Tacko Fall averaged 12.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocked shots per game in his rookie season with the Maine Red Claws. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

There’s a famous point break off a beach not far from downtown Dakar known as Ngor Right, and it draws an ongoing pilgrimage of surfers.

The first two Westerners to ride those big waves – at least as told in the legendary 1966 film The Endless Summer – were a pair of Californians named Mike Hynson and Robert August, who made Dakar their first stop on a surfing journey around the world.

Dakar now produces its own set of world-class surfers, who ride alongside the international crowd off the beaches. There are now surf clubs, and an island called Goree that is the western-most point of Africa, and has historical significance for Senegal.

“It’s where they took the slaves before they brought them to America. Everything is still there. It’s very emotional to go there,” said Tacko Fall, who grew up in a poor neighborhood in Dakar and ventured out to the beaches with his friends during adolescence.

But his mother, Marianne, didn’t want him to swim, and so Fall didn’t, left to look at the swimmers and that large multinational group dipping their boards into the waves.

Fall didn’t take the concept of swimming seriously until he met the Celtics’ Heather Walker, the team’s vice president of public relations. Just as years ago she had convinced Brandon Bass to learn, she talked Fall and Grant Williams into the pool at the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club.

Fall is still learning — his long 7-foot-6 frame needs practice and a lot of coordination to propel through the water. But he was game when Walker suggested they try surfing this summer in Dakar, when she hoped to accompany him to Senegal with Basketball Without Borders.

“That’s how it started, and we started talking about Dakar, and she mentioned the movie,” said Fall. “The idea came from Heather, but I was like, this would be really cool. I like to experience different things, and that would be cool to try.”

Now that Basketball Without Borders’ summer African tour has been scuttled by COVID-19, Fall’s debut on a board will have to wait.

But as they do here, the crowds will still follow this Senegalese pied piper, and it will include the cream of the continent’s basketball hierarchy.

Fall’s nascent development as a professional basketball player – right now he’s a G-League project – doesn’t seem to matter. He attends events now for entities like the Basketball Africa League and Basketball Without Borders as a dignitary. His friends are Dikembe Mutombo, whom he likens to an uncle, and a former workout partner, Hakeem Olajuwon.

Last September, shortly before starting his first Celtics training camp, this incoming, undrafted rookie was invited to join the Basketball Without Borders tour. Fall has a friendly, easy kind of confidence that projects well to everyone, regardless of age.

“In these camps, we don’t typically invite first-year (pro) players because of the demand among veteran players who want to come,” said Amadou Gallo Fall, the former director of player personnel for the Dallas Mavericks who is now BAL president.

“We felt Tacko had a special something in terms of being able to connect with everybody and being able to inspire the next generation. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Macky Sall, the fourth president in Senegal’s 60-year history, greeted Fall at the Palace of the Republic. The Celtics rookie was as affable and relaxed with Sall as he was with the young campers in the clinics, and anyone else he met along the way.

“He was great with the kids, wanting to teach and be available to people at the hotel – the waiters and the people serving in the restaurants, everywhere,” said Amadou Fall. “It was consistently there. But then when we went to visit the head of state in the state house, Tacko was a star.

There was Commissioner Adam Silver, and Dikembe and Luol (Deng) and everyone else. But Tacko was a star. He wasn’t just a magnet. He was engaging and thoughtful in his conversations.

“If he wasn’t a celebrity with them before, he became one that day because he had a lot of one-on-one time with the president, and in an iconic picture I saw in the papers the next day, the president was very excited to engage with him. Tacko is a great ambassador for the country, and he’s given a good name to the country and the global stage. That’s something being appreciated and recognized.”

BIG IDEAS

The basketball part needs the most work, as Tacko Fall readily admits. His intellectual pursuits are vast. He’ll soon speak four languages (along with English and French) after studying Spanish and Japanese during the shutdown. Defending the pick-and-roll against NBA wing players is like Sanskrit by comparison.

But when Fall returned to Dakar last September for the first time in seven years, his sense of the place was electrified. He didn’t start playing until the age of 16, and the academy where he first picked up a basketball had a “bumpy” court and bent rims.

But this time he gazed upon Dakar Arena – a state of the art jewel in the 12-team BAL – and caught his breath.

The players he taught in the clinics had developed skills, and had clearly started at a much younger age than those he grew up with.

“The resources are so much better,” he said. “A lot of those kids started really, really early. When I started, I was 16, and the academy where I started, we just went and had fun. We tried to make the most of what we had. But the goal now is to see those kids play on really decent courts and have really good coaching. Other coaches now come and teach the coaches that are already there. It’s just gonna keep growing from where I started, and from where a lot of other people have started.”

And thanks to Africa’s strengthening relationship with the NBA, their heroes are suddenly closer.

“All those people seemed so unreachable to us,” Fall said of the NBA’s greatest stars. “They were pretty much like superheroes. It was like watching Spiderman, or watching Superman.

“You want to be like them, but you know there’s no way you could be like Spiderman, no way you could be like Superman. For some of us to make it to the same level where we’re playing in the same league as LeBron James and Steph Curry, and then kids see us on that platform, they know it’s possible.

“And then when we go back and reach out and they see us, it’s even better. Just to be that connection between back home and here, for me I have to know that now I represent more than myself. I represent my family, I represent my country, and all of these kids back home who are trying to make it.”

Fall can only fulfill that kind of expectation by succeeding himself.

“That’s why I have to keep a chip on my shoulder, and keep working hard to make it even further to show these kids that it’s possible, because we are very gifted,” he said. “Africans are very, very gifted. God gave us a lot. We just have to know how to use those abilities. And now we have people coming in to invest in us, which is huge.”

‘IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT ME ANYMORE’

Now that Fall’s isolating in Boston, he follows a team-directed workout program with thoughts not just on getting better for himself, but the kids in all of those African clinics.

“Yeah. It’s not just about me anymore, and the competitor in me isn’t just about basketball,” he said. “When I do something I want to do it to the best of my capabilities. I want to become the best basketball player I can possibly become.

“It’s a pride thing, but at the same time I know me doing that will open so much for the ones that are going to come after me. It will open doors for things to happen in my country, and on my continent. I wouldn’t say it’s pressure, because I don’t have anything to lose. I pretty much started from not much. I don’t have anything to lose. I just have to keep having faith, keep working hard, keep being the person that I am, be the person my mom raised me to be, and everything else will take care of itself.”

When the BAL unveiled its team jerseys during a luncheon in Chicago on All-Star weekend, Fall again found himself among the elite.

“The room was full of who’s who’s in terms of past and present players from Africa, and Adam (Silver), six or seven NBA owners,” said Amadou Fall. “Having Tacko on the panel with his insights and his ease with words, for me that was also a highlight, having him on the panel. He gave perspective for what launching this league in Africa means to him, to what it means on the continent and on the global basketball stage.”

Not long ago, Fall would have looked on becoming a leader with the same skeptical gaze as riding a wave at Ngor Right. But, with his basketball career only part of what matters, Fall understands that a significant responsibility is being offered to him.

“No. I would not have imagined it happening this fast,” he said of leadership. “I knew that was something I always wanted to do, especially for my country. But I didn’t see it happening so soon. For example, at the BWB Camp in Chicago they had the Africa luncheon, and they asked me to speak in front of all those people. All of these Hall of Famers were there. All of these players who had a lot more experience than I did. Just people who have accomplished a lot more than I have so far.

“Right now, the biggest thing I can do is use my voice. What they tell me is people look up to me and will listen to me. Just using my voice and bringing awareness to certain things, making sure I encourage those kids to work hard and tell them about my journey. Show them it’s not something that’s impossible.”


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