Maurice Ndour’s two-handed alley-oop dunk wowed Dallas Mavericks fans, giving them a glimpse of the Senegalese rookie’s talents. A minute later in the same NBA preseason game, he went up for another jam.
It should have been a sure thing for the 2.06-metre tall forward, known for his high-energy style of play.
‘When I tried to jump, I couldn’t,’ Ndour, 23, said describing his left shin injury suffered on October 16 when the Mavericks hosted the Atlanta Hawks. ‘It was like somebody was stabbing me.’
A roster spot should have been another sure thing.
The real dagger came 10 days later, when the Mavericks waived Ndour just before the NBA deadline to finalise the opening night rosters.
A roster spot should have been another sure thing. The Mavericks had signed Ndour to a three-year contract, with US$962,000 in guaranteed salary. Ndour’s 2.3-metre wingspan, athleticism and versatility are desired in today’s NBA. In preseason action, he blocked a Kevin Durant shot and talked trash with James Harden.
But the stress reaction injury killed his NBA chances, for now. The Mavericks asked Ndour to play with their D League affiliate, but he declined.
Instead, Ndour signed on December 5 with Real Madrid, the reigning champions of the Euroleague, which is like playing football in the Champions League.
‘Real Madrid is a great team, obviously. They have a history of winning,’ Ndour told Real Madrid TV. ‘Everybody expects Real Madrid to win. I’m expecting to come here and win a championship too.’
The contract is for the remainder of the 2015-16 season, so Ndour has the chance to play his way back to the NBA.
It’s the latest chapter in Ndour’s odyssey from Senegalese beach town to NBA doorstep to Europe.
At 15 years old, he turned down an offer to attend the highly regarded SEED Academy in Senegal. Instead, he boarded a plane to Japan, where he played high school basketball. He went to junior college in New York and two years later transferred to Ohio University, where he grew dreadlocks and earned a specialised studies degree.
Ndour wasn’t drafted in June but turned heads playing for the New York Knicks during the NBA’s summer league in Las Vegas. As a result, the Knicks tried to sign him for the regular season but the Mavericks jumped in with a better offer.
Nine Senegalese-born players have made it to the NBA. DeSagana Diop played 12 seasons for four teams and Gorgui Dieng is in his third season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Nearly all of them were 2.10-metre plus centres. Ndour, at 2.06 metres and 92 kilos, is smaller.
‘I got a taste of it. Now, I know what it’s like to play in this league,’ Ndour said in a phone interview from Arizona, where he lived and trained after leaving Dallas.
But for now, he’s focused on Madrid, which has another Senegalese player, 17-year-old Samba Ndiaye. Ndour’s Dallas contract cleared waivers, so he collected his guaranteed money and was free to sign with any team.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban offered kind words: ‘He told me “I’m sorry; it was a numbers game,” and “you’re my guy and I’m pretty sure I will see you back again; I’m not done with you,”‘ Ndour said.
His Japanese coach said Ndour at first looked so slim that he’d ‘fall over if you blew on him.’
It’s not the first time Ndour has faced obstacles. When he was 11, his mother sent him to live with his disciplinarian uncle. Ndour laughs and admits he was ‘just a terrible kid.’ There were road bumps in Japan, as well.
Atsushi Shimada, Ndour’s coach at Okayama Gakugeikan High School, recalled that Ndour initially didn’t like the physical play of the shorter Japanese opponents. Shimada, in written comments translated by the school, said he once had to talk Ndour back to the team after a disagreement with a teammate.
His Japanese coach said Ndour at first looked so slim that he’d ‘fall over if you blew on him.’ But with time, Ndour gained physical and emotional strength, he said, adding that he was most impressed with Ndour’s intellect.
Besides dominating on the court – 52 points in one game, 28 rebounds in another – Ndour became fluent in Japanese. It’s one of five languages that he speaks. He plans to learn Spanish, as well. His parents are accomplished, too. His mother is a former senator and his father was a well-known journalist. The safe move would have been enrolling in SEED Academy.
‘Growing up in Africa, obviously you want to make it somewhere.’
‘I feel like sometimes in life, you’ve got to take risks, and I’m a risk taker,’ Ndour said in a September 2 interview in Dakar. ‘Growing up in Africa, obviously you want to make it somewhere. I was like, I’m going to jump on it, even though I didn’t know anything about Japan.’
He was homesick for Mbour, located 42 miles south of Dakar, but ultimately Ndour says his Japanese experience ‘helped me be the man that I am today… just being respectful, respect others, have different approaches to life, and hard work.;
Ndour says he wants to help his country after his playing days, and he’s definitely not short of opinions. His social media posts include his thoughts on abortion, religion and recent terrorist attacks.
During the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain, Ndour saw Senegalese and other African migrants hawking items on the street.
‘It really hit me. What’s the point of coming out here if you’re going to be running around and hiding from police day in, day out,’ he said. ‘I know they wish for the better opportunity… that’s not always the case. Going overseas doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful.’
To be successful on the courts overseas, kids need opportunities to play when they’re young.
The NBA works with partners in Africa to build courts, train coaches and organise tournaments to showcase African talent. Since the Basketball Without Borders Africa program launched in 2003, eight players from the camp have been drafted by NBA teams.
‘We’ve seen a growing number of young African talent coming into our league,’ said Amadou Gallo Fall, NBA vice president and managing director for Africa.
Fall, who is from Senegal, also founded SEED Academy, which has sent dozens of young Senegalese players to US universities and high schools. The boarding school and others like it ‘are giving these young boys, and girls now, an opportunity to hone their talent in their home country.’
Ndour said his brief NBA experience is motivating him.
‘I was so close, I was really close, and then the injury happened. It adds more fuel to the fire. It drives me more.’