friends and fellow countrymen.
But that’s becoming more and more common at every stop he’s made since moving to the U.S. with his head above every crowd.
N’Diaye first moved to Lake Forest, a Chicago suburb, after earning a prep school scholarship via the SEEDS program. That stop, where he mostly took English as second language classes that did not transfer to four-year U.S. colleges, led to an offer from College of Southern Idaho, a junior college in Twin Falls. He played one year there, suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for his entire sophomore season, then chose UW over schools like Oklahoma, Oregon State, Colorado and Kansas in 2010.
Through all of the stops, N’Diaye learned to roll with whatever came his way. He said homesickness was a part of his experience in the SEEDS Academy, which is located two or three hours away from his family’s house, and added that he has since gotten used to being far from home.
He was first offered a chance to be a part of the SEEDS program, founded by a Senegali man named Amadou Gallo Fall who went on to become a scout for the Dallas Mavericks, while playing for a basketball team at his small high school in Dakar. He arrived at the SEEDS Academy and was one of four players a documentary crew would end up profiling for the movie “Elevate,” released last year.
The movie, which also includes brief appearances by former UW assistant Raphael Chillious and ex-Husky Isaiah Thomas from their days with another Senegali basketball player at South Kent Prep School, followed N’Diaye through his time at Lake Forest Academy and ended with a highlight of him playing at UW.
“It was different,” N’Diaye said of his experience being followed for a documentary. “People were thinking I was already famous, or I had already made it. People have that imagination when they see you being followed by cameras. But I would just try to be humble and say, ‘I’m doing this for a reason.’”
The documentary wrapped up before the conclusion of the players’ college careers, and so what didn’t end up on film was the post-script: that N’Diaye’s SEEDS compatriots struggled to make the big time.
Assane Sene, a fellow 7-footer who opens the movie calling N’Diaye his biggest rival, was suspended from the University of Virginia basketball team, although he did earn his degree from the school. Dethie Fall ended up at Roanoke College, an NCAA Division III school, and never averaged more than 3.3 points per game in three seasons there. Byago Diouf, who played with N’Diaye for one year at the College of Southern Idaho, was kicked off the team at Carroll College, an NAIA school in Helena, Mont., because of academic issues.
Only N’Diaye is still playing and holding on to the American dream.
“I believe in God, and every single day I thank Him for everything I have — even if it’s a little,” N’Diaye said. “I have this mindset that I have to think of people that aren’t in the same position of me. For me, there’s that pressure to be the best I can be.”
N’Diaye has one more year to prove that he’s good enough to be considered an NBA prospect. He’s already considered a marginal late-second-round pick, but a big senior season could move him up the charts.
If the big guy from Senegal can “elevate” his draft stock, he might one day find even greater heights.