NBA’s Gorgui Dieng saved his national team from hotel eviction, but he hasn’t been reimbursed

Gorgui Dieng of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves says he paid out of pocket to prevent his national team from being kicked out of its hotel in Spain during training for the 2017 FIBA AfroBasket tournament. But Senegalese officials still haven’t reimbursed him, according to local media reports.

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Gorgui Dieng after a national team practice in Dakar.

Dieng told Senegalese media that representatives of the country’s Ministry of Sports asked him for a $69,800 loan because of “urgent financial problems” in late August. The hotel wanted to evict the Senegalese delegation because of nonpayment.

Dieng agreed to give the loan but says he hasn’t been reimbursed. The 6-foot-11 Senegalese captain also said players had threatened to strike because they didn’t receive their bonuses, and that the coaching staff was on the verge of quitting due to lack of payments.

In his written statement, reported Wednesday by the sports dailies Record and Stades, Dieng said he wanted to protect the team’s image and keep the focus on winning games. Senegal was among the favorites to win AfroBasket in September but finished third. Dieng was named to the all-tournament team.

“Winning the African cup was the only thing that mattered to me and it’s the only thing that motivates me to wear the national jersey,” Dieng said in the statement.

Dieng said the ministry and the Senegalese Basketball Federation have made several promises to repay him, but they keep missing deadlines. He said this shows a “lack of respect” and he now regrets stepping in to help.

The Record reported Dieng’s story on Tuesday, citing sources. The newspaper said it tried to contact the sports minister and the president of the basketball federation, without success.

Dieng is in the first year of a four-year, $62.8 million contract.

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Bad look: South Africa skips basketball World Cup

The qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup tipped off without South Africa. This is not good for African basketball.

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South Africa vs. Senegal in the 2017 AfroBasket tournament.

South Africa withdrew because of financial problems. Keep in mind South Africa has the continent’s biggest economy.

FIBA selected Chad to replace South Africa for the tourney, which began Nov. 24 in Cameroon and Angola.

Sanele Mthiyane, president of the country’s basketball association, explained in a Nov. 7 letter to FIBA that there’s an “unavailability of funds and lack of support” from the country’s sports department and confederation and Olympic committee. He said they are in debt from playing in the AfroBasket tournament in September.

This is a bad look for several reasons. First, South Africa is a sports leader on the continent. It hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2010, and now it can’t afford to send a team to Cameroon?

To ‘grow the game,’ which everybody talks about doing, it helps to have economic backing. Basketball is fairly new to South Africa and isn’t on the radar compared to rugby or soccer, but the country has more resources than most in Africa.

Finally, NBA Africa has its office in Johannesburg. It has held two “all star” games in South Africa in hopes of raising the game’s popularity. The NBA is also opening an academy, in Senegal, to train elite players from all over Africa.

The South Africans went 0-3 in the AfroBasket tournament in Senegal, including two blowout losses, so no one was expecting miracles in the World Cup qualifiers. Still, it would have been another step toward improving its national team program. The blog MyBasketball wrote in August that South Africa’s preparation for AfroBasket was nonexistent.

The top five squads from the 16-team tournament will qualify for the 2019 World Cup in China. Top finishers in China will qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

South African players turned to social media in hopes of raising funds but it was too late.

Sportscaster Robert Marawa tweeted: “The rot around Basketball in SA cannot go unchallenged!! These players have had years of being treated like dirt!! It has to stop!!”

This story in the Daily Maverick spotlights some of the internal problems.

This reminds me of what Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors, said about African governments and sports management when I interviewed him before the AfroBasket tourney.

Ujiri, a Nigerian who runs clinics throughout Africa each summer, told me for my Associated Press story: “We’re moving forward in technology, we’re moving forward in banking, we’re moving forward in real estate. While these things are getting better, sports are being left behind. How is that possible?”

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New contract, fewer minutes for Gorgui Dieng of Timberwolves

One year ago, Gorgui Dieng agreed to a four-year, $62.8 million contract extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He went on to start all 82 games last season and posted career-best numbers. He averaged 10 points and 8 rebounds in 32.4 minutes per game.

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Gorgui Dieng with his national team before AfroBasket 2017. (K. Maguire photo)

Now, however, he’s coming off the bench, just as the new contract kicks in. Through the first seven games of the 2017-18 season, the Senegalese big man has averaged just 13.6 minutes; the same as his 2013-14 rookie season.

Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves’ head coach and president of basketball operations, brought in Taj Gibson on a two-year, $28 million deal in the offseason.

Gibson has replaced Dieng in the starting lineup. Dieng, a 6-foot-11 power forward/center, is making the most of his minutes by averaging 5.4 points and 3.7 rebounds.

Still, will the Wolves want to continue paying $14 million this season __ and the salary escalates by $1 million each year __ for a bench player? The website Dunking With Wolves has outlined some trade scenarios.

Dieng’s contract makes him Senegal’s wealthiest basketball player.

DeSagana Diop earned about $40 million over 12 seasons in the NBA. The Cleveland Cavaliers selected him eighth overall in the 2001 NBA Draft. The 7-foot shot-blocker entered the draft directly from Oak Hill Academy.

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7-foot-2 Senegalese player chooses… Canada

When African kids leave home to pursue their basketball dreams, they typically attend an American prep school or university. Sometimes, they go to Europe instead, and eventually turn pro there.

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Tanor Ngom (German U19 NBBL photo)

But Canada? That’s where Senegalese big man Abdoulaye Tanor Ngom has landed. The 7-foot-2 forward/center is enrolled at Ryerson University, located in Toronto.

Ngom, 19, played in developmental programs in Spain and Germany before trekking to Canada. He was recruited this spring by Ryerson head coach Roy Rana, who visited Senegal to work with SEED Academy during its annual “Hoops Forum.”

I met Ngom last month in Dakar and he told me that Michigan State and UConn had expressed some interest.

But in the end, it’s Canada. It’s an interesting choice. Playing to small crowds in hockey country should allow Ngom to develop without a lot of pressure. He only started playing a few years ago.

Still, Rana has high expectations. In the school’s announcement, he said of Ngom: “He’s a legitimate pro prospect at the highest level.”

The Globe and Mail published a good feature on Ngom, as well. In it, Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri says Canada’s basketball reputation is improving, which might attract more African prospects.

That’s certainly possible, although Canada’s athletic scholarships are not as generous as those in the United States.

Ngom has played in Ujiri’s annual Giants of Africa summer camp. He was also selected to play in the 2014 Basketball Without Borders in Johannesburg, South Africa. Ngom effortlessly switches from French to English and also speaks Spanish and German.

Rana is also head coach of Canada’s men’s national team and has an interesting back story himself; his parents were born in India.

Ryerson hopes to dethrone Carleton University as top dog in Canadian collegiate hoops. Read here for an excellent Grantland piece (from 2014) about Carleton.

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Senegal’s Thierno Niang stands out despite size

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Thierno Niang during Senegal’s game against South Africa at AfroBasket 2017.

American and European basketball scouts don’t board airplanes for Dakar, or anywhere else in Africa, in hopes of finding the next great 6-footer. They can find that at home. They want “bigs.”

Thierno Niang discovered this on his local court in Pikine, a tough neighborhood on the outskirts of Dakar. It ended well for Niang, 27. He’s the starting point guard for Senegal’s national team, which finished third in the recent AfroBasket tournament. Niang, 6-foot-1, averaged 5.5 points and 3.5 assists per game. He played professionally in Spain last season and is now a free agent. He hopes to return to Europe this season.

I interviewed Niang a few months ago about the challenges shorter players face in Africa. He described how Spanish coaches would come to Pikine and run clinics.

What was your experience at these clinics?
“They don’t even talk to you. Because of your size, you’re not even part of the plan. They’re looking for 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9, 7-footers. If you’re not on that level, really, you don’t have a shot. You’re just enjoying the moment, the experience. But really, you know you’re not going to be part of it.”

How did you react?
“You use it as motivation. Every time you step on the court, you’ve got to play like it’s your last game. As a guard, I had to work twice as hard as the big guys for me to even get noticed.”

At that point, Niang was a teenager playing at Pikine Basket Club. He eventually earned an invitation to SEED Academy (2008-09), which educates and trains promising young players _ usually tall ones _ and helps find them scholarships to U.S. colleges.

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A makeshift scoreboard on a wall at the Pikine basketball court. (K. Maguire photo)

After junior college, Niang played two seasons at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

How was your experience at SEED?
“The most important thing about being at SEED is learning about responsibility. If you don’t study, you don’t play basketball. A lot of us didn’t have that idea before we got there. Besides that… they built that self-confidence in me, to believe that anything can happen as long as you put the work in. They’re the ones who brought the best out in me. Mentally, they really did that for me.”

What are the obstacles for African players?
“If (kids) would have been introduced to the game earlier in their lives, and been able to have all the equipment they need to be a better player, it would be a way different story than right now.

“All the basketball IQ things, all the little things you have to learn when you’re young, to develop a natural instinct. In Senegal, a lot of times they just teach us _ how to dribble the ball, how to shoot the ball _ but actually you don’t have the chance to learn how to play the game.

“If you don’t really know the game, it doesn’t matter how good you are. If they put you into a situation where they play systems, it’s going to be tough for you. A lot of us had that. You could say that’s the biggest problem for us. We were taught basketball, but not how to play the game.”

When did you start playing?
“My mom lives in New York (Harlem). I used to go visit her. Back in 2002, I went there and one of my big brothers was playing basketball. We’d go to the park every afternoon and play ball. Before that, I was playing soccer. Following him and going to the park, I fell in love with the game. It was just natural to me. After that summer, the minute I came back to Senegal I started playing basketball.”

Any hope for the smaller guys?
“It’s definitely going to change. When I went to the States (for school), I was 19 years old. I had a small window. Nowadays, we have guys going to the States at the age of 15. The opportunity wasn’t there when I was coming up as it is now. A lot of boys are in high school right now. They can really do something special in the future.”

Niang shot 58 percent from the field during Senegal’s run in the 2017 AfroBasket. He was 3 of 8 on 3-point attempts.

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Few days off in African hoops

IMG_3386Uganda’s Stephen Omony tries driving past Angola’s Yanick Moreira. (Ken Maguire photo)


NBA teams complain about playing games on consecutive nights. But for some perspective, look at the schedules of international tournaments, particularly those in Africa.

Angola once played nine games in 11 days. Seven other teams had the same schedule. That was during the 2009 African championship, called AfroBasket. Angola went undefeated and won the tournament, which was hosted by Libya. Games were played in Benghazi and Tripoli.

By comparison, Tunisia played on three consecutive days only twice this year. Tunisia beat Nigeria 77-65 in the AfroBasket final Sept. 16. Here’s the game story I wrote for the Associated Press.
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Tunisia’s coach, Mario Palma, said the Nigerians were tired. Ike Diogu, for example, played the entire 40 minutes the night before in a semifinal win over Senegal. Diogu still finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

The top teams in the women’s AfroBasket play eight games in 10 days. The exception is when the hosting nation’s team plays a day early to open the tournament. The eight-in-10 schedule has been in place since 2007.

There’s plenty of research supporting the belief that fatigue diminishes performance and increases the risk of injury.

Disorganization is the main problem. Congo-Brazzaville planned to host, but backed out. Angolan basketball officials offered to host, but the government nixed it because it was too close to elections. So Senegal and Tunisia co-hosted and it was delayed by three weeks, which compressed the schedule.

In the end, players pay the price. It’s the hot season in Senegal and Dakar’s arena has no air conditioning. I watched several players, particularly the big guys, retreat to the large fans placed behind the team benches. Chris Gabriel, a 6-foot-10, 275-pound center for South Africa, was among those struggling. A’Darius Pegues, an American and naturalized Ugandan, told me he was dehydrated after his first game.

In 2009, Nigeria was the original host for the men’s tourney but failed to comply with FIBA regulations, so Libya was selected.

Clearly, good organizing is the key. In the 2013 and 2015 tournaments, teams played on back-to-back days just once.

In the 2001 tournament, Angola’s path to the championship required seven games in eight days. In 1999, six teams played games on five consecutive days.

European national teams have it better, although it’s still tough. The European tournament, which like its African counterpart is organized by FIBA, typically packs a lot of games into the first round, and then provides days off in the knockout stage.

Spain played five games in six days during its championship run in 2015. But in the knockout stage, Spain had at least one day off between games. France had a similar experience in 2013.

It was better this year. Slovenia won by beating Serbia 93-85 in the final Sept. 17. In the first round, Slovenia played on back-to-back days twice in Finland. Then, there were two days off, which included traveling to Istanbul. Next was the quarterfinal, then a day off, then the semifinal, followed by two days off.

The USA played five games in seven days en route to the Americup title. It beat Argentina in the Sept. 3 final. Australia played back-to-back just once in the Asia Cup, which it won Aug. 20.

For its 2017-18 schedule, the NBA reduced the number of back-to-back games, in response to complaints by players and coaches. Former NBA great Charles Barkley reacted strongly, saying today’s players need to toughen up.

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