Gorgui Dieng happily doled out most of his clothing among his friends before he moved from Senegal. Take a shirt, have some pants. There will be plenty for me to wear when I get to the United States, he thought.
Dieng left his home country as a teenager to embark on a trip that would bring him to Huntington Prep School in West Virginia to pursue his basketball career. A long journey across the ocean and an unexpected realization once he arrived impacted how he views his role as an NBA player today.
Growing up, Dieng attended the SEEDS (Sports for Education and Economic Development) Academy. Ranked as one of the best players in Africa, he shined during a Basketball Without Borders clinic. Dieng turned heads and decided to chase his basketball dreams at Huntington in 2009.
“I was just excited and scared at the same time,” Dieng, a center on the Minnesota Timberwolves, told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t know what I was going into. It was just crazy. I was thinking all kinds of stuff — ‘What’s going to happen to me? What am I going to do if this doesn’t work out?’ I was asking myself all kinds of questions. It was just a long, long trip for me.”
Dieng boarded the international flight with a rush of mixed emotions. He set out with “a little bit” of clothes and an itinerary. What he did not have was a phone to call for help or the ability to speak English.
“It was eight hours to New York City, and I had to go another three hours with a four-hour layover,” he said. “I was by myself. It was just tough.”
The towering teenager was lost in the airport when he arrived in New York. He had to find his connecting flight to Charlotte and didn’t know where to go. Dieng sought out airport personnel to help him find his gate. Unable to fully communicate, he simply handed an employee his schedule. She brought him to the airline counter and the crew there got him on the plane. Once on board, a new wave of fears took over as he approached his destination.
“My main (concern) when I went to Huntington was, I wasn’t going to see the person that was going to pick me up. I was so scared,” he said. “When I got to Huntington, it was snowing like crazy. I saw my high school coach and he came up to me. I thought, now I’m safe.”
Dieng’s new life in the United States was beginning. He assumed he would walk into his host family’s home and find a fully-stocked bedroom closet. He was wrong. It was one of many realities Dieng hadn’t anticipated.
“I thought when I came here everything would be set,” he said. “I gave everything to my friends. I came here, life got tough. I thank God I had a host family that took care of me. It could have been very bad. Seriously.”
Dieng exchanged his money, which converted to $400 or $500, to purchase some essentials. His host family took him shopping to buy clothes and a phone — a flip phone. Even that presented challenges.
“The phone was in English,” he said. “It took me a good one month to get it right.”
With clothing and a phone out of the way, Dieng’s next obstacle was getting acclimated to American food. He ate McDonald’s for the first week, then he transitioned to chicken wings. Aside from the taste, he was taken aback by the dining lifestyle.
“People have family meals back home,” he said. “They make time for it, have lunch, breakfast, dinner. The (family values) are different.”
Dieng found himself yearning early on for his own family. He knew he couldn’t leave though. He came to the United States committed to playing basketball with the understanding he could be away from home for four or five years. Plus, the steep cost of an international flight ruled out the possibility of flying home when he missed his relatives.
Plus, his host family became like his own. He began to learn English through speaking with them, especially the two younger brothers.
Dieng became adjusted and excelled at Huntington, catching the attention of several colleges including the University of Louisville. Following his time there, he was selected by the Utah Jazz with the 21st pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. The Minnesota Timberwolves traded for him that night.
Now in his second season, Dieng is in a position to give back. He vividly remembers his feelings of anxiousness when he did not have enough clothing and doesn’t want others to experience the same.
Dieng donates everything from sweaters to jackets to extra gear from Nike that he either doesn’t wear anymore or doesn’t need. He also sends his size 17 sneakers to be used for the Basketball Without Borders program.
“I don’t throw clothes and shoes away,” Dieng said. “I always give them to people because I struggled when I first got here and it was difficult… I’m thinking there are a lot of people that don’t have it.”
When Dieng left home to pursue a career in basketball, he generously offered his belongings to his friends. Now that he has achieved that goal, he is making an even bigger mark by giving to those he has never met.
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