ATHENS – The days of Pape Diatta’s childhood consisted of swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, fishing, and sometimes just walking by the beach. His hometown of Dhakar, the capital of Senegal, is on the coast, so he saw the ocean every day.
“Whenever we had time, you usually go down there to the water and just play around,” Diatta said.
Another staple of growing up there was soccer. Diatta was athletic and competitive, but he was also tall, and he wasn’t that good at it. Eventually, he decided to try another sport, basketball. And that started his life on a journey away from the beaches of Senegal to the dorms, arena – and grocery stores – of Athens, Ga.
Diatta will play his first game in front of Georgia fans Thursday night at Stegeman Coliseum, when Georgia plays Fort Valley State in an exhibition game. They will see a player who teammates and coaches say is a good shooter, a better passer, and can help this year’s team, expected to contend for an NCAA tournament bid.
They will also see a person who has worked hard and traveled long to get to this point, speaks English well but still trips on one word – to the amusement of his teammates – and spends way too much time shopping.
The player from the furthest away (Diatta) rooms with the guy from the closest: Turtle Jackson, who went to Athens Christian Academy. It’s convenient, because Jackson also has a car on campus and can take Diatta out to meals or the grocery store, which ends up being a long endeavor.
“Pap’s really picky when it comes to shopping and picking up things,” Jackson said. “He tells me I want to go Wal-Mart I have to clear out the rest of my schedule, because we’re usually in there all night. He wants your opinion on it, his opinion. I just think that’s his personality, that’s what makes him so funny.”
Diatta speaks English pretty well, but sometimes the pronunciation is off. Teammates point out that when Diatta says “team” it sounds more like “Tim.”
But when you ask Diatta about his game, the diction is clear and the terminology is pure basketball.
“I can pull up and hit the 18-footer, hit the 3-pointer, get to the rack too,” Diatta said. “I like to shoot, but at some point when people know you’re a shooter they’ll come out high on you, and that’s when you drive.”
Diatta was born and raised in Dhakar, a city of a bit over a million people, on the upper west coast of Africa. It produces a number of pro soccer (or football as it’s known there) players, but SEC basketball player has sprouted from there too: Mamamou N’Diaye, who played at Auburn from 1996-2000, and had an NBA career, including a brief stint with the Atlanta Hawks.
Like many in the country, Diatta grew up a soccer player.
“With my competitive nature, whenever they used to pick, I would be one of the last ones they’d pick,” Diatta said. “My childhood friends were pretty good, some of them are playing professionally in Italy. So I was one of the last ones to be picked. Since that was happening all the time I said I’ve got to find something else. I want to be one of the first ones to be picked.”
So when he was 10, he picked up basketball. His older brother also played, and took him under his wing.
He played both sports for awhile. But it soon became clear that basketball offered an opportunity – he made Senegal’s under-16 and under-18 National teams – and when he was 15 he moved to the U.S. The goal, he says now, was to get to where he is: To play major-conference college basketball.
He ended up in Gainesville, Fla., where he graduated from The Rock School, a non-denominational Christian School. He averaged 11.6 points a game as a senior. Then he signed with the College of Southern Idaho, a junior college where he spent the next two years, honing his game and averaging 13 points and 8.3 rebounds as a sophomore.
Georgia was among the schools that showed interest. Assistant coach Jonas Hayes took the step of making a recruiting trip to Dhakar, selling the most important Diatta – his mother – on Athens.
Diatta’s father passed away when he was 11.
“It was tough, but with the help of my family we got through it,” Diatta said.
His mother has remained in Senegal the entire time, but Pape goes back every summer, and mother and son stay in touch regularly through FaceTime and Skype. She plans to watch every game she can via her computer. Diatta gave her a password for the SEC Network.
Diatta, known for being soft-spoken, talked about what his mother will see.
“I’m a good shooter,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I can say that, right?”
He smiled. Yes, he’s getting the hang of it.