Siena's Lionel Gomis hoping for waiver

September, 3, 2011
Siena freshman and Dakar, Senegal, native Lionel Gomis said he saw his mother die when he was 14.

He said he and his sister, Reinie-Marie, were left helpless when their 47-year-old mother, Eugenie Badgi, suddenly passed away from an illness.

Gomis tried to live with his estranged father but that didn't last long. He joined his sister at his grandparents'. Money was scarce for the private school he had been attending. And for two years he stopped going to school. He passed the time with two hobbies, one old -- drawing -- and one new -- basketball.

"I didn't do much of anything," Gomis said. "It was very hard."

"We first met when he was eight years old," incoming Cincinnati junior and fellow Senegal native Cheikh Mbodj said. "He was really close with his mother. It was very hard on him. We all have a lack of means. We try to get basketball to get us an education and that's why we come here for scholarships. He had a very tough childhood."

Ultimately, Gomis was scooped up, essentially saved by the same place as Mbodj -- the Sports for Education and Economic Development Foundation (SEEDS), a program of basketball and education created by NBA Africa director Amadou Gallo Fall and aided in the U.S. by Brian Benjamin.

The payoff for making the trek from Dakar to the SEEDS home nearly two hours away in Thies, Senegal, was a scholarship to Blair Academy (N.J.), where he spent three years. He arrived in the United States, unable to speak English, only fluent in French. The language barrier led to him being reclassified as a sophomore instead of a junior.

Gomis wasn't an NBA-level player. The 6-foot-9 Gomis was more of a mid-major talent. Siena saw the potential and signed him.

Wednesday, Gomis' world came crashing down as he was given a bizarre eligibility decision. Gomis has to sit out this season, can play one season as a sophomore but then is done in college athletically. The NCAA is basing its decision on new legislation that was adopted in April 2010 but enacted in August. The legislation stipulates that a student-athlete must complete his or her high school core-curriculum requirements no later than the high school graduation date in a five-year period or the international equivalent.

The two years Gomis missed not going to school in Senegal count on his clock. He missed those two years so he will miss them in college. The one year he has to miss this season is due to a reclassification at Blair.

Siena athletic director John D'Argenio said Thursday the Saints will exhaust every waiver possible to reverse the decision. Gomis said the university has assured him it will cover his education if he chooses to stay. D'Argenio backed up that statement and said the school would do whatever is allowed and work with the financial aid office to ensure that he can graduate.

But the ruling has left Gomis and those close to him flabbergasted and wondering if the NCAA fully grasps the hardship he endured. Benjamin said that since January the NCAA has been asking for documentation of the two years absent from his academic record. Benjamin said Gomis' older sister, Maryse, now married and living in Paris, had to return to Senegal and go to their deceased mother's former work place to ask people for her mother's wage statements before she died. But the business is no longer operating. Benjamin said Gomis was asked to produce his birth certificate and a death certificate of his mother.

"I don't know what to say and I wonder if the subcommittee actually listened to his story and took it into consideration," said Benjamin of the 19-year-old Gomis, who will turn 20 Jan. 8, 2012. "He was traumatized at age 14. His mother was sick and then died. His father wasn't around much. They were asking for bank accounts from 2003 that he couldn't produce. They don't have bank accounts. He was at Blair for three years. His SATs were good. I've lost faith in the system."

NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn said Friday "the review process is ongoing. NCAA has been in communication with Siena College since July, and is actively working with the school to reach a final decision on the case."

"I don't have enough documentation for what they said to support my case," Gomis said. "I don't have bank records for my mother. She didn't have a bank account. My mother didn't work for three years before she passed. And then she couldn't provide anymore the year before she died. So I didn't go to school then and I didn't go the year she passed."

One of the goals out of the Mark Emmert-sponsored retreat last month was to streamline the phone book-sized rule book.

The purpose is to make the organization work more efficiently. Emmert, the relatively new NCAA president, has been making the media rounds to discuss the importance of change.

Yet, there are still rules that seem to be interpreted as unbreakable and this may be one of them.

"The legislation is that you can't delay enrollment," D'Argenio said. "The new rule is that you have one year to delay your enrollment before you begin losing your eligibility. You lose a year for each year you delay your enrollment."

There are exceptions for the military. Siena officials say there are 15 to 20 cases like Gomis' within the NCAA membership that were denied recently and are seeking some sort of appeal waiver.

"We are not a diploma mill," said Blair Academy coach Joe Mantegna, whose school has produced NBA players Charlie Villanueva, Royal Ivey and Luol Deng. "He was reclassified because he didn't speak English. Even though this rule was changed, why isn't he grandfathered in?"

Gomis said Fall saw him playing basketball, noted his size and determined that he was worth bringing to SEEDS. The daily rigors of SEEDS start with a 6 a.m. run, breakfast, classes, lunch, practice and study hall.

"I don't think [the NCAA] understands what goes on there," Gomis said of Senegal. "I came here to get an education and to play basketball. I felt like it was wrong that they took away those two years. I told them I couldn't go to school for two years. I couldn't afford to. I don't know this system. I don't know why they are denying me. I'm trying to understand."

Gomis and Mbodj talk nearly every day.

"I just think he deserves an education with what he went through to get here," Mbodj said. "We're from Africa. We got to use basketball to get an education. He went through a lot of things. He's had a tough childhood. He had to be a strong kid to get through those situations."

"It's just unfair," Benjamin said. "This is the kid they question? For him to be allowed to play only one [season] just doesn't make any sense."

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer


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