In soccer-crazed Senegal, where the summer days are mostly arid, the coastal plains of Saint-Louis wouldn’t host matches till the cool of the early evening. The heart of the old colonial city is nestled on a narrow island in the Senegal River, where sugar exporters pass over timeless raindrops on their way to the Atlantic Ocean.
A city rich in heritage over the years has exhibited an important exchange of ideals and impact on the advancement of education, culture, architecture, craftsmanship and services in a large part of West Africa. It is worlds apart from Charlottesville and John Paul Jones Arena, but it is here that Saint-Louis’ native son, Virginia sophomore 7-0 center Assane Sene, shines as the team’s premier shot blocker five years into his basketball career after growing up in a sport that forbid the use of hands.
“I grew up playing soccer,” commented Sene. “I was playing a lot of soccer and taking some judo and that is when I really started growing.”
Sene kept growing and an alarming rate. “I was 6-7 doing judo, but was still very quick with everything I was doing,” said Sene.
Not playing basketball until the age of 15, Sene still wasn’t totally convinced he should give up the sport he grew up loving for one that his size would be able to exploit.
“At first I was not really interested in the game,” said Sene. “I kept hearing the same advice every day, and people would laugh at my height out on the soccer pitch. Soccer is really big [in Senegal]. Everyone in my family plays soccer, my friends all play soccer, so I grew up with soccer ingrained in my lifestyle. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that age, but there were some people who thought I maybe could develop into a professional basketball player someday.”
Sene started the transition by attending basketball camps where the likes of NBA players Marcus Camby were helping spread the game of basketball through the region.
“I started playing basketball in school,” said Sene. “I was trying to learn the game, which was hard at first because every sport has its own language. The coaches kept telling me to rebound and block layups. I was struggling with the concept, so they eventually just told me to watch the ball and if it came near, then catch it.
“It was then that I really started to see basketball as a great game,” reflected Sene. “I would see guys like Marcus Camby and thinking to myself, ‘man I want to be like these guys.’ After hearing their stories, they gave such hope and made me feel like anything was possible in the world.”
It was at that point that Sene would make his great journey to the United States, enrolling at South Kent Preparatory School in South Kent, Conn. He played only one season at South Kent, where Sene averaged 10.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game.
“It was so cold in Connecticut,” said Sene. “My bones started hurting and I will never forget how hard it was to be in a cold place, have the language barrier and still trying to learn the game. I could not understand what people were saying and the game was too fast. I had had never been through anything that hard, I even told my parents that I did not think I could do it.
“Eventually I realized that if I really wanted to play basketball, I needed to make sure I could speak the language. I started taking classes like crazy and practicing my English all the time. My teacher would make me go into the cafeteria and just start a conversation with someone. My guardian in the states gave me great advice when she said ‘the language and the game would come, and I just had to work hard.’ All that support really helped me during those trying times.”
Things started to come easier for Sene, who started receiving letters from big-time Division I programs, including the likes of UCLA and Florida who were coming off Final Four appearances and national championships.
“I had no idea when I was in high school what Division I or the ACC meant, but every week my coach would call me in his office to look at 20 or 25 letters that were sent to me,” said Sene. “That was when I realized that college basketball was such a big deal in America. I chose Virginia because it was the best fit for my goals in America. I wanted a good education and play good basketball.”
While Sene is indoctrinated more and more each day in the sport of basketball, soccer is still close to his heart.
“I grew up playing soccer as a kid and I still love soccer today,” said Sene. “I watch soccer games early in the morning on TV and the most important thing to me is being involved with my teammates, and almost all of them love soccer now. Especially Sylven [Landesberg], we play FIFA 2010 for XBox 360 all the time. He takes Chelsea and I play with Bayern Munich.”
Making one desire to see both Sene and Landesberg go for real sometime on the soccer pitch.