Louisville's Gorgui Dieng heads to the NBA having left a different kind of mark on the Cardinals' basketball program. (AP photo)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- One minute, Gorgui Dieng is talking about any ordinary subject, the next you realize he's saying something you want stitched onto a sampler to hang in your hallway.
How's this for a transition game? He can go from basketball to life in about six seconds.
He did it before the Cardinals played Duke in the NCAA Midwest Regional Final. He was talking about the tournament, then drifted almost into soliloquy, part profound, part prophetic.
"I dream a lot," he said. "I want to do extraordinary things. Someone was telling me that only ordinary people do extraordinary things. I want to be part of them. I am really looking forward to going back to the Final Four again. Win one more game, then another, and then win the national title. It will be one thing I will never forget. We are going to be a part of history forever."
Gorgui Dieng grew up in Kemeber, Senegal, the son of an elected official and teacher. He remembers his father coming home on days he would get paid and a line of people forming outside the family's home. Dieng speaks of his father with reverence. His father cared nothing for basketball when he left for the U.S. After making a trip to see Louisville face Kentucky at the KFC Yum! Center in December, he can't get enough news of the son's exploits. It has been one of Dieng's great joys this season, perhaps surpassing the national championship. He smiles when he talks about it. The day his mother and father got to see him play, Dieng saw them after the game in the area outside the locker room. The towering center approached his father, nodded his head respectfully and shook his hand.
"My dad, he taught me a lot. Because where I am from, my dad taught me how to share," Dieng said. "A lot of people are selfish in this world right now. I'm just gonna give you a little example. When he was younger, every month my dad had his salary, he'd just put the money on the table like this, and people are going to make a big line because we got, back home, a lot of people don't have enough money to take care of themselves. I'm always close to my dad. My brothers, they're not, but I am. I know a lot about my dad that my brothers don't. You know? He always talked like, 'I made this money. I'm not going to save it for you, I'm going to give it to people that need it. If you want to make your own money, just go work for it.' That's what he always told me. If you want to make your own money, go work for it. Don't want anything from me. I'm going to give you food. I'm going to feed you well, I'm going to get you clothes, I'm going to take you to school, but don't ever think that you're going to get my money one day. If you want to have your own money, go work for it."
"Then he would take that money," Dieng continued, "and he gave it to the poor. He would buy them food, clothes, take their kids to get school stuff. And I learned from that. I want to be like him one day. Why not? Make my own money, helping poor people. Make my own money, helping people that need it. I think he's a role model to me, you know? And he told me how important school is. He told me, in this day right now, if you don't have any degrees, if you don't have anything you can do, you're not going to be successful in this life. You need to be smart to be successful in this life."
When Dieng arrived in the U.S., he didn't even know the language. At Huntington Prep in Huntington, West Virginia, the culture shock was almost too much. The first week he hardly left his room. But his father had told him the only way to learn was to get out, to be around people, to meet people.
During his time at Louisville, Dieng has become one of the most popular people on campus. He picked up the language, the fourth he speaks with fluency, quickly.
Dieng says his friends in this country would be amazed at the pace of life where he grew up. He'd go to school till 5 or 6, come home, spend time with his family, go outside, read. There was no television, no video games. When it got dark, he slept. At first, the stimuli offered by American culture was a bit much. But Russ Smith, his roommate on the road, says he has picked it up.
"Gorgui's, obviously, he's African, but he's pretty much American now, with the stuff he watches and what he does," Smith said. "Gorgui was always, like, a one-dimensional guy. If the TV was on, he only wants to watch TV, he doesn't want to listen to music while being on the phone while watching TV. Now, the TV's on mute watching the game, then we have the iPad watching something on YouTube while he's on his phone while music is playing in the background. So Gorgui can pay attention to six things at once. I think it's pretty cool. Gorgui's, like, really American now."
And he's a real basketball player. When he arrived at U of L, he didn't even realize that an offensive foul counted against your foul total in a game. From there, he became a student of the game, quarterbacking the Cardinals' zone defense with constant instruction from the back line.
He developed his offensive game methodically, working on his hands, then developing short-range shots. As a junior, his mid-range jumper became a weapon.
"He's not just a good player, he's become a great player," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
When the Cardinals needed points against Duke in the Regional Final, they even went to Dieng in the post, and he responded with perhaps the best game of his career, establishing position and scoring down low against Blue Devils' big man Mason Plumlee. In the national championship game, of all places, he flashed a hook shot across the lane -- a weapon he hadn't shown all season.
Dieng was the first Cardinal since All-American Clifford Rozier to average a double-double during the regular season, 10 points and 10 rebounds. He struggled early in the postseason, but made up for it late. And in the national championship game, he came up as big as any player. He facilitated the offense. He grabbed rebounds. He scored.
He finished with 8 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, three blocked shots and a steal, and in the fastest-paced title game in years, played 37 minutes without ever showing fatigue.
Pitino urged Dieng to go through Senior Day festivities at Louisville, even though he's only a junior. Dieng consented. He's enough of a student of the game to realize that the NBA was going to come calling. He knew it even then, but didn't want to talk about it, was too focused on the goal of winning a national championship.
Perhaps more than any player on the team, he was devoted to his head coach. When Louisville trailed Syracuse by 13 at halftime of the Big East Tournament, Dieng said his greatest motivation was Pitino.
"I knew how much this game meant to him, how hard he worked to get us here," Dieng said. "How could I not work my hardest to try to win this for him?"
He went out in the second half and turned in one of his most memorable performances, finishing with 9 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists.
Their relationship remained one of mentor and student, but Pitino learned from Dieng. During one session of book writing during the season, Pitino was trying to explain the importance of reading the signs life gives to you, and finally said, "We have to get Gorgui on this."
Moments later, Dieng appeared, sat across the table, and explained his world-view to Pitino.
"How I was raised, we got told, when someone older than you talked to you, you don't have a reason to speak to him back, whether you think he's right or wrong, because he's older than you and has more experience," Dieng said. "I just learned from there. People are different here. They get criticized and just get upset. But I think if you listen, you have a lot of chance to understand the game, if you listen to the right people."
". . . A lot of people I meet now, to be honest, they don't listen. They go through the motions. All the time they are watching YouTube and don't take time to learn. . . . The way we learn, we learn from our elders. My thinking is if I want to be a basketball player, I have to learn from Coach P."
There was much more; enough, in fact, that Pitino will use it in his forthcoming book.
Clearly, there's much more to Dieng than basketball. After the season, Dieng decided to move on to the NBA. Even that, for Dieng, has an end beyond basketball.
"I think if I play in the NBA one day, I accomplish 70 percent of my goals," Dieng said. "Since I started playing basketball I always said I want to be a pro one day. Hanging out with my friends, when I was little, I always said, You know what, I want to be a pro. And if I make it one day, I think I accomplish 70 percent of my goals. I'm going to change people's lives where I'm from, because they're going to start looking at me, saying look at this kid, he was young, he was going to school and now he's a pro. People are going to realize how important school and education are. People are going to understand I get where I am right now through school. Because some people didn't make it because, where I'm from, some kids quit school just to play sport. So I have both. I'm going to get my degree one day, and I'm going to make it to the league one day."
With 70 percent of his goals within reach, however, Dieng now expects to spend a lifetime achieving the other 30 percent.
"The other 30 percent is like, to be a role model. I want to go back home and give back," Dieng said. "People helped me to get here to go to school and play basketball, I want to go back home and do the same thing for the kids. I think they really want it. I don't want to be selfish. People who helped me do what I'm doing right now, I want to go back and do the same thing for them."
Dieng's Louisville legacy is perhaps unlike any player before him. As a junior, he was the Big East defensive player of the year. It may go lost, but two of his best college games were in championships -- Big East and NCAA Tournament. His 267 career blocked shots are second only to Pervis Ellison on Louisville's all-time list. His 801 career rebounds make him just the 16th Cardinal to crack 800.
But it may be his words and his presence, his mannerisms and smile, that are remembered in Louisville just as much as his basketball accomplishments, which were considerable.
"Gorgui is making himself a great basketball player," Pitino said. "But his charisma and magnetism are amazing. People are naturally drawn to him, whether it's on campus or around the city. It's something more than basketball. He has become a beloved person here."
His has been a different kind of college career, punctuated by a philosophy so counter to the current hoops culture that it stood out as much as his game.
"Toughness is not fighting on the court or shoving people," Dieng said. "Toughness is helping your team win. Toughness is when my teammates are down, helping them up. If I see Chane (Behanan) didn't have a good game, I talk to him and try to bring him back into the game. I don't think toughness is fighting on the court, talking trash, nothing like that. I think you are tough when you can help your team win and stop your opponent. Taking charges is toughness, blocking shots, rebounding the ball, stuff like that. Talking trash has nothing to do with toughness. When I am playing against someone and he is on the floor, I can help him up. He is not going to change the score. It is a thing people need to understand. People have the wrong idea of being tough."
Dieng once said the difference between the U.S. and his native country was, "I think people have more morals back home than here. It's all about morals, I think. We got good people here? Yes. We got bad people at home? Yes. We got bad people everywhere. But I think people have more morals (in Senegal), because people live by communities. You are my neighbor, I know you, I know your daughters, your grandparents, we lived together for 50 years. So I'm going to know you inside out. People care more about it, they have more morals."
The more people got to know Dieng here, the more they liked him. He came to Louisville with little hype and not only helped change the program, but in his own small way, made it a better place.
This series of championship profiles is part of an e-Book compilation from WDRB.com and Eric Crawford titled, "The Run," a look back at the University of Louisville's NCAA title run through Eric's game stories from WDRB, and new material on the players and Coach Rick Pitino. The e-Book will be available FREE OF CHARGE from WDRB.com in May, via the web site in easy-to-adapt PDF form, or from the iTunes store, as a thank you to our readers. TOMORROW'S PROFILE: Luke Hancock.