"We all feel like we're family," Gorgui Dieng said there on the stage.
The family had been through a lot in the past three hours. Dieng and his Louisville teammates had just beaten Duke to reach the Final Four. But now they had time to think, and that terrible moment in the first half -- when guard Kevin Ware broke his leg right in front of the bench -- was rolling around in their heads. Dieng, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith answered a few questions in the news conference. But their bodies and hearts were worn out. The questions ended, and they got up and left.
On the way out, Dieng stopped. He slid his chair back under the table. And then he slid Smith's and Siva's chairs under the table, too.
On this team, he is the man who tidies things up.
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Gorgui Dieng (say it GORE-gee JENG) is from Senegal, a West African country about the size of the Carolinas. In the beginning, he played basketball mostly because his brothers did. But he grew to 6-11 and basketball found him. He went to a sports academy in Senegal and was the MVP at a Nike basketball camp in South Africa. That got the attention of American schools, and Dieng transferred to Huntington Prep, a high-school basketball factory in West Virginia. He arrived, got to his dorm and started to cry. The homesickness lingered for weeks. He called home so often that his father made him stop.
But he was a fast learner. That September, the only English words he knew were hello and goodbye; by February, he was fluent. (He speaks four other languages.) He ended up at Louisville through one of those stories you always hear about: The coaches were at Huntington Prep looking at another player, and ended up liking Dieng. When he came to Louisville, he weighed 187 pounds. He didn't know offensive fouls counted against your total. He was a project.
Since then, he has grown in nearly every way. He's 245 pounds now. He's averaging 10 points and 10 rebounds a game this season. Last season, as a sophomore, he blocked 128 shots -- Louisville's single-season record. This year, his blocks are down for three reasons: He missed seven games with a broken wrist; opponents don't challenge him as much; and Louisville's press has been so deadly that other teams can't get the ball past halfcourt. On offense, he used to get all his points on tips and dunks. But now he has a soft 15-footer that Louisville uses as a Plan B in case their slashes to the basket don't work.
"Everything he does, he doesn't believe in being good," says Rick Pitino, the coach. "He wants to be great at it."
Midway through the second half against Duke, Dieng showed everything. He made one of those 15-footers. He rebounded a miss on the other end. He made another 15-footer. He blocked a Seth Curry layup. He got another rebound. He got fouled, and missed both free throws, but rebounded the second miss. And when Montrezl Harrell missed a jumper, Dieng tipped it in. That's six points, four rebounds and a block in two minutes of game time. Louisville went from up nine to up 15, and that's about as close as Duke got.
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Dieng would rather be studying engineering. He's majoring in communications instead because basketball takes up so much of his time. He talks all the time about how basketball is such a short life, that what matters is what comes after. He was brought up to defer to elders. He is 23 years old, and in Senegal, if a man of 25 were to come into the room, Dieng would give up his seat.
He has spent years now mastering this game, and the rewards are coming. Dieng is a junior, but Pitino had him speak on Louisville's senior day -- the idea being that he wouldn't be back. Some predictions have him going late in the first round of the NBA draft.
"He's far different than the young kids today," Pitino says, and it's weird when he says it, because Dieng is just 23. But in Senegal, the name Gorgui means "old man." When he talks about the meaning of life, he doesn't sound like a college kid: "Being disciplined," he says. "Respect everybody. Enjoy the moment."
Last offseason, Pitino signed Mangok Mathiang, a center who grew up in the Sudan, without seeing him play. He is hoping for another Gorgui Dieng.
* * *
When Kevin Ware broke his leg, the players scattered, each one lost and alone in the shock. It was such an odd moment -- more than 30,000 people in the arena, there to be a part of this collective event, and now we were all drawing up inside ourselves.
It was like that for a minute or two. Then Gorgui Dieng started collecting his teammates. He put his arms around one, then another. He led the starters into a neat circle, and his arms wrapped nearly all the way around them.
Later on, the Louisville players would say the game balanced on those few minutes. They said they felt inspired when Ware told them to go on and win the game. Nobody mentioned the quiet center who gathered his teammates together. He took the chaos and brought some order to it.
When it was over, he would talk about family.
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