He cannot believe how much has changed — his hometown and his life. He used to own one pair of sandals in the seaside capital. He stitched them together when they broke.
Fall landed this week in a polished new airport, drove through seemingly endless construction and now stands in Dakar’s $34 million, just-opened Museum of Black Civilizations. The NBA, which is launching the Basketball Africa League this year, is throwing a party here to unveil which countries will host the first games this fall.
The winners: Senegal, Nigeria, Angola, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Rwanda.
“Forty NBA players were either born in Africa or their parents were,” Adam Silver, the league’s commissioner, declares onstage. “We’re just beginning here.”
Fall claps. In a room full of basketball legends — including Chris Bosh and Dikembe Mutombo — he looks a foot taller than everyone. People taking selfies with him wrap their arms around the back of his legs.
He is still not used to this attention. Especially when he’s tired. Sometimes, he would rather be in his hotel bed, winding down with anime on his PS4 console. (He watches Japanese shows with his Crunchyroll subscription.)
But he appreciates the fans, the men who dress up as tacos at his games and yell, “It’s Tacko Tuesday!” — even though it isn’t Tuesday.
“This past year, that’s when the hype machine really started for him,” says Bosh, a two-time NBA champion. “He’s obviously a tall gentleman. But it’s bigger than that, than just the sport. He’s a voice for Senegal. For these boys who want to be just like him.”
Fall used to play soccer, Senegal’s favorite sport. Then a man who ran a Senegalese basketball academy spotted him seven years ago at a friend’s house.
The friend had a basketball hoop and a ball — rarities in Dakar. Fall, 7-2 at age 16, would mess around on the makeshift court. He had never actually played the game.
But he had the height. So, he got his mother’s permission to move to the United States, attend high school — first in Texas, then in Florida — and train until he got into college. A video of a teenage opponent looking at Fall and shaking his head with resignation went viral.
After Fall became the University of Central Florida’s star center, coaches across the country followed his rise.
“Once he got into college, I started watching him,” New York Knicks Coach David Fizdale said. “I know [UCF coach] Johnny Dawkins very well, and Johnny told me, ‘I might have an NBA player here if he can keep on getting better. And the kid, to his credit, has just gotten better and better and better.”
Sitting down in Dakar with The Washington Post, Fall said he hopes the NBA’s Africa expansion will boost other players like him — full of potential but lacking resources. The new training camps and courts springing up across the continent, he said, could make that ride less bumpy. (The interview has been edited for clarity.)
How does it feel to be home?
It feels like I’m dreaming. I used to dream about actually being home. Like in my house with my mom.
I haven’t been back in seven years. I had school. Summer school. Workouts. There wasn’t much time. If I’d gone back, I’d have to go through that paperwork process again. It takes forever. I’d have to miss a lot of things.
Now it’s like, “Man, I’m finally here.” I got to eat my mom’s cooking. Okra and rice.
How often do you get to see your family?
My mom came to the States only once. It was for my college senior night. I hadn’t seen her for six and a half years. It’s hard for them to come to the States because of paperwork. But now my brother lives here, and my mom just got permission to come back and forth for 10 years.
Things are about to be different. I’m really excited about that.
On the topic of paperwork, have you been following the immigration conversation in the United States?
I’m not much into politics. Everybody’s just so focused on politics. For me it’s easier for people to just get along. It would be great if everyone would just get along.
How do you feel about your fans dressing up as tacos?
I feel blessed to have that kind of impact on people’s lives. Considering where I came from. How much my life has changed. Being recognized that much means a lot to me.
Do you like tacos?
I do like tacos. They’re not my favorite food, but I do like tacos. Beef tacos.
What do you want your fans to know about your hometown?
Dakar is a beautiful city by the beach. The people here are so welcoming. It’s a different vibe. Everybody’s always smiling. Everybody greets everybody.
You’ve got some anime characters on your Twitter page. What’s that about?
My favorite Dragon Ball Z character? Goku. He’s like Superman. He can do anything. He loves to fight. He doesn’t back down from anything. He loves his family. It’s funny because watching anime has actually helped me a lot mentally to push myself.
Is that how you relax while training?
I’ve been living out of hotels for the past three or four months. I have a PS4, so I just put anime up on the screen. That’s my hobby. I don’t do much outside of basketball.
Are you dating anyone?
Not at the moment. [Laughs.] If it happens, it happens.
How does it feel to sign with the Celtics?
For me to come from where I came from and start basketball so late . . . it’s amazing. I hope people can see you can accomplish anything. Believe in yourself. Make it happen. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do anything — that’s the most important thing.
What was it like moving to the United States?
It was so random. The man noticed me. I asked my mom if I could do it. Then five months later, I was out.
At first, I was excited: “I’m going to the States!” When you grow up here, you see America on TV. You think it’s New York or Las Vegas. That isn’t the case. Then I realized I wasn’t going to see my family for a while. Things were tough at first. I just kept pushing. Fighting. Things started working out.
Have you found a place to live in Boston?
I’m staying at hotels right now. When I get back, I’m trying to find a spot. I need tall ceilings. Tall showers. If I get that, it would be perfect.
How are you dealing with your Internet fame?
That picked up the last couple of months a lot. We live in an era where everything you do is on the Internet. For me, it’s great. It helps people learn more about you. Especially young people. I want to be someone they can look up to.