An amazing journey
Louisville's Dieng learns new culture while honing game
ATLANTA -– Gorgui Dieng opened his news conference Friday by saying he only wanted to talk about the games that lie ahead of him this weekend. Of course, he had his usual infectious smile that lit up the room. Even he knows that to talk about Dieng in the present and future, you have to talk about Dieng in the past.
It’s a journey that has covered some 4,500 miles -– beginning in Kébémer, Senegal, and ending in Louisville, Ky., with a stopover at Huntington Prep in Huntington, W.Va. It was that stop in 2009 at the high school known for its basketball program that changed everything.
Everything was different than what he was used to back home in West Africa. Kébémer has a hospital and a pharmacy. A train station, a couple mosques and a gas station. It has the N2 road running through town –- one of the national highways which connects the west and the east of the country.
Louisville’s center was thin. Really thin in Senegal and at the basketball camp in South Africa where he caught the eye of American coaches. Six-foot-11, 185 pounds. He didn’t speak any English. His basketball skills were raw. Really raw.
“I didn’t know a word when I first got here, not a word,” Dieng said. “I remember when [Louisville coach Rick Pitino] first came to recruit some player on my high school team. I didn’t know what he was saying. I just looked at him.”
But in only three months, Dieng knew his fifth language, and despite being all kinds of homesick, the guy who’s first name means “the old one” in his native langue Waloof, was on his way to play college basketball for Pitino.
“He goes from not being able to say hello and goodbye to me in late November to seeing him again in late February and being semi-fluent in English,” Pitino said. “That’s pretty incredible.”
Dieng showed right away that he could play defense in the always-physical Big East. As a freshman, Dieng’s 7-foot-4 wingspan helped him finish third in the league in blocks per game. Not bad for a guy who averaged just 15.6 minutes per game.
When you’re that tall, defense is going to be ahead of the offense. And that showed, as he averaged just 5.7 points per game. Things have changed. Dieng now nearly averages a double-double with 10.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per contest.
“My game has changed a lot, and that’s what happens when you play against good competition,” Dieng said. “When you’re willing to work and get good coaching, that’s what happens. The coaches showed me some things, and I just kept doing them. I work on those things by myself and sometimes with my friends. That’s what makes you great.”
Credit the soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach Pitino with figuring out how to incorporate the defensive force on the offensive end. A lethal 15-foot jumpshot helped a ton for a guy that likes to hang around the rim and used to get all of his points on tip-ins and dunks. A big man that develops any sort of shot can be unguardable. And it turned out, just like the fifth language he had learned and the basketball vocabulary that he picked up so quickly, it wasn’t that hard for him. It just took a little work.
“Coach made fun of my form and wanted me to work on it,” Dieng said. “We had individual workouts in the mornings, and we got up a lot of shots. [Coach Pitino] just corrected my form.”
Even now he’s still a bit wiry despite gaining 60 pounds since landing in Louisville. Point guard Peyton Siva saw what Dieng could do early, even if nobody else could.
“Gorgui has always been skilled,” Louisville point guard Peyton Siva said. “A lot of people don’t really know that. He’s just improved so much this year. He’s mastered the 15-footer. He can shoot 3s, but coach said just relax off of those. His passing has always been phenomenal. He’s just a great all-around player. Even the little things he does -- his passes, his screens -- have gotten better since he stepped on campus from day one.”
With the NBA likely calling Dieng’s name in June, he potentially has two more collegiate games to put a bow on this part of his journey and help the Cardinals to their first national title since 1986. Having already helped UofL to back-to-back Final Four appearances, he’s already done so much. But not as much as Pitino and the University of Louisville has done for him.
“I’ve learned a lot under coach [Pitino],” Dieng said. “He changed my whole personality and made me tougher. Everybody knows that I was very skinny and that I’ve gained a lot of weight. I’ve worked on my game offensively, and I’ve become a good shot blocker. To make it short, I was a boy and now I’m a man.”
Pitino took a chance on Dieng. And now, Dieng can give Pitino that long-awaited second national title.