CONWAY — El Hadji Ndieguene simply says it’s been a “rough patch” as he recounts the tribulations that have accompanied this basketball journey of his from Senegal to Texas and on to Florida, Nevada, Illinois and, ultimately now, Coastal Carolina’s starting lineup.
The Chanticleers’ junior center missed out on high school basketball due to persistent foot issues. He found relief through the benevolence of an NBA superstar and the help of medical professionals in the United States. And he found yet more setback when a car accident during junior college led to another year away from the game and another obstacle to overcome.
But now he’s here. Finally healthy. Appreciative of the opportunity. And very much key to whatever the Chants are able to accomplish this season as they rebuild around a retooled and inexperienced young lineup.
Ndieguene says he never lost faith these last several years in his basketball career – perhaps because it’s something he never could have envisioned from the start.
“I never thought I would play basketball anyway in my life,” he explained. “I have a very religious family. I’m the first one ever in the family from top to bottom to touch a basketball, and it’s like taboo for my family. Everybody was mad at me, expecting me to be in the mosque. I never expected to play basketball.”
Yet, through it all, he’s stuck with the sport and his belief that his patience, persistence and potential will all pay off eventually.
And as for the Chants, well, they’re banking on the hope that such dividends are in the near future.
The rough patch
The background of Ndieguene’s story starts in his native Senegal, where that potential of his was spotted early.
He says he was progressing quickly there while playing for a respected African basketball academy called SEEDS that is on the radar of American coaches and professional scouts. That’s where ESPN The Magazine noticed him and featured him in a 2003 issue called “On The Trail of Next.”
But Ndieguene’s own trail splintered off soon thereafter.
As he tells it, when he was 14 or 15, he woke up one morning with his left foot stuck out to the side due to a perplexing ligament issue that would affect the way he walked for the next two and a half years. He says he traveled to Italy to have it diagnosed, but it was going to take a while to treat, so he just came home.
“I was really improving very well,” he said. “... But then it kind of cut me short. It kind of was a burden to my progress.”
That’s when he found an unexpected source of hope, though. NBA star Amare Stoudemire, then with the Phoenix Suns, learned of Ndieguene’s plight and offered his support in the form of airfare to the United States, where he could be seen by elite doctors.
He had never met Stoudemire – still hasn’t, though he hopes to soon – and learned of the offer through ESPN reporter Chris Broussard, who had met Ndieguene in Africa while working on the ESPN The Magazine project.
“Amare, he read a story about my injuries, and he volunteered to pay for my plane tickets to come here,” Ndieguene said. “I never met him. he just read it because they had a story in ESPN magazine from my friend Chris Broussard. So when Amare read it, he said, ‘I’m going to help him get his foot [fixed].’ ”
Ndieguene was soon on a flight to Houston, Texas, where he says he met with doctors affiliated with the Houston Rockets. Instead of surgery, they suggested an intense rehabilitation approach that required his daily commitment for five months.
Once healthy enough to return to basketball, he moved on to Florida and started working out at the well regarded IMG Academy. There, he’d meet Mamadou N’Diaye – a fellow Senegal native near the tail end of his professional basketball career – and that connection would come into play down the road. But first Ndieguene was on the move again.
From the IMG Academy, he landed in Henderson, Nev., to play for Findlay Prep – a vaunted national power in the high school basketball ranks. That’s where he encountered his next roadblock in the form of a broken right foot. He made it into just one game there, he says. There were plans to later join another high school program in Virginia, but by that point he was already 18 and for various reasons and transfer rules it didn’t pan out. And true to the narrative, things didn’t get any easier from there.
Eventually, he’d land at Lake Land College in Mattoon, Ill., for the 2010-11 season. He played the full season, but a car accident during that time left him with frequent headaches and after the one season at Lake Land he took another year off from basketball and school while meeting with doctors and a chiropractor in Dallas.
“It’s been a very rough patch,” Ndieguene said. “But I’m grateful because it’s making me stronger.”
All of that is to say that while little has gone smoothly for Ndieguene, he nonetheless believes his basketball career is trending in the right direction again – and the Chants are hoping that is indeed the case.
N’Diaye was hired before last season to join Cliff Ellis’ coaching staff at Coastal, and when he set his recruiting sights on Ndieguene, the answer was an easy one.
“I couldn’t turn him down,” Ndieguene said. “I trusted him. I had known him for a while, and I was looking for that [connection] because I had been through a lot of coaches.”
With veteran starter Sam McLaurin surprisingly announcing last spring that he would transfer away from Coastal for his senior season, the Chants suddenly had a very big void to fill in their lineup. With no proven alternatives, Ndieguene – listed at 6-foot-10 but with less experience than most players his age – was thrust into the starting lineup from game one and asked to be the backbone to the team’s rebuilt frontcourt.
The results have been inconsistent thus far, but with a 13-point, 14-rebound performance last week against Presbyterian and an 11-rebound effort Wednesday at Gardner-Webb, the CCU coaches are hoping Ndieguene is progressing into the kind of low-post stalwart the Chants are going to need if they have any hopes of competing for a Big South championships this season.
“I think with all of them, [it’s about] just learning what Division I basketball is about and trying to take it a step at a time,” Ellis said of the team’s young players and Ndieguene in particular. “You just kind of have to put one foot in front of the other, and he’s still not there. None of them are. It’s a process and every day I think they get a little bit better. But he’s done a wonderful job of working and trying to get better.”
He’s found a mentor in N’Diaye to help with that process. Because of their shared background and familiarities, they formed a connection when their paths crossed at IMG Academy and have appreciated the opportunity to work with each other again now at Coastal.
“It helps a lot,” said N’Diaye, who played for Ellis at Auburn and spent time in the NBA before finishing his playing career overseas. “I know where he’s trying to go and where he’s coming from. It makes things easier. It makes things a lot easier for him, and it’s easier for me because where he’s trying to go, I’ve been there, and where he’s from, that’s where I’m from too.”
Ndieguene is averaging a modest 6.7 points and 7.2 rebounds so far for Coastal (7-8, 2-2 Big South), but Ellis is committed to letting him progress through the growing pains while playing an average of 29.3 minutes per game. At the same time, the coaches have made it clear the team needs to get more production out of its frontcourt players – including the rotating forward position that has been manned by three true freshmen thus far – if the Chants are going to have any chance at playing for a postseason berth.
But just like the observers who took notice of Ndieguene at the SEEDS Academy way back when, N’Diaye sees plenty of untapped potential in the raw center.
“He just needs to keep on getting better,” N’Diaye said. “When I came to the U.S., nobody was looking at me as an NBA player. Nobody was. .. The key is to get better, keep on getting better.”
The Presbyterian game is most tangible reason for optimism. Ndieguene grabbed eight offensive rebounds that night while hitting 5-of-9 shots and 3-of-4 free throws to help Coastal to a convincing 61-43 win.
“If he’s able to do that, we’re going to have a chance to be a great team,” N’Diaye said.
Of course, with just seven points combined over the last two games, the learning process remains ongoing and the timetable for consistent production like that undefined.
But Ndieguene too believes he can get there.
“I know I can be that [player], but it takes time,” he said. “You don’t be on ESPN [The Magazine] and [not be] talented. I know I am, but the thing is confidence. Usually when you’re from Africa, there’s a [reputation that you’re] more of a defending, rebounding, blocking [player]. ... You need a coach who lets you do [what is comfortable]. But it takes time.”
At Coastal, Ndieguene has found a coaching staff that believes in his abilities. And at least for the time being, he has his health finally.
The rest is up to him.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.