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?’ ”
It is quite rare that a player with fewer than two years of experience in the game and whose high school stats were solid but not fantastic, is recruited by a school of Michigan’s caliber, even in a rebuilding year. To this day, Lesure uses Ba’s story to illustrate to his players that recruiting is an idiosyncratic and unpredictable process.
It spiraled from there.
Despite Lesure’s doubt, a dearth of big men nationally, and specifically within Michigan’s program, drove Ramsey to continue to pursue Ba. Plus, as anyone who’s ever known him will attest, Ba is a personable, intelligent guy — a dream come true for a program that was being reconstructed around a clean-cut image. Finally, one November day, Lesure received a phone call that he never could have anticipated.
“I wasn’t thinking anyone was going to pull the trigger,” Lesure said. “Then Ramsey informs me that he thinks Michigan is going to offer Amadou a scholarship. And I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ ”
Lesure promptly sat Ba down at his dining room table and laid out the situation. He told the Ba that if he went to Michigan, he’d likely never be a 1,000-point scorer, and that he’d have a better basketball career if he went to a smaller school. He also said that, at Michigan, even though he probably wouldn’t play much, he’d get a top-notch education.
That was all Ba needed to hear. After all, education was what he’d left his family and friends in Mauritania for.
Across the Atlantic
Ba’s life was different than that of the average Mauritanian. His parents were married, and both worked fulltime — his mother as a middle school teacher and his father as a car trader, providing used cars to those who cannot afford new ones.
His parents constantly emphasized the importance of education to success — not the norm in a country in which just 31 percent of women and 52 percent of men are able to read, and 60 percent of children are enrolled in primary school.
Ba’s schooling was spattered with periods of several weeks during which school was closed due to fighting in the streets of Nouakchott, his hometown and the largest city in the country. Within the confines of his home, Ba felt safe, but, outside those walls, conflict ravaged the country.
“When they close school, it’s not safe to go out anymore,” Ba said. “There’s a lot of stuff happening — people getting killed, people getting kidnapped. It doesn’t matter if you’re (rioting) or not (rioting). They don’t care. They just want to create chaos.”
In Mauritania, without an education, you are likely to end up a soldier. Ba and his three brothers all avoided this fate — his brothers went to college in Paris — and his younger sister continues to live at home with his parents.
Despite the fact that Ba’s mother wanted him to get a great education, she was not crazy about the idea of sending him to the United States.
“She really didn’t want me to come here because she didn’t know a lot about the American culture except for what she’s seen on TV and from Hollywood,” Ba said. “So there was not a lot she’d seen besides violence, sex and drugs. I was young, and she didn’t want me to be around that stuff.”
Eventually, she got used to the idea, and Ba made his way West.
Adjusting to Ann Arbor
Playing for Michigan was not as simple as just signing on the dotted line. Although Ba was verbally advanced in English, his two years of experience could never have properly equipped him to pass the SAT.
“It’s almost criminal that the NCAA hasn’t adjusted because of language barriers,” said Lesure, who was blown away by the scope and quality of Ba’s work in the coach’s history class.
But true to form, Ba was persistent, and, eventually he passed the test.
Now that he’s here, adapting to United States’ culture is an everyday process for Ba.
When he first came to Ann Arbor, few players on the team could understand him, due to his thick accent.
“Because I lived with him, it was easier for me to understand him,” said captain Sherrod Harrell, who was Ba’s roommate freshman year. “Every time he said something to someone else, they would look at me to sort of translate what he was saying.”
Since then, Ba has become one of the Wolverines’ favorite jokesters, and, although he doesn’t play much, he has a critical function on the team.
“My role on this team is to bring energy,” Ba said. “And anytime I’m needed to step on the court to play some defense or whatever — whatever they need me to do, that’s what I’m doing.”
Bringing energy to this pack is a tall order, and, although he still manages quite well, it is sometimes difficult for Ba to remain upbeat when his teammates are so down.
“It’s tough right now,” Ba said. “It’s tough for me. It’s tough for the other guys. But they deserve (to be uplifted), so I’m just going to keep on doing it.
“This is the time when you’re going to find the people who are tough. Anybody can be happy when things are easy, when you’re successful, when things are going the way you want. But it’s when you’ve got to face adversity that you learn more about your character — more about yourself.”
As a political science major, Ba remains in touch with world news, although he does not trust the American media’s fairly paltry coverage of international events, particularly those in Africa. He has his sights set on law school, but, after that, he would like to travel back to Mauritania to be a role model for kids there. But most involved in Michigan’s program would agree that he’s already reached this status on the Wolverines’ sidelines.
“Everywhere Amadou goes, he’s going to make friends,” Amaker said. “And he’s going to have friends here when he leaves. This is just going to be another stop on his trail.”