ATLANTA -- Half a world away from home, in a country where he knew no one and didn’t speak the language, Gorgui Dieng would hole up in his bedroom and cry.
"It was very hard for me, I’ll be honest with you," he said. "I wasn’t scared, I was just frustrated. I can’t talk to anybody, you don’t understand what anyone is saying."
No one would have blamed Dieng if he’d given up, returned to his family and friends in Senegal. But he had come to the United States with a dream, and he refused to let it go. Four years later, the skinny, once-silent teenager is fluent in his new language and culture. Louisville is playing in its second straight Final Four in large part because of its center, and a fat NBA paycheck is likely only a few months away.
"I was a boy," Dieng said Friday. "And now I can say I’m a man."
Top-seeded Louisville (33-5) plays Wichita State (30-8) on Saturday night in the first national semifinal.
Dieng’s road here has been a difficult one.
His older brothers built a basketball court near their house, and kids all over the neighborhood were soon flocking there for pick-up games. But Dieng, then 6 or 7, had little interest.
Soccer was his sport, and he had no desire to waste his time with a game he saw as "soft."
"I thought it was a dumb sport," he said. "I said, ‘No, I don’t want to play that game."’
Once he started playing, though, Dieng was hooked.
That’s where he caught the eye of Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
Dieng was raw, for sure, just 190 pounds and still trying to grasp the terminology of the game. But Pitino saw the potential.
"He struggled a little bit in the beginning, because he goes from being able to say hello and goodbye to me in late November to seeing him again late February and being semi-fluent in English. That’s pretty incredible," Pitino said. "He’s highly intelligent and picks up things quickly and knows what you mean."
Dieng’s first task was to get stronger. He’s put on nearly 50 pounds, and now weighs 245.
The next challenge was to develop his game. His size alone makes Dieng a threat around the basket, and he had 56 blocks his freshman year. But Pitino wanted him to do more than gobble up rebounds and get easy points on put-backs.
"I said, ‘Gorgui, we’ll work on your mid-range jump shot,"’ Pitino said. "He takes it from not having a good mid-range jump shot to being flat-out great. Everything he does -- he doesn’t believe in being good. If he’s going to master something, he wants to be great at it."
Dieng set a Louisville record with 128 blocks last year. But he also averaged nearly a double-double with 9.1 points and 9.1 rebounds. This year he’s averaging 10.2 points and 9.5 rebounds. Despite missing seven games early in the season with a broken wrist, Dieng has 78 blocks, 10 in the NCAA tournament alone.
As impressive as those stats are, they don’t give the full picture of Dieng’s importance to the Cardinals.
Dieng missed the championship game at the Battle 4 Atlantis with what turned out to be the broken wrist, and Louisville lost to Duke 76-71. When the teams met again last weekend in the Midwest Regional final, Dieng was back in the line-up.
Louisville bulldozed the Blue Devils, 85-63, despite losing Kevin Ware to that awful broken leg.
"He’s one of the best players in the country," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It helps their defense to have a great rim protector, because they hit you with different types of defenses, and you can be even more aggressive knowing that your basket is protected. I think any team in the country would love to have him.
"But then, offensively, he’s improved," Krzyzewski added. "He can hit free throws, can make buckets inside and can hit from 15 feet.
"His game has really expanded. He’s a terrific player."
So much so that Pitino doesn’t expect to have him on his team next year.
Dieng is only a junior. But Pitino has already told his center he needs to test the NBA waters when the season is over, and he had Dieng participate in senior night in case he doesn’t return to Louisville.
"I think Gorgui Dieng is going to make a roster," said Pitino, who said Dieng and Russ Smith have improved more than almost any other players he’s coached.
Whenever Dieng does leave, Pitino and his teammates will miss the person as much as the player.
He has come a long way from that boy who used to weep in his bedroom. Oh, he still misses his family, his friends and, of course, the food in Senegal.
But he’s comfortable in his new country now. And very glad he stuck it out.
"Things happen for a reason," Dieng said. "I was very blessed to come to this country."