CHARLOTTE — Seven-footers with 270-pound frames aren’t used to waiting around for much when it comes to basketball. Playing time, rebounds, blocked shots and multi-year contracts all seem to come to them easily at times.
Yet, there Brendan Haywood sat in a suit, waiting for a chance. Not in a warm-up suit, but a navy pinstriped suit, sitting alongside his mother in the “Green Room,” hoping to hear NBA Commissioner David Stern stroll across the Madison Square Garden stage and announce his name.
As expected, three high school centers — Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry – were each called in the top four ahead of him in a draft that placed a premium on potential over actual production. Then a familiar name to Haywood was called out by Stern: “With the 8th pick in the 2001 NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select from Oak Hill Academy … DeSagana Diop.”
Haywood would eventually follow 12 picks later, putting on the same Cleveland Cavaliers hat that Diop had put on an hour earlier.
Just a couple months prior, though, it had been Haywood attempting to get Diop to follow him — not only around the University of North Carolina campus as Diop’s official visit host but also as the new protector of the light blue paint with Haywood set to graduate as the Tar Heel’s all-time leading shot blocker.
Besides the pending void at center, Diop had a connection to North Carolina. His mentor, Makhtar N’Diaye, a teammate of Haywood’s at North Carolina who became the first Senegalese player in NBA history (four career games), had helped direct Diop to Oak Hill Academy from his native Senegal. Haywood and Diop hit it off. The visit helped sway Diop from a Virginia-lean to the school farther south.
“[Haywood] showed me a good time. I was going to go there if I didn’t go straight to the NBA,” Diop said. “I really liked it there. It was close, but you can’t pass up being a lottery pick.”
But the two always seemed to just miss each other as teammates: Haywood was traded to Orlando (and later Washington) before his rookie season; Haywood arrived in Dallas just a year after Diop left for Charlotte. But, finally, Haywood was amnestied a year later and after three near-misses the two joined forces in Charlotte this offseason after Haywood was snatched up by the Bobcats.
“We’ve been around and had kind of similar paths even though we ended up in different places and had different outcomes,” Haywood said. “But yeah, we have been around each other a lot.”
‘You wouldn’t know it by looking at them’
Sagana Diop walked off the Bobcats practice floor, heading towards the locker room before a Bobcats media relations staff member stops him and points in my direction.
“You sure you aren’t lost?” Diop jokingly asked.
Nope. Sure, Diop’s played little this season, but I’m here to talk to the man who may be his country’s most popular sportsmen not kicking a soccer ball — and about his teammate who shares a similar appellation.
Two of the Charlotte Bobcats’ three centers, Diop and Bismack Biyombo, represent the African countries Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo, respectively. Twelve years separate them but they’re more similar than different. Diop, as an 18-year-old, became only the third player from Senegal to ever play in the NBA. Biyombo was the fourth NBA player to come out of the Congo, also at the fresh age of 18.
With the NBA age limit in effect since 2006, few players understand what it is like to be 18 in the NBA. Even fewer can understand what it’s like adjusting to a new language and country while simultaneously stepping onto the world’s biggest basketball stage.
Diop remembers the plight and understood both far too well.
“I didn’t speak any English. That can get you,” Diop said, remembering his struggles. “Over the years you learn to adapt to the culture, but the culture thing was more difficult than anything.”
Added Biyombo: “It just felt good to have someone who understood my situation. You got to be a good guy to help other guys, not everybody can do that, but I think he’s done that from the first second I was here and I just appreciate that from him.”
For Diop, he could not help but to see a bit of himself in the young Biyombo. He had that advantage of two years of high school basketball in the U.S. to transition. But he remembers what it was like to be a young shot-blocker focused on defense with an offensive repertoire lacking a foundation in a man’s game.
“He’s a pro. Bis works hard. He tries to do the right thing, take care of his body and always getting shots up,” Diop said. “He’s just a good kid and I love seeing good kids succeed and that’s why I’m just trying to help him out as much as I can.” The help started from Diop before the two even met. Biyombo remembers watching Diop in the 2006 NBA Finals for the Mavericks from his native Congo, admiring his defensive presence and NBA longevity from afar, studying his game in hopes he could one day get a similar opportunity. Five years later, Biyombo routinely sits in Diop’s dining room, scarfing down Diop’s wife’s signature dishes from Africa.
“It’s the same food – chicken, fish and rice – but it’s cooked in a different way,” Biyombo said. “We have a lot of fun with that.”
At the table, the majority of the chatter won’t come in a tongue anyone else on the team would understand. The duo speaks six languages apiece; both prefer French to English. That covert communication frequently results in jokes at their teammates’ expense. It is typical Diop and Bis. They may be two of the quieter guys on the team, but when the barbs start flying, neither holds back.
“Both of them are fun-loving guys, great senses of humor,” Haywood said. “But you wouldn’t know it by looking at them.”
Coach Mike Dunlap wraps up his media availability by issuing the same tired cliché that coaches so often use: You must mold your system to the talent you have. No coach, however, can refute that they’d prefer a multifaceted arsenal of weapons that quickly enables them to tweak their strategies or lineups for the game or situation.
Dunlap doesn’t enjoy that luxury at the center position.
Just as they have similarities off the floor, Dunlap’s centers mirror each other on it. The biggest weakness of each is also the Bobcats’: an inability to score in the paint. There’s the young project (Biyombo), who shows flashes but hasn’t been able to put it together with any consistency yet. The key word is “yet,” though, as it’s easy to forget the kid is just 20 years old. Bis’ on-court performance may not always warrant the playing time given, but it is an investment to the future of a franchise desperate for prospect development.
“He’s growing. You’ve seen it, so I don’t have to sell that,” Dunlap said. “I know Bis can frustrate people and the fans and all that but I choose to look at it as inch by inch, his growth. Even (Nuggets coach) George Karl mentioned it to me, ‘I think he’s going to be a double-double 10-and-10 guy by the time he’s 22.’ And that’s night in and night out and I think that’s a nice anchor place to start from for him.”
When Biyombo does head to the bench, though, Dunlap knows what he’ll get when he turns to his right to call in Haywood or Diop. Both are true to themselves and what you’ve seen the last 12 years of their career is exactly what you’re going to get. They have built a niche in this league and are still surviving, cashing checks along the way. Expect a bucket outside of five feet from any of these three and you might be waiting a while.
“My mark in the NBA for 12 years is defense,” Diop said. “Set pick-and-roll, play defense. Brendan is kind of the same thing and Bis, too. Bis has been getting better. I could see Bis being a better offensive player than the two of us.”
It’s that tantalizing hope for Bobcats personnel and fans: Could this kid become like his native countryman Serge Ibaka, a standout for the Oklahoma City Thunder, one day? He’s got the work ethic. But will it ever translate into the game?
“Right now, I think that he should strive to be where Ben Wallace was, where he just controlled the game strictly with rebounding, defensive intensity and let the offense come where it may,” Haywood said. “Serge Ibaka has become a 15-, 16-point per game scorer. I’m not sure Bis is there yet, but I think Ben Wallace was very effective in this league. He was an All-Star and was a key cog on that Pistons championship team, so I think that Ben Wallace role is one he should embrace and relish.”
Often, you won’t hear such honest assessments and pointed critiques from the vets. The young guys are there to steal their minutes and, in turn, their money. Haywood put it best: “Not all guys in this league are great teammates.” But these elder statesmen have been, knowing that their time is coming to an end and hoping to see Biyombo’s offensive game develop in ways theirs never did.
“He’s done a great job blocking shots but we’re trying to get him to (come) off screen and rolls to roll to the basket harder,” Haywood said. “Always tell him to get to his moves inside quicker, lefty and righty hooks.”
After practice, Biyombo’s the only Bobcat remaining on the floor, snapping off left hook after left hook. His coach points towards the basket on the far end of the gym: “That’s why he’s going to be a 10-15 year pro,” Dunlap says before wrapping up his post-practice media availability. His two vets Haywood and Diop turn to the exits behind him, their practice and post-workout media obligations complete, following each other out just as their careers have seemed to do so often.
Eventually, Biyombo will exit the court in the same direction his two veteran mentors did prior.