When UCF assistant coach Robbie Laing first met Tacko Fall, it was from the opposing end of the court as a Florida Atlantic University assistant coach at the time, but from that moment forward, he knew Fall wasn’t an ordinary basketball player.
“I was just in awe sitting on the bench watching him because in the first half … they’re playing the defensive end in front of your bench, and I was just, my mind was blown at how much he could impact the game just by his shear presence,” Laing said to WEEI.com via phone.
“And I know the kids were distracted on the team, because I was sitting there just kind of dumbfounded as I watched how big he actually was when he’d spread out in the lane, and just compared to everybody else.”
Though, it wouldn’t be the last time someone reacted this way about Fall.
During the 2019 NBA Summer League, the crowd erupted whenever he stood up from the bench to go check in, and booed whenever he got taken out.
Even Danny Ainge, Celtics President of Basketball Operations, was shocked.
“It just looks like it’s a senior in high school playing against fourth graders sometimes out there,” Ainge said.
Fall became a Summer League sensation after being picked up by the Celtics on an Exhibit 10 contract. He averaged 7.2 points, 4 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks, while shooting 77 percent from the field, in about 12.6 minutes per game.
But unlike most players who grew up playing the sport, Fall didn’t have that luxury.
He didn’t start playing basketball until six years ago.
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Growing up in Africa, Fall didn’t even like the sport.
According to him, basketball was one of the only things standing between him and cartoons.
“My grandma was the one that used to love basketball,” Fall told ESPN. “Like five o’clock, our channel had cartoons. But some days, they had basketball games. My grandma would want to watch those games. I would want to watch cartoons. So I used to hate it back then. I just didn’t understand it, and I just wanted to watch my cartoons.”
When he wasn’t watching cartoons, the Senegal native spent most of his time playing soccer. But, given Fall’s height, it was only a matter of time before someone encouraged him to pursue a basketball career – that person was Ibrahima N’Diaye, brother of former first-round NBA draft pick, Mamadou N’Diaye.
But to do so, he would need to move to the U.S.
And that would get very complicated, very fast.
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Fall was supposed to attend Christian Life Academy in Texas, but questions regarding the school’s stability led him to try finding another school. However, failing to attend the specific school on his I-20 visa terminated it.
He was illegally in the country, and unable to find a new high school, even after searching in six different states over just eight months.
But he had to make it work. Going back home wasn’t an option.
He finally settled at Liberty Christian Prep School in Tavares, Florida, with the help of his new host mother, Mandy Wettstein. The problem was Liberty Christian wasn’t a prep school for top basketball prospects.
One of the only ways he could draw attention was the fact he stood 7-foot-4 at the time – a conversation that had grown stale long before, and would continue to be the only thing most wanted to talk about for years to come. Except for Laing.
“Tacko and I always talked about things other than basketball, and I think he really enjoyed that because the obvious is, when anybody’s around him, it all goes to his size, and to basketball,” Laing said.
“We always talked about a lot of other things. It’s amazing how well-rounded he is, and how knowledgeable he is,” he added. “But I just always enjoyed this with him and I think it was a pressure release to some degree for him to talk about something that wasn’t relative to basketball.”
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When it came time to make his college decision, Fall selected UCF primarily because there was a lot of loyalty from the UCF coaches at the time who believed in his potential early in the recruiting process, and the location was close to his host family. And while he would be at school, Fall thought he’d secured a new family away from family with the UCF basketball team.
However, Liberty Christian’s reputation would ultimately hurt Fall to the point of nearly missing his first season at UCF.
Liberty Christian was accredited by the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools and the National Christian Private School Accreditation. However, it had not been certified by the NCAA, so not all of Fall’s courses were accepted.
He wasn’t cleared to play.
After becoming fluent in English in just eight months and scoring in the 95th percentile nationally on the SAT, the NCAA only accepted 7.5 of his core courses – and didn’t tell him until November of his freshman year at UCF.
Wettstein was prepared to sue. But thanks to her quick efforts, he was ultimately granted an academic waiver and allowed to compete just in time for the season opener.
By the end of the season, however, Fall would have to say goodbye to the loyalty that originally got him to UCF.
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Donnie Jones, then-UCF head coach, was fired following Fall’s first season in 2015-16, and Johnny Dawkins was brought in as the new head coach.
Fall did a lot of thinking after losing Jones. But given his love for the school and the close location to his host family, he wanted to stay at UCF. And fortunately for Fall, he and the new coaches built strong relationships that helped take his game to the next level.
“He has a tremendous work ethic… He was always willing to work, and always willing to listen. You know, which is a big part of it as well,” Laing said. “Like most experienced players, he became a more efficient guy in his preparation and his willingness to work. There wasn’t a lot of wasted movement, it was all pertinent and to the point, stuff to help him get better.”
And the results showed. As a freshman, Fall averaged 7.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks. But as a senior, he put up 11.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game.
But, the stats weren’t the only thing that improved during his time at UCF. The 7-foot-6 center also became a vocal leader.
“He wanted to lead just by example early on, just because he’s a very soft-spoken guy, and he really doesn’t like to get on other people and demand a lot from them,” sad Laing. “But as time went on, and especially entering his senior year, you realized what an asset he was, just to speak to the other guys during the course of the defensive possession and really, really helped our team.
“And he never came from a bad place with it. It was always a constructive place, but he did become more comfortable as a vocal leader later on. But he’s only able to do that because he was able to backup what he was able to do by playing hard himself.”
Despite his improvements, Fall went undrafted in the 2019 NBA Draft. But, that hasn’t stopped him from working to try to earn a spot with the Celtics.
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Even after all he’s gone through – leaving his country, traveling to America, learning a different language, finding a high school, learning a new sport, getting recruited, fighting NCAA ineligibility, and grinding through Summer League after not getting drafted – Fall is the first one to try to help someone who he very well could’ve been competing against for a shot with the Celtics.
Fall never hesitated to help Boston center Robert Williams during Summer League play, who competed in 32 games last season for the Celtics, but has yet to crack into the team’s regular rotation.
“Tack taught me about patience,” Williams told The Boston Herald. “He taught me about patience and about listening. He soaks up everything. …But I learned a lot from him. I love Tacko, man. Tacko prepared me for a lot.”
According to Laing, Fall has always been patient – even off the court. Even when UCF was flying commercial.
“You can imagine the attention walking through the airports around the country that they would see him,” Laing said. “We’d even try to guard him somewhat and protect him from the constant barrage of people and all the pictures and that kind of thing.”
“But he was very patient and very kind with that, and even when it wasn’t the best of days, maybe he wasn’t feeling well or we were coming off a loss or something like that, he was still very kind and generous to people,” he continued.
Though, the attention never went to his head.
It was never even about the attention. It was about being kind to others.
“That’s always impressed me that he’s never gotten full of himself or thought he was better than anyone else,” Laing added. “If he could make somebody else’s day better, he was happy to do that.”
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Given his selfless, hard-working mentality, there’s a chance Fall could get the crowd to cheer for him when he gets up from the bench again this fall – only this time, on Causeway Street, under 17 World Championship banners, at the TD Garden.
“We want to take his development very, very seriously. He’s a high priority for us to try to really develop into a player,” Ainge said.
But at this point, Fall’s future with the Celtics is anything but certain.
Though, one thing is for sure: he’s headed back to Orlando briefly to catch up with Laing, and enjoy his favorite American meal – creamed corn, turkey, and mashed potatoes.
Because even after all the attention he’s received, at his core, Fall is still the kind, loyal, patient, person he’s always been, who simply wants to see those who helped him get where he is today – and catch up over creamed corn.
Full article @ Boston Celtics: Examining the legend of Tacko Fall and where he came from
Source: GreenStreet Blog