Updated March 4, 2012
By Maiah Hollander
It’s a special kind of athlete that can block just about any shot you take on the basketball court and tell you in four different languages how he did it – well, seven if you include dialects.
Take your pick: Wolof, English, French, or Spanish. Washington’s seven-foot center Aziz N’Diaye knows more ways to say “Bow Down” than Rosetta Stone.
Hailing from Dakar, Senegal, N'Diaye has traveled well over 6,000 miles to land himself at the University of Washington, and every step of the way had its challenges.
The first was overcoming the dominant sport in Senegal: soccer.
“Where I’m from, soccer is the number one sport,” N'Diaye said. “You grow up playing it.”
It wasn’t until the Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal Program (SEEDS), noticed his extreme height and offered to teach him basketball in addition to his regular schooling.
“I tried it and first of all I didn’t like it,” N'Diaye said. “But I kept practicing and I learned to love the game and I kept getting better.”
And he became good enough to be recognized by Lake Forest Academy from Illinois. After watching the young talent, it was clear he needed the time to play in America.
“Here (in America) basketball has more exposure,” N'Diaye said. “That’s just the way it is. You want to come to the U.S., you’ve got to come in high school to get to college.“
But that transition would prove to be one of the hardest steps N'Diaye would take on his road to UW.
Having only limited English from high school classes, he would have to be a quick learner, not just on the court but in the classroom.
“I was excited because I knew that I was going to travel to a different world, but scared at the same time because you don’t know what it's going to be like moving to a different society,” N'Diaye said.
The first few months were hard trying to learn material in a language he had yet to fully understand and very little connection with home.
“It wasn’t an easy thing. I mean, you come from another country, another culture,” Aziz said. “You’re young and you don’t know. You’re leaving your family, you’re away from your friends and everything.”
Those in the SEEDS Program who had come before N'Diaye had the comfort of going through the program with other African players whom they could keep in touch with and support.
N'Diaye had none.
So without the comforts of home, he powered on through his studies, emailing his family every weekend and practicing one of the hardest languages to learn on his own.
“It's cliché sometimes, but there won’t be anyone who is ever going to outwork Aziz,” said assistant coach Raphael Chillious, who has watched N'Diaye since he came to the States. “They may work just as hard, but they won’t outwork him.”
And yet for all his hard work, N'Diaye still had to deal with another setback on his road to a Division-I school.
As a transfer from Senegal, there were courses that didn’t transfer credit to American schools. So in order to make the academic requirements of schools like UW, N'Diaye had to attend a junior college.
College of Southern Idaho to be exact.
“He just needed a few courses and got his AA in two years,” said Chillious. “He took the TOEFL and got in here (at UW) and he’s just been a great student, especially when considering even when he left Lake Forest, his English wasn’t great.”
A fact few know, and wouldn’t even think about when watching the towering N'Diaye out on the court.
“It’s been a hard-working process. It wasn’t easy to get to where I am, here at the UW,” Aziz said. “UW is a good school; you don’t just get in here like that. I try to balance that, working hard on the basketball court and making sure that my grades are okay.”
But what even fewer people know is the giving nature of this friendly giant.
N'Diaye hopes to one day open his own basketball camp for kids where they can learn about the game he loves and make good life choices.
“He loves kids,” said Chillious. “Anyone’s kids around here, he loves them. It would be the perfect thing for him.”
But for now N'Diaye is content with working hard for the Dawgs. His talent on the court only seems matched by his dedication to his education.
“He didn’t speak English. This is not the country where he grew up, and he’s going to be successful,” said Chillious. “He’s going to have an amazing story one day.”