Senegalese coaches visit and share

Basketball helps bridge a gap

insights offered on sports, school


They were introduced as the Michael Jordan of Senegalese basketball, the top female basketball player in Africa, and head of the Senegalese version of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

And on Monday, the coaches were in the media center at Centennial High School, talking to Howard County students about how to better combine sports and education in their country.

"The best players in Senegal," said an enthused Luke Beckmann, a Centennial senior who plays soccer, basketball and lacrosse. "I was amazed that they were here. It was pretty cool to have all these important, famous people from the country come here."

Five basketball coaches from Senegal are visiting the United States for three weeks as part of a program sponsored by the U.S. State Department, said Matthew Robinson, the University of Delaware professor in charge of the program.

"The U.S. Department of State is interested in reaching out to Muslim countries in a positive way," he said. "Sports is a great medium for sharing culture and ideas."

The coaches visited Duke University in North Carolina and are planning to attend a Washington Wizards game. They have also found time for sightseeing. They explored the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, and were planning to visit Philadelphia and New York City, Robinson said.

"It's a long three weeks, but you meet great people," said Robinson, a member of the sports management faculty at the university.

Robinson took the Senegalese coaches to Howard County because of his longtime friendship with Mike Williams, the county's coordinator of athletics.

Old acquaintances

The two were coaches at the same time at Western Maryland College in Westminster, now known as McDaniel College. Robinson coached soccer, and Williams coached lacrosse.

"I just know Mike is a guy who `gets it' in terms of what sports are about," Robinson said.

In particular, the Senegalese coaches were interested in learning about how sports and education are combined in the United States.

In Senegal, sports are not part of the school experience. Athletes play in private clubs, and their academic performance is completely unrelated to their prowess on the basketball court or soccer field.

"In most other countries, it's separate," Robinson told the students. "School has nothing to do with sports. In our country, even if you're poor, you get a chance to play in high school."

On Monday, the coaches -- along with George Muresan, a former Washington Wizards player from Romania -- spent the day at Centennial. Mursean was there as part of an NBA program called Basketball without Borders, which promotes good will through sports.

In the morning, the coaches met with Williams and Michael Duffy, Mount Hebron's athletic director, to discuss how schools in Maryland combine sports with academics.

Then about two dozen high school athletes arrived from county schools to listen and to share ideas. After lunch, the Senegalese coaches met with county coaches.

Cultural exchange

During the discussion with students, the coaches, Muresan and an interpreter sat on chairs in the front of the room and talked about their experiences before answering questions from students.

Robinson told the students he had recently run a similar program with Turkish basketball players. He described a long bus ride with Muslims, Catholics and Jews sitting together for hours, arguing only about which basketball players were best. "Sports is a universal language," he said. "It's a great way to build relationships across cultures."

The discussion ranged from specifics such as the ages of players in Senegal -- they start at 8 -- to more general observations about Americans, who, according to the Senegalese visitors, eat too quickly, weigh too much and seem to be always in a hurry. Robinson noted that the entire country of Senegal has only one indoor basketball court.

But mostly it was about sports, and the desire of the Senegalese coaches to combine athletics and academics in their country.

"It's basically part of the culture," Sir Parfait Adjivon, a university-level coach, said of the American sports philosophy. Like the others, he spoke through an interpreter, Aumou Koayata, who was traveling with them. "You have to go to school, and you have to practice sports. ... The system you have here, sports and school, that's basically what they want in Senegal."

Leopold Sanghor, the Sengalese version of a top NCAA official, agreed that the visit's goal is to bring U.S. ideas to Senegal.

Moustapha Gaye, a former player and now assistant coach with the Sengalese National Team, said that when he got involved in sports, he neglected his studies and was kicked out of school.

A coach urged him to get his education, and he now sees that he needed both in his life.

Fatou NDiaye, honored as the best female player in Africa, is now the first female coach of the national women's basketball team. "To be really successful in life, you have to have both" education and sports, she said.

Muresan said he particularly likes the fact that high school sports are free in the United States. In his native Romania, he said, athletes must pay to belong to private clubs.

Bankaly Kaba, considered the Michael Jordan of Sengalese basketball and now working with a nonprofit organization called SEED -- Sports for Education and Economic Development -- explained how the multicolored fabric of his traditional garb is symbolic, demonstrating how scraps of material that would be useless on their own can work together to make something beautiful and functional.

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