Growing up in the tropical heat of Kebemer, Senegal, Gorgui Dieng used to mock his seven siblings mercilessly for their interest in the sport that’s earned him millions of dollars, acclaim in his community and, closest to the Timberwolves center’s heart, a chance to affect change there.
The Dieng household, of which Gorgui’s father is the patriarch, is gigantic, housing between 30-40 cousins, aunts and uncles. It sits a stone’s throw from a soccer field, and beyond that rests an outdoor basketball court — a backyard paradise for a family in which physical activity and an appetite for competition run rampant.
Soccer is the sport of choice in this West African nation with a population of about 14 million, and Dieng followed tradition when it came time for extracurriculars. "You’re going to play the girls’ sport," he’d rag on his three brothers as they joined his sisters skipping past the pitch and heading for the concrete.
For years, Gorgui stayed behind. But one day, he went over to see what this whole handsy, high-scoring basketball business was all about.
"I try," Dieng told FOX Sports North in his thick African accent, "and I just get addicted."
The footwork developed in soccer rendered Dieng a natural scorer in the post. So did the fact he towered over most of his peers.
The court itself wasn’t in such good shape. Holes in the cement. Sand spread across the jagged lot. Slabs of wood for backboards. "It wasn’t safe to play basketball there," Dieng said.
So after falling in love with the game, being discovered at Basketball Without Borders, going from freshman scrub to national champion at Louisville and getting drafted 21st overall last summer, Dieng did something about it.
As part of a trip home in May, Dieng fully refurbished the basketball court and held a three-day basketball camp and life skills seminar there for 100 local boys and girls. The objective: give more Senegal natives, of whom only nine have made it to the NBA, the same opportunity he’s seized.
"They all start playing basketball, and I think that one day, they can be just like me," Dieng said.
So the kindly, 6-foot-11, 245-pound 24-year-old put on the camp free of charge — food, lodging and Nike basketball gear included. From May 16-18, he brought in coaches and other basketball fixtures from around the country to teach hoops techniques and emphasize the importance of education and an active lifestyle.
Not just anyone could sign up. Dieng specifically sought out "people that had the right mindset," that take school seriously and have the right kind of work ethic.
"Like, to just make them look at the big pictures and not like the small window," said Dieng, who spent most of the offseason in Minneapolis when he wasn’t back home or playing for Senegal in the FIBA World Cup. "Because I’m sure they all going to think that as soon as you arrive in the U.S., you rich. I’m sure a lot of guys think that way, which is not the case.
"We give you the answer for the exam. So you got to study and be ready."
Before Dieng could try and impart that wisdom, the former communications major had to create a suitable setting. So he oversaw a renovation that resurfaced the court and added NBA-regulation baskets and nets.
Dieng also donated mosquito nets and medical supplies to the local hospital. These efforts are just the beginning, he says. Future plans include widening the court and continuing to update the medical center.
His dream, he told FOXSportsNorth.com in a separate interview, is to build a new, modern hospital to serve the town of roughly 250,000.
My role was just to make them believe that if they playing basketball, they can help them in the long run. They can go to school for free, and they can be a pro one day.
"I believe in two things: I want to invest in basketball and hospitals," Dieng said. "They don’t have nothing in the hospital."
Not even simple hygiene products, Dieng said.
A former French territory that didn’t gain independence till 1960, Senegal isn’t war-torn and impoverished like some of its fellow African nations. But Dieng still sees needs there, particularly in his hometown.
Moreover, he believes there’s a hoops talent pool waiting to unearth more players like him. Of the nine Senegalese men to play an NBA game, only one — former Cavaliers, Mavericks, Nets and Bobcats big man DeSagana Diop — has had a lasting career.
"My role was just to make them believe that if they playing basketball, they can help them in the long run," Dieng said. "They can go to school for free, and they can be a pro one day."
Dieng is living proof. While attending the Sports for Education and Economic Development (SEEDS) Academy in Senegal, he was invited to a Basketball Without Borders clinic as one of the top 60 players in Africa. He moved to the United States in 2009 and spent a year at Huntington (W.Va.) St. Joseph Prep, earning a scholarship to Louisville.
Dwight Howard was at that Basketball Without Borders camp. Chris Bosh, too. "That’s the first time I see (NBA players) in real life and when I see them, I look at myself and say . . . ‘Why not me? Why I can’t be just like them?’" Dieng said.
"I will never forget that."
It took Dieng time to adjust to the American game. But by the time he was a junior, he was regarded as one of the nation’s best rim defenders and rebounders. So after watching him win a national title with Louisville, Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders dealt for Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad the night of the 2013 draft.
Dieng closed out his rookie season on a tear, starting 15 of Minnesota’s final 18 contests and averaging 12 points and 11.3 rebounds per game during that span. His strong conclusion earned him all-rookie second-team honors.
Through seven games this year, Dieng averages 7.6 points and 6.4 boards in 18 minutes per contest.
When the Wolves first faced Houston last year, Howard remembered the long, lanky kid from Kebemer who can speak five languages and sees himself getting into politics one day. The sight of Howard in South Africa had intimidated Dieng years before, but on that night, he was treated as an equal.