June 1, 2014

Part two: From Senegal to Sparta to Syracuse

In part one of this brief series of articles you saw what Moustapha Diagne's host father had to say about the four star prospects on court game and early days in America. Now it is time to look at how he has grown as a man during that time.

What have been some big obstacles he has had to overcome and how has he handled them?

For someone so young, inexperienced and far from familiar surroundings, just about every aspect of life presents obstacles. Clearly the biggest hurdle from the onset was the language barrier. Although Tapha speaks a native Senegalese language called Wolof, his academic language had been exclusively French. When he arrived, his command of English was anything but that. Tapha could speak and understand English moderately - it was what one would call a "traveler's grasp." Everyone had to be very patient with each other. Tapha worked very hard to keep up with the speed of the instruction at Pope John (which has a longstanding reputation for rigorous academic formation). He had to study longer, harder, and on more occasions than most other students. He committed himself to it and it's paid off. He has adjusted very well, has made steady progress and has long since ditched the instructional traveler's guide he arrived with. On a more humorous note, I think Tapha will forever struggle with English idioms. When a sports beat writer asks, "How are things going Moustapha? are you rolling with the punches?" or when a supportive teacher tells him before a game to "break a leg" or when I try to make a point or offer supportive advice with "back to the drawing board" or "don't cry over spilt milk" or "every cloud has a silver lining" Tapha looks puzzled and on cue responds, "What?" None of us knew how many idioms people actually use until Tapha entered our lives. Lastly, another obstacle (although some might find it hard to understand) was Tapha's having to deal with the pressure that comes from 35+ early scholarship offers. There were numerous coaches' inquiring daily resulting in recruiting visits to practices, workouts, weight lifting sessions, his games home and away, as well as media inquiries and the constant question of "Where are you going [to play college basketball]?" (Which was second only to "How tall are you?"). Through it all Tapha was a commensurate gentleman. He gave all parties their due respect, listened intently, and never failed to thank anyone who took the time to visit, interview or recruit him. In the end, Tapha (although admittedly unfamiliar with most idioms) seemed to have an idiomatic, natural understanding with Coach Autry along the path of recruitment. Even with gyms swarming with other collegiate coaches just doing their jobs and making advances, Coach Autry was there, there, and there again, for 18 months tirelessly representing Syracuse in a professional and forthright manner. Over time, Tapha built a bond of trust with him. This trust resulted in Tapha simply responding to Adrian's encouragements and support with his own uncomplicated idiom "Don't worry Coach, I gotcha. I gotcha." with Coach Autry giving a mirrored response, "I gotcha Taph, I gotcha." Looking back (and as it turned out), it was their "secret handshake" of sorts.

What impresses you most about Tapha as a person?

In a word, humble service (I guess that's two words). He sees himself with 20/20 vision. Most teens don't. He knows his strengths and knows what he doesn't know (especially idioms). He has a profound "old man" wisdom for someone his age. He is extraordinarily magnanimous as well. Tapha, like all those playing in the AAU circuits for the USA Top 100 players (Adidas Nations, Nike EYBL, Under Armour Assoc, etc), receives a lot of gear. How many shorts, tees, hoodies and (size 16) kicks does one need? It has become his habit to only keep what he needs and give away the surplus. I cannot recall just how much new clothing he has generously given away. He even went so far as to orchestrate (with the help of his coach, Jason Hasson) a "shoe drive" at Pope John to collect new or lightly used sneakers and shoes to send back to Senegal where Tapha knew there was great need. The goal was 1000 pair, however his fellow students backed his play with an extraordinary push and actually collected 3,000 pair. It was an outstanding effort, yet Tapha is always quick to give credit elsewhere. With so many at-a-boys and accolades of "nice job!" and "great game!" it can be difficult for people this age to stay grounded and other-centered. Tapha has made it habit of supporting his friends who play football, lacrosse, baseball, hockey, volleyball and perform theatrically at Pope John by not just promising to attend games, contests and performances, but actually showing up. He asks for rides (both in and out of town) "May I please have a ride to watch my friends play 8" qualifying it with "because they have come to my games and supported me." How do you say no to that? Yes, he likes video games and hanging out with friends like any normal teenager. Yet he will take time from the things he might prefer doing to attend the competitions of lower-level kids in the community with whom he interacted at basketball camps as a counselor and mentor. When Tapha walks in he lights up the gym and these younger, developing players (and their parents) are so grateful for the support. I remember a time when Tapha attended one of my daughter Gracie's basketball games. As a 3rd grader at the time and wanting to keep pace with the ballers in the house, she tried and tried to score - but without success in over a dozen games. In her season's last contest, her teammates passed her the ball twelve times in the final minutes in the hope she could get a shot that would find the bottom of the net. Finally, she had a shot that snapped the nylon for a bucket and Tapha took off out of his seat, ran onto the floor (even with time remaining and the clock running), grabbed Gracie, picked her up and started to dance around with her in his arms in utter jubilation! It was a sight to behold - one none of us will ever forget. If the referees had blown the whistle to call a technical foul for delay of game, they would have had to answer to Gracie's Senegalese Big Brother! Instead, there were nothing but smiles all around, refs included D and some (familial) tears of great joy. It was a special moment.

Anything you would like to add:

Bottom line: Syracuse is certainly getting a talented player. No question. Equally important is the Greater Syracuse Community and alum are blessed to receive an extraordinary human being, one who will undoubtedly represent them well (like his native Senegalese kinsman Baye Moussa Keita) in a variety of ways for many years to come. My wife Terri and I are so proud of what he has already accomplished. We've tried to do right by him and will continue to build on his parents' foundation. We look forward to seeing him in Orange and watching the coaching staff and academic preparation help him reach his full potential.

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