At Navy, the center of attention

Basketball: Not since David Robinson has a big man dominated in Annapolis the way 6-foot-8 senior Sitapha Savane is dominating for the 22-5 Midshipmen.

March 02, 2000|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

In the long term, Sitapha Savane's objective is to become president of his native Senegal, an attainable aim for a young man who has gathered innumerable insights through the political activism of his family.

He has already accomplished his short-term goal: to become chairman of the boards at the U.S. Naval Academy.

And the chairman of shot rejections. And scoring. And, perhaps most importantly for his future, leadership.

In his final season, the 6-foot-8 center has emerged as the undaunted point man for the Midshipmen, now 22-5 after an 0-3 start and plunging into the Patriot League tournament this weekend as a co-favorite to reach the NCAA tournament field.

"I've really been impressed with the way he has addressed the team as the senior member," Navy coach Don DeVoe said. "Sitapha doesn't make any bones about the way they're playing, their hustle. I really respect him for keeping a real grip on this group."

It has been an arduous journey to reach this point for a player who "hated basketball for the longest time because my older brother played it and at a very, very good level."

Savane's first interest was soccer; he didn't engage in serious basketball until he was a high school sophomore. But the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team piqued his curiosity, and by the time he had moved to New York for his junior and senior years in high school, he was actively involved in the sport.

He moved to midtown Manhattan with his mother Marie-Angelique, a United Nations diplomat, scrapped soccer and began participating in impromptu games at a nearby YMCA every day after school.

"You have to learn really quick if you want to keep up with those New York City kids," said Savane, an economics major. "You don't want to be embarrassed. Everybody trash-talks, and my English wasn't good enough yet to be trash-talking. So, I just played."

By the time DeVoe discovered him at the Eastern Invitational Basketball Camp after Savane had graduated from United Nations International High, he had developed into an unpolished gem.

"I was on a perch overlooking six courts and he was at the farthest away," DeVoe said. "He was really aggressive. I had no idea who he was, but he got my attention. He was just doing what he does so well athletically."

But Savane wasn't yet sold on the academy although his work as a student was exemplary. He was interested in attending Colgate because he was "impressed with Adonal Foyle," according to DeVoe, and New York University "because a lot of my friends were going there," according to Savane.

Emmett Davis, then a Navy assistant coach, maintained the pursuit. DeVoe's quest then received a needed ally in Savane's father, Landing, the vice president of parliament and leader of the opposition party in his native country.

"We had a hard time enticing him, but his father wanted him to come here, so he came here. That's unusual for kids today," DeVoe said.

The plebe season was uninspiring. Savane never made it off the junior varsity, and DeVoe was "concerned whether he would stay" after Savane's roommate and fellow basketball player decided academy life wasn't for him.

"I was afraid there would be a negative influence on Sitapha," said the coach. "Sometimes, I wonder why he persevered."

Said Savane: "It was really rough at first. I just kept going and going even though I didn't expect to be on the JV's because I had been a superstar in high school."

By 1997-98, Savane had progressed into an integral varsity member, making the league's all-rookie team, leading the squad in blocks and helping Navy into the NCAA tournament, where the Midshipmen promptly got pasted by North Carolina, 88-52.

"We hung with them for a while and then they just routed us," Savane said. "They had Vince Carter and Antwan Jamison, but I didn't get dunked on by any of them."

Last season, Savane was an All-Patriot League selection after averaging 12.7 points and 8.5 rebounds and leading the league in rebounding and field-goal percentage. This season, he is a candidate for player of the year after progressing immeasurably on offense to complement his defense, rebounding and shot-blocking.

No center has made as large an impact at Navy since the greatest player in academy history, David Robinson, whom Savane will trail in many categories when he is finished. Savane simply hasn't played well enough for long enough to approach Robinson's lofty records.

"I used to hear the question, `Is he going to grow like David did?' " said Savane, who came to Annapolis at 6-7, 200 pounds and, through weight training, added 30 pounds but only gained one inch in height. "I guess maybe some are disappointed that I didn't get to be a 7-footer."

Said DeVoe: "His skills were pretty crude at first. He didn't have much of a free throw at all, and he was limited to shooting short jump shots. But he was a very good rebounder already and was starting to show signs of being a shot-blocker."

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