The sky's the limit

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(Photo by Jack Looney)

As I walked through the crowd at Virginia’s Scott Stadium with basketball player Assane Sene, the reactions were mixed.

Some football fans were so engrossed in their food purchases that they managed to ignore the 7′ tall man in sweats gliding through their midst. Others, like the two young girls trying to cut across traffic in the concourse, were oblivious to his presence until they nearly stepped on his rather noteworthy feet. One stopped and looked up, up, up, before stating the painfully obvious: “Wow, you’re tall.”

As we made our way into the stands, our progress was slowed by a determined toddler, taking the concrete steps one at a time in front of us. Sene, gentle giant that he is, waited patiently for the little guy to find his seat, and someone finally noticed him, and said simply “Assane.” The murmur traveled quickly through the stands until the entire section was looking at him, standing there, as various voices sang out his name. “Assane! ASSANE!”

They all seemed so happy to see him. The vibe was infectious. Sene’s somewhat sleepy eyes and neutral expression dissolved into a million-megawatt smile. Soon the way was clear, and we continued our descent toward the field, Sene slapping hands and waving, with that genuine, joyous grin on his face.

Assane Sene is 4,021 miles from home, but he’s among friends.

Under African skies
Assane Sene was born in Saint-Louis, Senegal, the youngest of five children of Seybatou Beye and Cheikh Sene. His mother passed away from a heart ailment before he grew to adulthood, but she laid a foundation for the future while she was alive: Sene had to promise her that he would seek success through education first and basketball second, wherever that road might lead.

Digital Xs and Os

Video technology pushes frontiers of performance analysis 

“Stats accuse, but video indicts,” said James Rogol, video coordinator for UVA women’s basketball. “If you can coordinate the two, analysis becomes much easier.”

From 2008 to 2011, Rogol held the same post at the Univeristy of California at Berkeley, and he recently made the cross-country move to Charlottesville as a member of Joanne Boyle’s staff, but he’s no stranger to Mr. Jefferson’s University. In fact, he’s a 2006 Virginia graduate who built his resume in the video services department at his alma mater before the Cal job opened up.

“I majored in Russian and East European Studies, which is coming in very handy on a daily basis,” Rogol joked.

His degree might sound more suited to dusty library searches, but Rogol is actually one of the most valued members of Boyle’s staff. He carries an iPad tablet with him to practices and games. Using state-of-the-art software called SportsCode, he is able to create highlight packages and break down video on the fly. It’s a far cry from the days when practice film was handed out later on DVD, and even more distant from the tortuously slow process of dubbing VHS tape or film. Rogol tags each play or drill as it happens, and downloads the video to a central server. Boyle and her assistants have the video broken down and ready to watch at the push of a button by the time they return to their offices in the John Paul Jones Arena.

“Color coding helps pick things out,” Rogol said. “Offense is blue, defense is orange. There can be a lot of data: missed and made baskets, all of our play calls, offense, defense, turnovers, player minutes…”

UVA Men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett is able to access similar data, including a huge database of archival footage of opponents that resides on that same central server. He still watches edits on his laptop, but said that Rogol is “some kind of a guru,” when it comes to the iPad application. “I’m really interested in that,” Bennett said. “That’s probably what’s next.”

Bennett likes the way technology has helped him streamline the process of imparting knowledge to his players.
“I can type little notes that appear on the screen that say, ‘Watch your hands’ or ‘Watch your pivot foot, you’re traveling every time,’” Bennett said. “I can type it in there and it comes up on a little tab, like a post-it note. They can rewind it and do it at their own pace.”

The men’s basketball staff also uses data gathered from heart-rate monitors to fine-tune conditioning drills. Sometimes, an assistant coach dons a harness with a radius of long pipes sticking out to simulate the reach of a defensive shot blocker. Shooting form is perfected with the help of a machine that knows the perfect arc a basketball must take on the way to the basket.

Bennett is careful to note that the technological gadgets are a helpful tool, not a cure-all.

“You can show guys, but you need to be careful. Over-analysis leads to paralysis,” Bennett said. “You’ve got to have it in balance. But there are definitely ways you can use it that are so good.”—E.A.

The nation of Senegal sits on the westernmost edge of the African continent. An area roughly the size of South Dakota, the country is home to over 12 million people, hills and plains, and miles of land fronting the Atlantic Ocean. It is a politically stable, democratic republic with a good educational system but only 39 percent adult literacy.

“There are a lot of problems over there, because they only have a few universities, not like here, where there are a ton,” Sene said in his deep, mildly accented voice. “Over there, there aren’t more than 20 universities in the whole of Senegal. It’s too packed in the university, so it can be really hard for you if you succeed on your exam but can’t go to university. That’s why I wanted to come here to finish my education.”

Many Senegalese, like many Americans, see achievement in sports as a ticket out of poverty. For most, that means soccer or wrestling––the latter is a rapidly growing sport in Africa––but for the 7′ Sene, it was a chance encounter with basketball that opened up doors. First the doors to the SEEDS academy, founded in 2002 by Senegal native Amadou Gallo Fall, a former player at the University of the District of Columbia who is now head of NBA Africa. SEEDS helps foster the athletic and educational growth of promising players from the African continent. Almost from the first day that Sene touched a basketball, SEEDS was a part of his life.

“I went to the SEEDS academy in, I think I can say it was 2006,” Sene remembered. “Actually, that was probably my first year playing basketball. I was back home in Saint-Louis, four hours away from Dakar, the capital of Senegal. People would just come to me while I was playing ball.”

The most notable visitors to Saint-Louis during that crucial time were the members of an earlier team put together by SEEDS. “I remember my first time working with them was when they came down to Saint-Louis; they were more ready, physically and mentally ready, so I was a bit down. But they picked me up and said, ‘No, you just have to keep working,’” Sene recalled. “Then a few months later I got a letter saying that I got invited to Basketball Without Borders in South Africa. I just showed them my hard work, playing physical with them, even though I was really, really, really skinny and there were some big bodies. They told me, ‘Keep working, we see a lot of potential in you, and if you keep working, you’re going to get better.’”

When Fall visited Sene’s home, he tried to find out what the young player wanted out of life. Fall got the answer he was hoping for from Sene’s father.

“My dad is just a really straight guy,” Sene laughed. “My dad was like, ‘There’s no question, Assane is going to have to go to school at the same time. If he wants to keep playing basketball, he can play basketball, but school he has to do.’”

At SEEDS, Sene’s academic learning curve remained steady. Learning how to play basketball at a high level after such a late start was more of a struggle.

“His story and my story is the same thing,” said Fall, speaking via phone from South Africa. “I started playing late. We played soccer, because there was no infrastructure. A lot of times you are excluded from the game through pure luck. That’s why I’m excited to have the opportunity to set up infrastructure across the country and really use our game as a tool to change our communities.”

Sene’s diligence on and off the court paid off. He was offered a scholarship to South Kent, a tony prep school in Connecticut. His American adventure—and his quest to live up to the promise he made to his mother—was beginning.

Coming to America
At South Kent, the culture shock was palpable. The young man who favored shorts, t-shirts and sandals in the tropical heat of Saint Louis had to wear a uniform and learn how to knot a tie. And then there was winter. “Man, it was cold in Connecticut!” Sene declared.

UVA’s 7′ center, Assane Sene, shares a light moment with a teammate during the Cavaliers’ 86-53 victory over Longwood, December 3 at the John Paul Jones Arena. (Photo by Jack Looney)

The language barrier felt like an actual, physical wall. Senegal was a French colony from the mid-16th century up until independence in 1960, and the traditional languages of Wolof, Pulaar, Jola and Mandinka coexist alongside French, the official language of government and education. Sene, a natural polyglot, picked it up quickly, but struggled at times even to understand his homework from French class.

“We’re learning how to do it as we go,” said Fall. “I’m hoping to get the Peace Corps to collaborate and lend their expertise with language [at SEEDS].”

Another, less obvious line of demarcation between Sene and his New England classmates was religion. South Kent adheres to a strict policy of non-discrimination, but the school is accredited by the National Association of Episcopal Schools and requires students to go to chapel every Sunday. Sene, like some 90 percent of his countrymen, is a practicing Muslim, so I asked him if it bothered him to be sent to Christian services.

“Not at all, not at all,” he responded, shaking his head emphatically. “The way my parents raised me, you got to respect everybody. In my own opinion, I think praying is praying. We all follow one God. If you go to a Muslim country, people don’t say God, because that’s not their language. They say Allah. You go to a French country, they say Dieu, you come here, they say God. There is only one and we all believe in one, that’s how my parents raised me.”
When the South Kent student body prayed for him on graduation day, he felt the positive vibes of the community, and didn’t worry about the words or the setting. The dietary restrictions of his faith were another matter entirely. Sene recounted one uneasy moment from his days at prep school, when unfamiliar food options caused him to slip up.

“When I was in South Kent, they gave me some barbeque ribs, and oh my god they were so good!” Sene said, closing his eyes and reveling in the sense memory. “I saw everybody taking ribs and they looked really good. My teammates, they tricked me, they let me finish, then they are like ‘Yo! Did you know what that is?’ I was like ‘no’. ‘That was pork!’ and I was like ‘Oh my God.’ But when you don’t know, you don’t know. You gotta ask.”

Hearing about these experiences over a transatlantic phone line, Amadou Fall waxed philosophical. “These guys are smart. You can explain to them that they have to respect the faith and their environment. That’s part of the whole cross-cultural exchange, you know? It’s part of the growth process.”

Sene’s path eventually led him to Charlottesville, where he was recruited by since-departed head coach Dave Leitao. For the past three seasons, the team has been coached by Tony Bennett, the former Washington State head coach who values offensive rebounding and interior defense, two things Assane Sene happens to be very good at.

Well, you say, the kid is 7′ tall, of course he can rebound and block shots, right? Recall, however, that he’s only been playing basketball for six years. Note, as well, that he’s still very slender. Matched up against 6’8", 240-lb. Jordan Morgan in November’s 70-58 win over Michigan, Sene frequently looked like an octopus wrestling a grizzly bear as he battled for position under the basket. His lack of bulk and relatively unpolished offensive game don’t lead to prolific scoring, but Sene notched his 100th blocked shot in a Virginia uniform during that same matchup.

The learning curve

Joanne Boyle has high expectations for Lady Cavs

“People like winners, right?”

Joanne Boyle says this to me in her plush office in the John Paul Jones Arena, mere hours before her first official game as head coach of the Virginia women’s basketball team. The upbeat tone in her voice makes it clear that she relishes the challenge of winning over fans still reeling from the departure of Debbie Ryan, the Hall of Fame coach who became an institution over 34 years at UVA.

“I’ve always had a great relationship with Debbie,” Boyle said. “I have no problem saying that she built Virginia women’s basketball. I have so much respect for her and what she did, but for me, I have to stay in the moment, keep building this program and hopefully get it back to some of the success it had when Debbie was here.”

Boyle, 47, came to Charlottesville from the University of California-Berkeley, where she led the Golden Bears to postseason play in each of her six seasons, including an NIT title. The cross-country move sounds daunting, until you realize how deep her roots in this area run. Prior to her stint at Cal, Boyle was head coach at Richmond for three years. Before that, she made her name as one of UVA’s primary adversaries, as a player and assistant coach for rival Duke University. The gravitational pull of the Atlantic Coast Conference was part of what made it a no-brainer to take the job she now holds.

“Never in a million years did I think that Virginia was going to open up,” Boyle said. “But it did, and obviously I had to take a look at it. They’ve had so much winning tradition here, there are such great facilities in place. It’s an academic school with a supportive administration in a great conference. For me, there’s only a couple of places that can offer all of those things, along with fan and community support. It encompasses a great package in terms of recruiting and bringing young women here. And when I came on campus it really sold it for me.”

Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage called the hiring of Boyle a “perfect fit,” and all evidence to date indicates that he was correct. In collegiate athletics, a coaching change will often result in player-coach clashes and transfers to other programs as a new staff turns things upside-down and young players resist the change. Not so at UVA, where all of Debbie Ryan’s recruits have stayed put and bought into the new system.
“If we hadn’t hired a good coach, I’m sure a lot of people would have transferred,” says China Crosby, the fiery junior point guard from New York. “She built a family-like relationship. What I like about this coaching staff is that they’ll call you out on anything, but they’ll let you know that it’s just to get you better. They really respect us, and that’s something we all really appreciate.”

Boyle sets the tone for Virginia’s squad, but acknowledges that her assistant coaches have done a lot of the hands-on teaching as the team tackles the steep learning curve involved in implementing new offensive and defensive sets.

During practice, the voice most often heard above the sound of squeaking sneakers is that of Kim McNeill, a former Richmond player and coach who left Boyle’s staff at Cal to work for the program at Georgia, but jumped at the chance to come back to her home state this season. Much of the one-on-one defensive instruction is handled by McNeill’s newlywed husband, Cory McNeill, a Baltimore native who left Georgetown to work alongside his bride at UVA. Katie O’Connor is a former Virginia Tech Hokie who ended a seven-year run as an assistant at Kansas to return to the Commonwealth.

When Boyle speaks up in practice, she is direct, matter-of-fact and doesn’t shout. Her smiles are rare but potent. “I think it’s good for the girls to hear other voices than my own,” said Boyle. “[My assistants] are rock stars and each have 10 or more years of experience as assistant coaches at successful programs. We have a great chemistry on our staff and a great balance, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Boyle expects her teams to be tough and smart, qualities that her new charges have shown in abundance. The sparkling gem of the Lady Cavaliers’ non-conference campaign thus far is a 69-64 home win against then-No. 3 Tennessee, the eight-time national champions coached by living legend Pat Summitt. UVA’s ostensibly overmatched squad played aggressively, notching 13 steals, and gutted out an overtime period that sealed a signature win for the new head coach.

“I think that win meant a lot in a lot of different areas,” said senior forward Chelsea Shine. “Coach Boyle calls us a blue collar team a lot. We’re not a team of All-Americans. But when we work hard we can beat anyone. That really set it in stone for us. If we continue to build and continue to work, these are the kinds of results we can expect.”

Joanne Boyle’s brand of basketball is bound to be a hit in Cavalier-mad Charlottesville, and local fans can only hope that she’ll make UVA her home for years to come. Boyle has always been on the move, from Durham, to professional play overseas, back through Duke and on to Richmond. Then to the West Coast and now Charlottesville. She hasn’t had a lot of time to settle in yet. “I pretty much unloaded into a townhouse and it’s been townhouse-work, townhouse-work since then,” Boyle said. “So I’m pretty much settling into a routine, but so much of that routine is about the job right now.”

Boyle and her hard-driving staff have already landed a top-20 recruiting class that will help establish the team’s long-term future, but Boyle insists that her close-knit team will brighten the near future, and secure a successful season, by living and learning in the moment.

“We’re a work in progress,” she said.
And then, with the same understated insistence she employs when she’s talking to her players, she makes a promise.

“We’ll be a better basketball team in January than we are now.”—E.A.

“There’s a lot of things that don’t show up in the stats,” Sene said after the game. “Like guarding the shooter and bothering their shots. Those are my things I can do to help my team win. So even though they don’t show up on the sheet, I am really happy to do them.”
His lack of bulk contributes to a surprising mobility as well. During the same November game, Sene flashed out to the three point line to help defend against a smaller player in Michigan’s four-guard set, then raced back to the hoop to get a hand in the face of the big man who ended up with the ball. The shot missed, and Sene added another strong play to his invisible book of non-statistics.

At home in ’Hooville
Sene has found many things he likes about America. Platinum-selling hip-hop artist Akon––born in St. Louis to Senegalese parents––provided an easy entry point to stateside music trends, but his teammates have helped him blow that door wide open.

“I like American music,” he said. “I like to dance. I like to have fun and I like to enjoy life. Not too much, but I like to have fun, especially when I’m with my teammates. I like Akon because he’s from Senegal. I like Drake, I like Lil’ Wayne.”

Just when I thought I had Sene’s musical taste pegged, he threw me a curveball. “I like country music sometimes. I like Taylor Swift. I like a lot of good music.”

He also attends football home games whenever possible, which explains why he and I met for our conversation at halftime of the Duke/UVA game. When I asked him about his introduction to football, his face lit up. “When I first came down to visit UVA, they were playing Pittsburgh. They beat them so bad, and the crowd… it was so nice, I was really excited to be here. At that time, I was like ‘Wow, if I go to UVA, I will definitely go to a football game.’”

When Sene is interested in a subject, it’s like his voice can barely contain the excitement. I could almost picture him cheering along with the crowd, having absolutely no idea what was happening, but being caught up in the moment anyway.

His teammates have helped him learn more about the game since, Sene said. “For instance, right now, I was asking Jontel about No. 2, Dominique Terrell. He’s in my class. I was like ‘What position does he play?’ Jontel was like, ‘He’s a corner,’ so now I know. He told me his job and everything, so now I know.”

He also loves burritos. Man alive, does he love burritos. He knows to avoid the pork now, but the convenient mixture of ingredients in an edible wrapper must remind him a bit of the food he ate back home with his family. I asked him what we’d eat if I visited him in Senegal. “I would make you some chicken, probably. Some rice and fish, rice and meat,” he said. “A little bit spicy. I haven’t been home for a while, so I definitely miss the Senegalese food.”
Sene says he has met several Muslims and other natives of Africa since he’s been in Charlottesville, but has yet to find any other Senegalese students.

“There are some people from Nigeria, but not Senegal. There is one girl, she says she is from Senegal, but I think she’s born here. I said ‘You’re not Senegalese, you can’t even speak Wolof’. I always mess around with her and make fun of her,” he said. I get the sense that the target of his gentle humor is charmed enough not to take offense.

In his fourth year with the Cavaliers, Sene is a starter, but he won’t be called upon to do the bulk of the scoring in the paint. “God gave us all different ways we are good. Abilities. Like me, God gave me the abilities to block shots, rebound, run the floor, which a lot of people can’t do,” he said. “Without defense, you cannot win.”

Be that as it may, scoring is still at a premium for the big man. He has scored in double figures only five times in his UVA career, and only once this, his final season. Mike Scott, in his fifth year following an injury redshirt in 2010-2011, is the beast on the backboard. Sene learned a lot playing without his frontcourt partner last year, but the entire team is glad to have Scott back where he belongs.

“To expect Assane to be this throw-it-in-the-post, Hakeem Olajuwan dominant low-post scorer, that’s not his game,” said head coach Tony Bennett. “He starts from his strengths, which to me is his activity and his willingness to do whatever needs to be done; whether it’s to screen, get on the offensive glass or finishing plays when he has the opportunity. Helping his teammates defensively, that’s where he starts.”

It’s a nice resume, but it makes NBA dreams sound like a long shot. Fall thinks that’s O.K. “Not many people can make it to the NBA. That can’t be the end-all-be-all,” he said, his voice crackling across the ocean. “Some of them [SEEDS graduates] are lucky enough to go and play in Europe while they’re still young and have the experience of a different culture. But they have a college degree, a sense of community and a desire to serve. They are all great people in the communities where they are, and they are all very connected to the original community in Senegal.”

That desire to make connections, to bring his knowledge and experiences back to the people of Senegal, is part of what drives Sene in his sojourn at the University of Virginia. He has enjoyed serving as a de facto ambassador for his country in America, and he’ll take a part of Charlottesville back to Senegal with him some day, when basketball is done and he returns to share his experiences with African kids who might find that school and basketball are a nice mix after all. Before that happens, he says he’d like to play basketball professionally, overseas if not in the U.S., and that he wouldn’t mind coaching in the future. He is also champing at the bit to follow in Fall’s footsteps, spreading the gospel of basketball and education in his native country.

Whatever he does, Assane Sene won’t take the lazy route. His future will be governed by what sounds like a perfect rebounder’s credo:

“The reason why I’m always thankful about what I have is because there are a lot of people who don’t have this opportunity. I’m taking this opportunity with both hands. Not with only one hand. With both my hands.”

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