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Out of Africa

Daily Sports Writer
Published February 21, 2005

Redshirt sophomore Amadou Ba looks the part of a Division I basketball big man. His 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame and wide, impish smile guarantee that his presence on the practice floor is felt.

As the other Wolverines shoot around before a recent practice while Ba chats jovially with basketball staffers and teammates, dwarfing almost all of them. Finally, he jogs out to the key, grabs a quick rebound and stops. Ba tosses the ball up in the air, braces himself, takes an assertive hop and knocks it with his forehead. It bounces against the glass. He heads another, and another, until finally, he’s made it all the way out to 3-point land, still missing each shot, but by very little each time.

It seems a peculiar pre-warmup, until you remember a critical fact about this post player: Ba never really wanted to play basketball.

Growing up in the West African nation of Mauritania, soccer was king, and, as a youngster, Ba yearned to be good at it and tried his hand at midfield. He spent the more peaceful days of his childhood at the beach, honing his skills while roasting under merciless heat.

In those days, Ba, unlike his Michigan cohorts, never really dreamed of starring in the NBA — he just dreamed of getting out of Mauritania — of escaping the violence and getting an education that would enable him to one day come back and promote the very educational values he and his parents went out of their ways to instill in him.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.


A Twist of Fate

Most people have noticed Ba on the sidelines at games in Crisler Arena. Although he has played for approximately three minutes this season, his exuberance has earned him a place in fans’ hearts — late-game chants for “Amadou” and signs that say “Anything you can do, Amadou better” are occasionally part of Maize Rage antics.

The Michigan sound bite on Ba goes something like, “Amadou’s a funny guy. He’s a totally selfless player — and a great friend, too.”

There are, however, few mentions of basketball in their comments.

“He’s been a great practice player thus far,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “He’s worked hard. He’s improved. He’s had a few injuries that set him back.”

So how did a guy who’s a “great practice player” in his second season of eligibility end up with a coveted Michigan athletic scholarship?

It began in Alabama.

Amadou came to the United States as an exchange student at Grissolm High School in Huntsville., Ala. When he arrived and told people in broken English that he wanted to play soccer, they suggested otherwise.

“Everyone was telling me, ‘You’re not going to make it in soccer. It’d be easier to play basketball because you are pretty tall,’ ” Ba said. “I wasn’t really about basketball — it was all about soccer.”

So Ba tried his hand at hoops, while doing his best to adapt to American culture.

It must be noted here that Ba is extremely well spoken. While this is high praise for anyone, it is particularly significant for Ba. English is his fifth language.

When he came to the United States, he had a considerable mastery of French (the official language of Mauritania), Pullar and Wollof (both African dialects) and Arabic. He did not, however, know English. After English classes in his early years of high school, he knew a few phrases, but nothing that could prepare him for total immersion in Alabaman English.

“It was a little bit of culture shock,” Ba said. “Things were very different, and it did take long for me to adjust to everything. It was very hard for me, especially the language — to understand what people were saying. It took me awhile to adjust to everything, but especially the language.”

After spending his junior year playing in Huntsville, he decided he wanted to remain in the United States, and he moved up the eastern seaboard to Bridgton Academy in Maine.

Before his season there began, Michigan assistant coach Charles Ramsey made his way up to Bridgton — not to watch Ba, but to scout a teammate. But Ba played well that day, and Ramsey took interest.

After the practice, Ramsey approached Bridgton coach Whit Lesure and made a shocking proposition.

“After the game, (Ramsey) came up to me and said ‘Hey Whit, I really like Amadou — what’s the deal with him?’ ” Lesure said.

“I said, ‘You really like who?’ ”