Papa Ndao might be the quietest player on the St. Joseph's basketball team, but he sure knows how to make those around him erupt.
The soft-spoken sophomore forward brought a sold-out Hagan Arena and his teammates to their feet as he out-jumped two opponents to tip in an errant shot on Dec. 28 against Iona. The basket gave the Hawks their largest lead of the night, capping a 13-2 second-half run, and punctuated a halt to a two-game losing streak.
Yet while the St. Joe's faithful roared and pumped their fists in celebration, Ndao (pronounced "now") calmly put his head down and ran to the other end of the court preparing to play defense unaware that Iona called a timeout to stop the bleeding. It was a team-first move that aptly defines Ndao as he embraces his role as St. Joseph's sixth man.
"I'm not worried about scoring," said Ndao, who has played in all 12 games this season, averaging 7.6 minutes off the bench. "We have people who can score the ball. I'm just worried about making the right play at all times whether on defense or on offense. I just want to be involved as much as possible. It's not my time yet. So I want to embrace my role. For now I'm not the go-to guy, so I'm going to push my teammates to their full potential and do what I can to help us win. It will be my time soon and I just have to keep doing what I'm doing to be ready."
When it is Ndao's time to crack the starting lineup, it will cap an improbable journey spanning nearly 4,000 miles from Dakar, Senegal, to Philadelphia.
Like most kids in the West African nation, Ndao grew up playing soccer, which is still one of his favorite sports. As Ndao sprouted into his 6-foot-8 frame, however, his height as well as the speed and agility he picked up on the soccer pitch, drew the attention of SEEDS Academy instructors. Soon thereafter, Ndao enrolled in one of Africa's most elite basketball boarding schools with the hope of playing NCAA basketball and earning an American college degree.
"I always wanted to play at the highest level, but I never imagined myself sitting here in Philadelphia actually getting the chance to do it," Ndao said.
The SEEDS Academy opened in 2003 through the efforts of Dallas Mavericks executive and former Senegalese basketball star Amadou Gallo Fall. Through partnerships with Nike, the NBA and FIBA, SEEDS, which stands for Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal, provides year-round academic and athletic development for its students before placing them at an American prep school. Currently, more than 20 SEEDS graduates are playing college basketball in America.
SEEDS provided Ndao with opportunities to travel the globe playing basketball and become accustomed to other cultures. Ndao also learned to speak English, French and Spanish as well as how to read and write Arabic.
He credits his experience at SEEDS with easing the transition to American life.
"To me it wasn't that hard because of all the traveling I did," said Ndao, who competed in Spain, Germany, South Africa and the United States. "What I've noticed is that the game is about the same everywhere. As long as you understand the system you'll be fine on the court. Off the court, it is not as complicated as you would think. Once you get adapted to the American life, it is easy. We are all young and we all want to have fun and fit in. You have to adapt a bit because American think differently, but really the hardest part is being away from my family and friends."
For the most part, Ndao has had no trouble fitting in with his American teammates. He looks like most college kids with a hooded sweatshirt on his back and a smart phone glued to his hand.
But Ndao's talents extend beyond the basketball court. The laid-back and very cerebral Ndao is teaching himself to master chess. The Interdisciplinary Health Studies major is an avid reader who admits to being addicted to television shows "The Mentalist" and "Criminal Minds."
"Papa literally knows everything about everything," teammate Isaiah Miles joked about Ndao's academic pursuits.
Although poked fun at in the locker room, the scholarly Ndao learned to take school seriously at SEEDS.
"We were taught that school is first and basketball is second," Ndao said. "School is real life. Basketball can take you a long way, but school will keep you there."
After excelling at SEEDS, Ndao, the middle of five children, opted to leave his home country to pursue a basketball career in the US. He eventually settled in Florida to play for the powerhouse Montverde Academy outside of Orlando.
Ndao was co-captain of the Montverde team that went 23-5 en route to a runner-up finish in the ESPN RISE National High School Invitational against Findlay Prep in 2009-10.
"That was really an unbelievable experience," Ndao said of his high school's run to the national championship game. "The whole season was great not just because we won, but because we all really had fun together achieving our goals."
The imposing 6-foot-8, 220-pound Ndao drew the attention of national recruiters as he averaged 10 points and four rebounds per game his senior year. He was originally headed to Boston College but a coaching change in Chestnut Hill led Ndao to switch his commitment to St. Joseph's -- a move he is glad he made.
"I love the city of Philadelphia a lot," Ndao said. "It has such a rich history and I want to enjoy it while I'm here."
In true diplomatic fashion Ndao would not divulge who serves his favorite cheesesteak, but he has attended several Sixers games and is a huge fan of Philly native Kobe Bryant.
Although Ndao does not follow the Eagles or Flyers, he is well aware of the Big 5 rivalry and wants to lead the Hawks back to Philadelphia prominence.
"I think the first day I was here they told me about the Big 5," Ndao said. "I know how huge it is and I'm definitely embracing it. Fans in Philadelphia are so passionate about sports. They are crazy about it, so that is definitely motivating."
After seeing action in 29 games last season, including four starts, Ndao hopes to continue to progress toward a permanent starting job. This season he is shooting .364 from the floor and averaging 1.4 rebounds per game.
Hawks coach Phil Martelli sees a lot of potential for Ndao to become a leader on a young team off to an 8-4 start.
"[Papa] is becoming more engaged and more verbal in the game," Martelli said. "He has to gauge his game by the game of basketball, not by the number of baskets he scores. It is repetitive, but perform in practice and you'll get a chance in the game."
Ndao knows he has a lot of work to do to crack the starting lineup. Although he is shy off the court, he is quite confident of his abilities on it.
"I have to keep doing what I'm doing," Ndao said. "People will read this and might not know me, but keep watching. I'm going to get there."
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