ATLANTA — Half a world from home, in a country where he knew no one and didn't speak the language, Gorgui Dieng would hole up in his bedroom and cry.
"It was very hard for me, I'll be honest with you," he said. "I wasn't scared, I was just frustrated. I can't talk to anybody, you don't understand what anyone is saying."
No one would have blamed Dieng if he'd given up, returned to his family and friends in Senegal. But he came to the United States with a dream and refused to let it go. Four years later, the skinny, once-silent teenager is fluent in his new language and culture. Louisville is in its second straight Final Four in large part because of its center, and a fat NBA paycheck is likely months away.
"I was a boy," Dieng said Friday. "And now I can say I'm a man."
Top-seeded Louisville (33-5) plays Wichita State (30-8) today in the first national semifinal.
Dieng's road has been hard.
His older brothers built a basketball court near their house, and kids all over the neighborhood were soon flocking there for pickup games. But Dieng, then 6 or 7, had little interest since soccer was his sport.
"I thought it was a dumb sport," he said.
Once he started playing, though, Dieng was hooked. He shot up in his early teens — he's now 6 feet 11 — and at 16, he was told he'd have a shot at a college scholarship in America. So in 2009, at 19, Dieng left his family and moved to West Virginia to attend Huntington Prep.
Dieng was raw at 190 pounds and still trying to grasp the terminology. But Louisville coach Rick Pitino saw potential.
"He struggled a little bit in the beginning, because he goes from being able to say hello and goodbye to me in late November to seeing him again late February and being semifluent in English. That's pretty incredible," Pitino said.
Dieng's first task was to get stronger. He now weighs 245.
The next challenge was to develop his game. His size makes Dieng a threat around the basket, and he had 56 blocks as a freshman. But Pitino wanted more.
"I said, 'Gorgui, we'll work on your midrange jump shot,' " Pitino said. "He takes it from not having a good midrange jump shot to being flat-out great."
Dieng set a Louisville record with 128 blocks last year. But he also averaged nearly a double double with 9.1 points and 9.1 rebounds. This year he's averaging 10.2 and 9.5.
"He's one of the best players in the country," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I think any team in the country would love to have him."
Pitino doesn't expect to have him next year. Dieng is a junior, but Pitino has already told his center he needs to test the NBA waters.
So Dieng is comfortable in his new country. And very glad he stuck it out.
"Things happen for a reason," Dieng said. "I was very blessed to come to this country."