In the history of sharks and minnows played in swimming pools throughout Maine, there has never been a shark quite like the one seeking minnows in the shallow end of the Harold A. Paulson Pool Friday afternoon, deep in the bowels of the Boys & Girls Club in Portland.

“Look at that wingspan!” said one of 10 youngsters attempting to elude the considerable reach of Tacko Fall, rookie center of the Boston Celtics who currently plays basketball for the Maine Red Claws.

“You’re like a big, scary monster!” exclaimed another.

At 7-foot-5, Fall is the tallest Red Claw, but, as the kids soon learned, not scary at all. He grew up on the western coast of Africa, in the Senegalese city of Dakar, without learning how to swim.

Although his mother comes from a family of fishermen, Tacko said she kept her son away from the water and was nearly always by his side.

“We would rarely go out or do anything,” said Fall, now 23. “When I got older, I started to get out (of the house) a little more but by then it was too late and I didn’t really have any interest in trying to learn (to swim).”


Only a few times, when an uncle would visit, did Fall go venture into the Atlantic Ocean while growing up.

“He took us to the beach a couple times,” Fall said. “I used to ride on his back.”

Through two years of high school and four years of college spent in Florida, the only stroke Fall practiced involved shooting a basketball. He came to the United States at 16, after learning rudimentary basketball skills as a teenager in Africa.

Earlier this fall, during a break from training camp with the Celtics, he mentioned to a team publicist that he didn’t know how to swim. That struck a chord with Heather Walker, the Celtics vice president for public relations.

Six years earlier, while trying to promote the team’s charitable Shamrock Foundation, Walker had arranged for Celtics forward Brandon Bass to take swim lessons with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston.

He had young children and wanted to be able to save them from drowning, among the leading causes of accidental of death between ages 1 and 14. His involvement helped publicize free lessons for youngsters who, like Bass, didn’t know how to swim. At the end of the season, kids from the Charlestown and Lawrence programs in Massachusetts joined him at a water park to celebrate.


Bass went on to play for the Lakers and Clippers and now, at 34, plays professionally in China.

“She had an idea,” Fall said of Walker. “Why not do it again?”

Which is how Fall wound up in the Charlestown pool for two lessons this fall, first by himself and then with Celtics teammates Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye.

On Friday, for his first lesson in Portland, Fall was joined by teammate Tremont Waters along with the 10 elementary school-aged children. Waters grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, with five older brothers and learned to swim at an early age.

“I’m happy for him and I hope he learns how to swim,” said Waters, a 5-foot-10 point guard who rooms with Fall. “It’s definitely a fun experience.”

At one point in the 50-minute lesson, Waters supported Fall’s legs while swimming instructor Lillian LaRochelle supported his back to help Tacko float.


“It’s a really big body to hold up,” LaRochelle said of the 311-pound Fall. “When (the kids) walked in and saw Tacko sitting there, a lot of them had that big O in their mouth, like ‘Omigosh, it’s him!’ Because when you see him for the first time, it’s breathtaking.”

Although they worked on taking breaths and propelled themselves while holding kickboards (Tacko required three in a stack), Friday’s session was mainly about having fun and becoming comfortable in the water. Which is not always easy with as many adults holding cameras, boom mikes and notepads on the pool deck as participants in the actual swim lesson. A crew of six from ESPN was on hand, along with three local television stations.

Neither Fall nor the kids appeared fazed, however.

“I feel like we had a lot of fun,” Fall said. “It was about the kids.”

He said he planned to continue the lessons, either in Portland or in Boston, as his schedule allows. Afterward, a third-grade boy named Ephraim, who had been in the pool with him, presented Fall with handmade cards and a similar guide entitled “How to Survive a Maine Winter.”

The latter included 22 tips contributed by children from the club, many of whom also called Africa their first home.

“So there’s a lot of relation between their story and his,” said Erin Giwer, program director at the club, who said between 30 and 50 kids worked on the guide. “I think that’s why they were very excited to meet him and spend a lot of time on their cards and the Maine Survival Guide. Because many of them had their first winter here in Maine.”

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