By Joey Kaufman
IRVINE, Calif. -- Nearly halfway through a midweek practice at the Bren Events Center, Mamadou Ndiaye is caught standing. The UC Irvine center rests like a potted plant underneath one basket, his hands dangling by his side and his head staring at the ground. He hardly flinches during the three-on-three drill. "Don't be a statue," an assistant coach barks out.
In a booming, baritone voice, Ndiaye fires back: "I'm not a statue." Then, he launches forward in the key, shuffling his feet against the squeaky hardwood floor. He extends his arms outward in opposite directions to show off a seemingly endless 8-foot-3 wingspan. His head rises. His focus returns.
The tallest college basketball player in America has been reminded of what he is desperate to avoid. He doesn't want to be a stiff. The sport is full of 7-footers who carried seemingly limitless potential yet never quite lived up to it. He doesn't want to be a cautionary tale. "He very badly wants to be good," said fourth-year coach Russell Turner.
At 7-foot-6, 290 pounds, Ndiaye recognizes he is quite the rarity. Only two players have played in the NBA at a greater height -- Manute Bol and Gheorghe Mureșan, each at 7-foot-7 -- and no player on an active roster is taller. The NCAA doesn't track its towering giants, but many believe only 7-foot-7 Kenny George, who played at UNC Asheville from 2006-08, stood taller than Ndiaye.
As Ndiaye has grown, so have the expectations.
"OK, if you just see me for, like, the first time, what are you thinking?" he asks later.
Before a response is offered, the 20-year-old Senegal native interjects to answer his own question.
"A basketball player, exactly," he says. "They think you're good, and people expect that. So you have to push yourself. Do anything you can. Sometimes, the people will come from far away, and you don't play great. You're going to make yourself sad, or you feel bad. I don't want these things to happen to me. … I just want to be good, because people see and expect, 'Oh, he's good.' I don't want that, to let them down."
This is the battle he faces, the burden of being 7-6.
* * *
Before every game, he steps onto the court wearing a bright gold T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Nowhere To Hide." Other UC Irvine players sport the same shirt, but its words remain especially appropriate for Ndiaye.
His pregame routine seldom changes. He jogs onto the court, falls into layup lines, hoists up a few attempts and retreats toward center court. At this point, he lays on his back to begin an assortment of stretching routines, and first a team athletic trainer props up one leg to create a 90-degree angle. Just the vast size of his leg, which rises up to the forehead of the 5-foot trainer, elicits stares.
In the first half of a conference opener in January at Long Beach State, he fights for position in the low post but knocks the opposing center to the ground. Eventually his team turns the ball over, but the collision prompts an opposing fan near center court to assail the officials: "Stop protecting him. Stop protecting 7-5 players. I'd be ashamed of myself."
Later, in the waning moments of the second half, he takes a charge when a penetrating guard drives the lane.
"Bulls---!" a man bellows.
"Horrible call," another yells.
In a game at Cal one month earlier, Ndiaye heard the taunts too when a 6-foot guard blocked his sweeping layup attempt, setting off chants of "7-foot-6, 7-foot-6" from the Berkeley students behind the basket.
Whenever he loses the opening tipoff, opposing crowds are more than eager to jump on him. To some, Ndiaye represents a gangly circus act. Unfazed, though, he says he tunes this out. He's heard it before. It's noise.
"I don't pay attention to the people and what they say," he said "I keep it separate, because they don't dislike you. They just like their team, and of course they want to stop 7-5."
Yes, he's still growing -- now listed at 7-6, not 7-5 as he was a year ago.
"All the basketball players, too," he continues, "they want to dunk on me. That's exactly what they want all the time. And I know that. I dunk on a lot of people, and I know they want to do that to me."
* * *
Ndiaye is a target, but he hasn't always been one.
He grew up in Africa's westernmost city of Dakar, the capital of Senegal and its largest city with a population of more than a million. Like many in this country, Ndiaye, the younger of two brothers, became a soccer player first.
But at 10, his interest in hoops skyrocketed. For one, he kept growing. But he also, through an innocuous Google search, discovered Shaquille O'Neal.
"I saw he lived in a bad neighborhood and worked by himself to get very good and become a basketball player," Ndiaye says. "He worked hard. He made me love basketball."
Shaq was the big, affable jokester, who made something of himself to become an NBA MVP. He resonated with the younger big man. Now, Ndiaye wears No. 34 for O'Neal, the number Shaq wore with the Lakers until 2004. And like Shaq, he'll try to be that same jokester. During a December practice, he dunks on a teammate, and then hangs on the rim, sticking his tongue out and smiling.
"He doesn't do specific jokes," says UC Irvine freshman guard Jaron Martin, who shares an on-campus dorm room with Ndiaye. "It's just things he says like, 'My boy,' or laughing out loud. It's funny, because his voice is so strong and so deep. Whatever he says is funny."
For Ndiaye to be like Shaq in any respect on the court, he first needed coaching, something he couldn't find at home. Senegal lacks the infrastructure for youth basketball development as commonly seen throughout the United States and Europe. Eventually, he needed to leave.
In 2010, Seattle University assistant coach Amadou Koundoul, then a UCI assistant, was visiting his home country of Senegal when he saw Ndiaye play a pickup game at a gym in Dakar. Ndiaye listened to Koundoul, who encouraged him to leave for the U.S. So, in the fall of 2010, he enrolled at Stoneridge Prep. Located in Simi Valley, Calif., a suburb 45 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the school is made up of about 30 students between grades nine through 12, school officials say, with about 75 percent of them coming from overseas.
This was Ndiaye's ticket to college, or to the pros. The school already had an established track record of producing elite basketball talent. NBA centers Enes Kanter (Utah Jazz) and Nikola Vucevic (Orlando Magic) played at the school.
But Ndiaye's stint at Stoneridge never went as planned.
* * *
On a fall afternoon in 2010, Ndiaye sat in a patient's room in a Simi Valley doctor's office and broke down. Devastated, he heard the prognosis that threatened to end his basketball dreams.
Test results from an MRI scan of his brain revealed a golf ball-sized tumor lodged in his pituitary gland. Because it was also pressed against his optic nerve, jeopardizing his sight, doctors advised it needed to be removed immediately.
"It was hard, that moment," he says. "I was thinking I'm done with basketball and I won't play anymore, because I didn't know exactly what was going to happen. Who knows? Just God."
Stoneridge feared this was the case. When Ndiaye arrived on campus, he immediately complained of dizziness and fatigue, mostly while scrimmaging with teammates.
"I'd play two games, three games, and start to have problems," he says.
Weather was one factor, as Simi Valley is drier than Dakar, which sits along the Atlantic coast. But the problems worsened. So Scott Arnold, a business manager at Stoneridge and the son of the principal, pushed Ndiaye to have the MRI taken.
A pituitary tumor is the cause of gigantism, and becomes so concerning because it secretes excess growth hormone. Abnormal growth, as a result, is often evident of the condition. It's why Ndiaye is so tall in the first place. Ndiaye needed surgery, but he was initially hesitant. He insisted he would simply return to the Senegal to the comfort of family.
"I was thinking I'd go back home," he says, "and if I'm fine, I'm fine."
Further complicating his reluctance were payment issues. Stoneridge could not afford to pay for the procedures, thereby risking the status of his visa. But eventually he changed his mind, and he underwent two surgeries that were paid for through charitable donations. He was also adopted by a nurse from the intensive care unit at Hoag Memorial Hospital in Newport Beach, Calif., along with her husband. The couple later became his legal guardians.
"If I don't do that surgery," Ndiaye says, "maybe I'm not here."
A counselor from Stoneridge offers another hypothetical: If Ndiaye had remained in the Senegal, never enrolled at Stoneridge and never went through treatment, he might be blind, severely handicapped or possibly dead.
* * *
The debut was always going to be overwhelming.
When Ndiaye stepped onto the court for his first game at Brethren Christian High School in January 2012, he turned into the natural center of attention. TV trucks arrived on the Huntington Beach, Calif., campus. Guinness World Records representatives called the school to inquire about his height. Fans gawked as he ducked to pass under a doorway
"It's possible no one ever has played high school basketball in America at a greater height," wrote the Orange County Register at the time.
Ndiaye, who transferred to the school for the spring 2011 semester in order to be closer to his doctors, declined all interview requests throughout high school. His guardians did too, as they did for this story.
"The recognition and all the publicity, especially his junior year, was a shock value type thing," said Jon Bahnsen, the varsity basketball coach at Brethren Christian. "He wasn't too -- I don't know what the word is -- happy about that. He shied away from that. He didn't like being in newspapers. He didn't like being on TV. He just wanted not to stick out. But that's very tough not to do when you're that size."
He also wanted a chance to heal. Crowds could see his height. Crowds could not see that he had been lying in a hospital bed only 12 months earlier. Plus, at more than 310 pounds, he was still out of shape from a grueling rehab process that spanned almost all of 2011.
"When he first arrived, he could barely get up and down the court more than a few times," Bahnsen said.
That fixation worsened on the road in front of packed gyms that had come to witness the big man for the first time. He was a novelty.
"He got reminded of just how different he was every time he would go to a new place to play," Bahnsen said.
Ndiaye wanted to be normal, sure. But at this point, he was also forced to come to terms with his size and learn to tune out the noise.
He filled up the stat sheet. As a junior, he averaged a double-double. As a senior, his number rose as he averaged 27 points, 14 rebounds and 4.5 blocks, and he was named CIF-5AA Player of the Year.
It was also as a senior that Ndiaye settled on UC Irvine, committing to the school over Georgetown and Pepperdine to stay near home, where family and friends protect him. To them, he isn't the menacing outsider.
* * *
The main drag through the suburban UC Irvine campus is just to the north of the centrally located Aldrich Park. There's a popular Starbucks that rarely has an empty seat, student government offices and a pub known as the "Anthill." Here, on this stretch is where most students congregate, and where Ndiaye, even at home, can be flooded by requests from many who ask for a photo with their towering classmate.
"Most people I get, they just know basketball player, and 7-5," Ndiaye says. "That's the thing they're interested in and what they want to know. People are different and I respect that."
But is it ideal? Does he want that to be the sole impression?
"Sometimes people are just interested in what do you do," Ndiaye says. "But it's more important to know who you are. It's not just basketball."
Among teammates, though, the reticent Ndiaye, who happens to speak five languages, has plenty to say.
"I thought he was going to be shy, not talking at all," said his roommate, Martin. "But as soon as I got to know him, he just opened up. That was cool. I thought he was going to be all to himself, but he changed my mind quickly."
Ndiaye's identity is always as the center of attention -- be it with teammates or with spectators lining the sidelines. He commands it, but it's with teammates that he embraces it.
In practices, he is constantly talking during stretching and warmups, shouting out "my boy" to anyone he knows who walks in. He'll never waste an opportunity for a dunk, and he'll even dive for a loose ball. When he does so in a game against Pepperdine, he's saluted by UCI students, who chant "Mamadou! Mamadou! We want you!"
He catches himself grinning. He constantly seems engaged.
"This guy has an infectious personality," Turner said, "and a million-dollar smile."
He's learning how to bask in the spotlight. He says now he can handle all the added attention on or off the court.
"I try to make everybody happy," Ndiaye says, "but it's hard sometimes."
* * *
In some ways, Ndiaye's future in basketball is a bit of a Catch-22. On the one hand, his size is so rare that it's instantly a coveted commodity.
Asked to make a comparison to even other NBA big men, Turner, a former Golden State Warriors assistant under Don Nelson, can't offer that.
"It's like comparing Tim Duncan to a 6-5 guy," he says. "He's very different than Yao [Ming], who didn't have the same length, didn't have the same speed and all that stuff. Mamadou's really fast for a big guy. Not as much in tight spaces, but I think he'll get better at that. And he's got the biggest reach and set of hands I've ever seen."
Understandably, NBA evaluators are intrigued by his measurables, and whenever he should declare for the draft, he expects to warrant plenty of consideration. But Ndiaye's size is increasingly rare that it's a little tricky to just plug him into finesse NBA systems increasingly predicated on pure athleticism, speed and court spacing.
"They talk about the NBA being 'position-less' in a few years," said Kristofer Habbas, editor of NBADraftInsider.com. "You're just going to throw your best five athletes out there, and maybe they'll range from 6-5 to 6-9. It's just a much more athletic NBA, which is why I refer to Ndiaye as someone who's a pinch hitter. He's not necessarily going to start for a team. He's going to be a guy who changes the pace."
How soon that will be is still unknown, as is how much he can in fact change the pace. For the time being, it's quite evident he can alter things on the defensive end.
Through 24 games as a freshman, Ndiaye averages 8.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, and he has blocked 82 shots, fourth most in the country. During a November nonconference win at Washington, he set the Big West Conference single-game record with nine blocks, before setting the record again with 10 the next week at Eastern Washington and then again in February with 11 against Long Beach State. By the end of the season, he should break the single-season conference record of 95 set by Michael Olowokandi, a former Pacific center who was taken No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles Clippers in the 1998 draft.
"I don't think I've ever seen anybody influence a game more than he did and only score four points," said Long Beach State coach Dan Monson after Ndiaye blocked four shots in UCI's 46-44 win over the 49ers in January. "He even altered some when he wasn't in the game, and I'm being totally serious. Guys went in there and they're looking around for him. He was certainly a game-changer."
* * *
In a YouTube video taken after a training camp session in October, Ndiaye is hanging on the rim. Standing upright not more than an inch or two off the floor, he swings back and forth before lifting up his legs. His feet touch the backboard and then his legs fall over his head as he does some sort of summersault, still hanging on the rim. After holding the position for a few seconds, he does this in a reverse before jumping back down.
Greeted by hollering from teammates, he shrugs and turns toward the camera, laughing. As much as height is a burden, it can be enthralling too. For Ndiaye, who is still learning the game and what his size might eventually allow him to do on the court, he is hooked.
"There's not any question he loves the game," Turner says. "With some big guys, you watch them play and you wonder if they're only playing because they're big. With him, you never feel that way."
You can also see this whenever Ndiaye fights for position in the low post. As he calls for the ball, he fully extends his arms outward, forming a massive X-shape with his body. His eyes light up. Clamoring for the ball, his tongue occasionally drops as if he's salivating. He wants to receive the pass, turn around and dunk.
"He's got thus natural desire to score, which is interesting, because scoring is the hardest thing for young big guys to do," Turner said.
But he wants to try. He wants a shot.
It's why he stays focused, keeping a tight schedule -- class, practice, study, sleep. He's aware he's fortunate even to be here, finally healthy and on a college basketball scholarship. He grabbed his ticket, and he'll tell you how doesn't want to let go.
"I have a gift from God," he says, "and I have to take care of it. If you don't, you're going to lose it."
Mamadou Ndiaye doesn't want to let you down. He just wants to fill his own shoes, size 19 and all.
* * *