Rama N'diaye Takes Her Basketball Skills around the Globe
By Melissa Dudek
There are many words to describe Rama N'diaye, a fifth-year senior on the California Golden Bears women's basketball team: athletic, talented, adventurous. But one you would never use, though, is homebody. P>Ever since she was a very little girl, Adji Ramatoulaye N'diaye has lived away from home. As a young child, she moved in with her grandmother in Dakar, Senegal, 45-minutes away from her parents' village.
"I was really attached to my grandmother," the 6-5 center recalled. "I would go all the time to go visit. Then one day she asked `How about you stay here and go to school here so we can see each other every day?' So, I ended up living with her." N'diaye (pronounced en-JIE) spent 10 years with her grandmother, but remained very close to her nuclear family despite the physical separation. Her father, Ousmane N'diaye, worked nearby and she would often see him. She also saw him, her mother, Marieme Samb, and her siblings - four sisters and two brothers - every weekend when she would go back home.
As a young girl, she "wasn't much of a sport person," but one of her uncles gave her a basketball as a present, encouraging her to try the sport. The then-12-year old resisted at first, not even looking at the ball. One day, she decided to go to the club down the street and give the game a try. The coaches and players at the club immediately accepted her and she started to play.
With her newfound enjoyment of the sport, she started bringing her basketball home with her on the weekends when she visited her family. She didn't find the same open invitation to the court at home that she did at the club.
"My older brother and other people would always play on the playground outside, but they would never let me play," N'diaye said. "Then I would take my ball and tell them that they were going to have to let me play or else I was going to take my ball back. Just like that, I started playing with them. But they still wouldn't pass me the ball."
Plenty of other people began passing her the ball, though. N'diaye, with her above-average height, morphed into an accomplished player, earning a spot on a Senegal national team as a young player. Her skills on the court were getting her noticed, but it was her skills in the classroom that really sealed her destiny.
"I took a test at school and passed, qualifying me for international study," N'diaye said. "I could pick which country I wanted to go to: Japan, England and other places. I had always wanted to go somewhere in Asia, and so I picked Japan." Just like that, N'diaye, then a high school sophomore, was packing her bags for the Orient. She had never been to Japan and though she spoke two languages, French and Wolof (the native language of Senegal), she did not speak a word of Japanese.
"The first time I heard Japanese was at the embassy," N'diaye said. "When I got to the embassy, the ambassador taught me how to say `hello' in Japanese. There were all these magazines in Japanese. When I saw all of those, I was like `Oh my goodness. How am I going to do all of this?' But it was fun!"
The first six months she was in Japan, N'diaye lived in the dorms at Keisei High School in Kumamoto, just like a regular student, but the entirety of her academic pursuits were centered on learning Japanese. She admits the first few months were difficult.
"Everyone (the girls in the dorms, my teammates) used a Japanese to French dictionary so they could communicate with me," said N'diaye. "Mine was French to Japanese. Whatever I wanted, I had to open the dictionary and find it in there somewhere. My first few weeks in Japan, everything I wanted to ask or say, I would go through the dictionary and point it out. That was how we communicated." Eventually communication became easier. She transitioned to math and hands-on classes like cooking while still working with Japanese tutors. In her second year, she started taking science and other classes that required more reading and lecturing.
About the time began feeling comfortable in Japan, it was time to start thinking about her future and what she wanted to do after high school. N'diaye considered turning pro, but she would have had to become a Japanese citizen, something she was not sure she wanted to do. Some friends and coaches told her about the prospects of playing at a university in the United States, an opportunity to learn more about basketball while getting an education. Some friends helped her make a highlight reel and the recruiting process began.
She got a stack of interest letters, but she still was not sure what she wanted to do. There was one recruiter, however, who helped her make her decision. Cal head coach Joanne Boyle.
Boyle flew to Japan to watch N'diaye play, the only coach to make the jaunt over the Pacific, and later had N'daiye come stateside for an official visit.
N'diaye was hooked, but this time it would take a little more work than her move to Japan. She would have to pass two tests to make it to Cal: the SAT (proctored in English) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).
"I knew some English," N'diaye said. "I had studied it a little in Senegal, but it was very basic. My Japanese school had one English teacher. After I decided I wanted to go to Cal, my principal assigned me to that teacher so she could to tutor me."
N'diaye passed both tests and headed to Berkeley. This time, there was no six-month transition. She jumped right into life at the University.
"Coming here was a pain," N'diaye said. "First, the transition of living here was really tough because I was so used to Japanese style of living. And by that time I already had three languages and learning English was something I really didn't want to do."
But she did it. Once again armed with dictionaries, N'diaye would tape her classes, go back to her dorm and meticulously look up the words in the lectures she didn't know.
Each progressive year, things got easier for her. Now in her fifth year at Cal and majoring in interdisciplinary studies, N'diaye still brings her tape recorder to class, but things are coming to her much more naturally.
When asked about her favorite moments of her Cal career, she will rattle off the three appearances in the NCAA Tournament, especially the trip to the Sweet 16 against UConn two years ago, but her eyes really light up when recounting the trip the team took in the summer of 2008 when they all went to Senegal. The final day of the trip was N'diaye's favorite when the Bears went to a beach and visited her mother's house. For an all too brief moment, the free-spirited world wanderer was home.
She may return home to Senegal for good some day, but N'diaye has much more she still wants to accomplish before then. She wants to play professionally next year. She is thinking about getting a graduate degree. Eventually, she would like to return to Senegal and open up her own orphanage. But the first item on Rama N'diaye's future to-do list is a return trip with the Bears to the Sweet 16. That is where she really wants to feel at home.