UCF's Tacko Fall reaching the heights of opportunity

Anyone who has watched UCF basketball this season can tell you the exact height of Elhadjj Serigne Tacko Diop, the Knights starting center from Senegal: 7 foot 6 inches.

In the last month Tacko Fall, as he is known, became part of the national consciousness, not just because of his height.

In an eight day span in mid-November, the NCAA ruled Fall ineligible to play over the legitimacy of two high school classes. The NCAA then reversed their decision. Three days after being cleared, UCF and UC Irvine played in what was deemed the battle of the tallest centers ever. Irvine had their own 7-foot-6 center from Dakar: Mamadou N'Diaye. The media and the public turned the game into a circus, pushing the idea that two players this tall had never played against each other.

But there is more to Fall than his height — there is a spirit inside Fall’s 7 -6 inch frame that is humble, caring, smart, tender as well as athletic. Fall’s journey from Africa to Florida, alongside his close friend Ange Badji, turned him into much more than a basketball player.

Fall grew up in Dakar, Senegal. In the Grand Yoff section, Tacko lived with his mom, Marianne Sene, along with his grandmother, aunt and uncle. Like many youngsters, his introduction to basketball came at a youth camp when he was 7 years old.

One thing that wasn’t average about Fall at that time was his height. He was tall; taller than anyone else his age.

Where he grew up youth basketball leagues were nonexistent. NBA basketball games were shown on a taped delayed basis on Sundays.

“I had heard about Shaquille O’Neil,” said Fall. “My mom watched him play. I remember him though from the movie where he played the genie (in Kazaam).”

When Fall turned 11, he started to grow in a new way.

“I used to struggle with school when I was younger,” he said. “It was because of the people I started hanging out with.”

Fall wasn’t running with the wrong crowd; he was just around friends who weren’t in the upper echelon of Senegalese education. Because of that, Sene placed Fall in a school with higher academic standards.

“We studied a lot,” said Tacko. “In my country, you actually compete for good grades. There is first place, second place, third place.”

As Fall approached high school, he periodically played basketball on the outdoor courts in Dakar with friends. Ibrahima N’Diaye was there one day when Fall happened to be playing. N’Diaye  owned Flyingstar Academy, an athletic training camp that developed basketball and soccer players in hopes of bringing collegiate and professional opportunities to them.

“When they came up to me, I didn’t really take it seriously,” Fall said. “I had no objection to try something (new). The academy was just a 15 minute walk from my house.”

As he continued to grow in height and learn the basics of basketball from N’Diaye, a life-changing opportunity presented itself. On Oct. 19, 2012, Tacko left Dakar and arrived in the United States to pursue a basketball career.

“It was really tough,” Sene said of the decision to send her son away. “We have always been together and then one day I just had to let him go.”

Badji was on the same flight as Fall. They arrived in Houston to attend Jamie’s House Charter School. It closed several months after their arrival. Fall and Badji were joined at the hip trying to find a school that would take them in. They traveled to Ohio, Tennessee and Georgia. After months of exploration, Liberty Christian Prep, a school in Tavares, Fla., opened their doors to provide them an educational as well as a  host family to live with.

When Fall arrived in the U.S. he wasn’t considered a top college prospect. However, playing AAU basketball and dedicating himself to getting better made a huge difference. His coming out party was at the NBA Top 100 Players Camp at the University of Virginia.

“He really showed up there,” said Mandy Wettstein, a member of  Fall’s host family. “He played up to the competition and once that happened the (college) scholarship offers really started coming.”

Fall chose to attend UCF over Purdue, Wake Forest and Georgetown predominately because of the school’s engineering program. Placing books before basketball was a pleasant surprise to UCF head coach Donnie Jones.

“I was really impressed by the kind of person he was,” Jones said. “The most important thing to him is school. The first thing he talked about was the engineering program and life after basketball. Most kids want to first talk about basketball.”

Fall is a normal college kid. He likes watching movies, playing video games and eating pizza. Enduring all the complexities of adjusting to a different culture has been difficult for Tacko. His maturation has made it all possible.

“He is an old soul,” Wettstein said. “He has been through (a lot). That kid that I first met? That kid didn’t have the confidence that he has now. He understands his place. It is all about basketball now but people are draw to him because he is such a good person. When you get to know him, he is amazing.”

Above: UCF's Tacko Fall stands head and shoulders over most teammates and opponents. (Courtesy Simone Amaduzzi)

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