The road to the Final Four is never easy, but Louisville sophomore center Gorgui Dieng can legitimately say he has come a long way to get this far.
A native of Kebemer, Senegal, Dieng's basketball career took off several years ago when he attended a Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa where he was discovered. Dieng (pronounced Gor-gee jeng) eventually landed at Huntington (W. Va.) Prep in 2009. But to say that his early days living in the United States were difficult would be an understatement.
Though he speaks five languages, he was thousands of miles away from his homeland, unable to speak English, and struggling to adjust.
"It was awful," Dieng, now 22, said last weekend. "The first week I stayed in my room. I couldn't speak to anybody because I couldn't say anything. I couldn't speak the language."
Louisville coach Rick Pitino and assistant Walter McCarty were visiting Huntington Prep to check out someone else when they discovered Dieng.
Pitino immediately saw potential in the 6-foot-11 player, who averaged 15.4 points, 12.6 rebounds and 7.2 blocks in his senior season. Though Dieng had an extremely thin frame, carrying all of 187 pounds, Pitino knew he had a diamond in the rough.
"I saw Kim Bohuny from the NBA office. I knew her from my NBA days. She goes over there a lot," Pitino said. "I said 'Kim, can you get me any more Africans? Tell me where they are. I'll go over there. I don't care. Congo, Senegal, wherever it is, I'll go.' I love Gorgui so much. Because we're not a humble society, athletes today. The Africans are so humble and so hungry. It's just so much fun coaching him because it's a throwback."
The throwback kid who has "bulked up" to 235 has stepped up big on the national stage during the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
He was named to the all-tournament teams in the Big East and NCAA West Region. He was outstanding in the Cardinals' win over No. 1 seed Michigan State in last week's region semifinal — tying a school and career record with seven blocked shots in a 57-44 win. His 124 blocks this season broke former Louisville star Pervis Ellison's record of 102 for a season. Dieng is averaging 9.2 points and 9.0 rebounds in 39 starts — with 11 double doubles.
But Dieng might be facing his toughest challenge yet — going head-to-head with Kentucky star and potential No. 1 NBA draft pick Anthony Davis — when the Cardinals and Wildcats meet today in a national semifinal. In a December loss at Kentucky, Dieng had just five points and five rebounds, while Davis had 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Florida has faced both Dieng and Davis and they are comparable in some ways, the Gators said.
"I think obviously Dieng in the back is tremendous," Gators coach Billy Donovan said. "Probably the only guy that we've played against that's been like that has been Anthony Davis, who is an incredible shot blocker. You have a great anchor in the back of (Louisville's) defense, which is great."
Dieng realizes he still has a long way to go, and today's battle with Davis is a key part of that growth. But he also recognizes how far he has come. No matter what happens today, he is relishing this opportunity to live "a dream come true" — with Pitino leading the way.
"A lot of kids back home want to have that chance I have today," Dieng said. "I came to this country into good hands. And this guy (Pitino), he always thinks like, 'How I can get this kid better?' And he worked me so hard. My freshman year I was complaining a lot. I said he worked me so hard, I'm tired, my legs hurt. I thank him for that. He changed my whole mentality."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]abay.com.