RUFISQUE, Senegal – With a two-hour head start, Moustapha Diagne figured he’d have no trouble getting to basketball practice on time.

The Senegalese capital is just 18 miles from Rufisque, but life here is full of detours. The bus to Dakar could be slowed by road work, a fender bender or random traffic. On occasion, he couldn’t wait any longer.

“Sometimes when I got close, I had to get out of the bus and run,” Diagne said.

Diagne, a 21-year-old power forward, plans to join Western Kentucky’s roster for what he hopes will be a monster 2017-18 season. He entered his name for the NBA Draft once already and wants to do it again, possibly next year. Diagne has not yet joined the WKU men’s basketball program.

Bowling Green wasn’t part of the original plan, but Diagne is accustomed to obstacles. His father and sister died while he attended high school in New Jersey. A four-star recruit, he committed to Syracuse in 2015, but the NCAA withheld eligibility because of an academic question stemming from his freshman year. Instead, he played a season at Northwest Florida State and then declared for the NBA Draft.

“I didn’t know the rules,” Diagne said.

Junior college players become ineligible once they declare, whereas NCAA players can declare, gauge their NBA value and return to school. NBA teams didn’t request workouts, so Diagne’s collegiate options were sit a year at Division I or play right away at Division II.

Diagne, who is 6-foot-9 and 237 pounds, visited WKU, met head coach Rick Stansbury and then enrolled. He lived in Northeast Hall, took a full course load, worked with a personal trainer and played pickup with WKU players at the Preston Center. He also attended some games. The Hilltoppers finished with a record of 15-17.

“I cannot wait,” he said. “It’s really hard. It’s like they take something away from you.”

“Tapha” and his four siblings grew up in Rufisque, near crumbling colonial-era buildings built by the French. Senegal, on the westernmost tip of Africa, is making strides reducing poverty, but Rufisque still struggles. This coastal city of 300,000 has poor plumbing and high rates of infectious diseases, especially during floods in the rainy season. Beaches are often polluted.

Diagne, pronounced (Jh-UHN-eh), shared a bedroom with his younger brother and said his home – nearly all structures here are concrete – withstood floods because it was well-built by his father, who was a construction foreman. Modou Mbaye Diagne died in 2014. Moustapha’s 17-year-old sister, Awa, died a few months later. He doesn’t like talking about it.

“Nothing is easy to make it out of there. I had to hustle everything. There’s no buses to go to school, there’s no parents taking you to school. It was tough. It makes you grow (up) fast and then realize that you have to work hard to get whatever you want.”

Soccer is king in Senegal, so Diagne didn’t begin playing basketball until he was 13. The “jardin public,” with its cement court and plywood backboards, became a second home. Diagne bought his first pair of basketball sneakers secondhand.

“Summertime we used to be there until 1 a.m., just playing basketball in the dark,” he said. “Sometimes the lights didn’t work. You figure out a way to play. You just go there and walk back home.”

Makhtar Gueye, a 6-foot-10 UAB signee and Rufisque native, said Diagne was “really famous” at the public court, both for dominating pickup games and dunking. Younger kids tried to imitate him.

Diagne turned his attention to the United States when he joined the Dieda Basketball Academy, or “DBA.” Academy founder and director Mouhamed “Momo” Sene recalled a young Diagne, then 6-foot-7, blowing past defenders during his first one-on-one drill.

“He beat 20 players, one by one. We kept changing the defenders,” said Sene, who remains close to Diagne.

Sene marveled at Diagne’s drive. The teenager took a 2 p.m. city bus after school to get to 4 p.m. practice at DBA. He also knew that Diagne couldn’t afford to eat some days, but when the whistle blew “you wouldn’t know it. He gives 100 percent of what he has.”

A French team offered to put Diagne into its development system – school then a professional contract. It would have been the easier path, especially because the Senegalese speak French.

But Diagne opted for the United States, with the help of Sene and Texas-based Hennssy Auriantal. A former college basketball player, Auriantal operates Yes II Success, a program that links international students to private high schools. Diagne spent three years at New Jersey’s Pope John XXIII and had offers from Syracuse, Kansas, Cincinnati, and others.

Without an athletic scholarship last year, Diagne said Auriantal arranged for paying his year at WKU. Out-of-state residents pay between $21,800 and $38,000, depending on U.S. residency status and tuition incentive qualification.

“He brought me here so he’s like family to me,” Diagne said.

Diagne said he’s under no obligation to repay Auriantal.

“He brought a lot of kids from everywhere in the world, to help kids get a better education,” Diagne said. “He’s not looking for anything back.”

Auriantal wrote in an email: “I just want him to have another chance at life. He has been through a lot. As a legal guardian and a parent my job is to be a role model to the young generation.”

A story in the Rivard Report examined Auriantal’s role as athletic coordinator of a Catholic high school in San Antonio. Nigerian center Charles Bassey, a projected lottery pick in several 2020 NBA mock drafts, attends the school, as do several other international players with ties to Yes II Success.

One advantage to sitting last year is Diagne, whose birthday is in October, will have three years of eligibility. NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham said they can’t comment on Diagne’s status because of student privacy rules.

Northwest Florida coach Steve DeMeo says Diagne is “a physically gifted young man who has got a really good feel for the game,” but that he needs more experience.

“He’s going to have to pay his dues and play three more years of college and see where the chips fall because there’s only a few guys that are sure bets,” DeMeo said of Diagne’s NBA potential.

Diagne averaged 10.2 points and 7.3 rebounds at Northwest Florida. He compiled 37 points and 13 rebounds in a 101-99 double-overtime victory over Gulf Coast State College on Jan. 9, 2016. He was the Panhandle Conference co-Freshman of the Year.

Syracuse, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Memphis and others were still interested, DeMeo said, adding that if Diagne stayed, “he would have been one of the more highly recruited guys in the nation.”

While Diagne can improve his perimeter shooting and ball screen defending, he’s also a hard worker, terrific rebounder and strong finisher at the rim, his former coach said.

“I would definitely bet on him to make serious money playing basketball one day somewhere,” DeMeo said.

Stansbury’s 2017 recruiting class is headlined by five-star Mitchell Robinson, a 7-footer who is a projected first round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Leading scorer Justin Johnson, a 6-foot-7 forward, is returning for his senior year.

Stansbury did not return an email seeking comment on Diagne, who is thinking big.

“I want to be one of the top prospects in next year’s draft, 2018,” Diagne said.

Although, he’s not ready to get off the bus and run just yet.

“It depends on how the season goes,” he said. “There’s no promises. I know I can get a lot better. Be me, play my game and help my team win. Then see what can happen. I’m ready to play, I can’t wait. But NBA is my dream, that’s for sure.”{&end}

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