November 21, 2008

Bamba Fall grew up playing soccer, the national sport in his home, St. Louis, Senegal. When he turned 15, however, the 7-1 center on SMU’s men’s basketball team looked for a new sport. “I was too tall for soccer,” says the senior French major.

In a gym with no windows or air-conditioning, he discovered basketball and became part of an African talent pool that is being noticed by American universities.
Now one of three Senegalese players on SMU’s team, Fall was a celebrity when the Mustang basketball team traveled to Africa in June. Posters with his life-sized photo advertised the game in which the Mustangs took on Senegal’s national team. And, for the first time in three years, he was home to celebrate his birthday.


Mustang basketball players eat a dish of chicken and rice Sengalese-style &ndash from a communal bowl &ndash at Papa Dia’s home.

The Mustangs became the first Division I men’s basketball team to travel to Africa, spending 12 days last summer in Senegal and South Africa. In partnership with Adidas they conducted coaching and skills clinics for African youth and played exhibition games against the national teams of Senegal and South Africa. The trip was funded by private donations.

“NCAA rules allow every Division I basketball team to take a foreign trip once every four years,” says men’s basketball coach Matt Doherty. “Most teams go to Europe or Australia. By going to Africa we had an opportunity to solidify relationships with each other and our three Senegalese players, as well as market our program to a continent full of talented prospects.”

Players and coaches are quick to say, however, that their time in Africa was about much more than basketball. Highlights of the trip included team building, learning about Africa’s history and culture, and visiting the homes and families of Fall, sophomore forward Papa Dia and junior transfer forward Mouhammad Faye.

“This trip was about athletics, Africa and the changing world we live in,” says Vicki Hill, director of the Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center. At Doherty’s request, she researched the possibility of adding an academic component to the trip. With the approval of SMU’s Education Abroad Council, eight players took the Peoples of Africa course from Josie Caldwell-Ryan, anthropology lecturer, to prepare for the journey. Both Hill and Caldwell-Ryan also traveled to Africa.

“Taking the class really helped me understand how a country is molded by its historical events,” says sophomore guard Ryan Harp. “In South Africa I saw the infrastructure that the English had developed when they settled there. On the other hand, I saw the underdevelopment in Senegal that was brought on by the French when they colonized that country.”

In addition to classes, papers and tests, players toured Senegal’s Goree Island, once the center of the West African slave trade, and the South Africa homes of former South Africa president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As basketball players, the team usually travels from hotel to gym to hotel, Hill says. “This time they got to travel as learners.”

The Senegalese players also experienced the trip as hosts – introducing the other players and staff to their families and touring the school where Bamba Fall’s mother teaches. At Papa Dia’s home, the players devoured a chicken and rice dish Senegalese-style – from a large communal bowl. Fall was forced to own up to one of his tall tales – that he didn’t keep a pet lion at his house after all.

“The best part of the trip was visiting the families,” says sophomore guard Alex Malone. “It reminded me of my own family reunions. Learning what my teammates went through to play basketball in America astonished me.”

Like Fall, 6-9 Papa Dia took up basketball when he became too tall for soccer. He attended SEEDS Academy (Sports for Education and Economic Development Foundation) in Dakar, which offers students 10 months of intense academic and basketball instruction. From SEEDS he was offered a scholarship to attend high school in South Kent, Connecticut, before being recruited to SMU. The Mustangs’ trip to Senegal was the 20-year-old’s first visit home in nearly five years.

Meeting with current SEEDS students reminded Dia of the challenges and rewards of playing college basketball. “They re-opened my eyes and made me want to work harder. Maybe someday, after being successful, I’ll come back and help my community and my school. I want these kids to know that life is like links on a chain. Everyone needs someone else to lead them in the right direction.”

— Nancy Lowell George (’79)