PHOENIX -- Gorgui Dieng had to use a towel to hide his face. He doesn't mean to do it. He knows, when his coach is serious, that his laughing could be seen as a sign of disrespect. But when Rick Pitino boils over, irate at a lack of execution or a silly play or something guard Russ Smith just did -- OK, usually at something Smith just did -- Dieng can't help it.
"It tickles me," Dieng said. "I told him, 'Coach, I don't want you to get mad at me or think I disrespect you.' I can't control myself. The things he say, when you hear that, you gonna laugh. He's so funny."
For an ordinary college basketball player, this relationship might not work. The coach would take offense; team chemistry would come into question; sprints would be swiftly prescribed.
But Dieng is hardly an ordinary college basketball player. Just three years ago, he was an unknown, raw prospect playing soccer with his brothers and taking life lessons from his father in his hometown of Kebemer, Senegal. The path that guided the 6-foot-11 center to Louisville is as unique as the relationships he formed with his coach and teammates upon arriving there.
How did Gorgui Dieng get here?
Forget the two-hour drive between his hometown of Kebemer and the nation's capital, Dakar, and the thousands of miles of Atlantic Ocean between Dakar and Huntington, W. Va., where in 2009 Dieng arrived in America as a rail-thin, uncoordinated hoops hopeful without knowing a lick of English. Forget the journey from Huntington Beach to Louisville, Ky., where, in his first meeting with his coach, he confirmed his unlikely dream of someday playing in the NBA. Forget the two years that took him from that meeting to the hype-drenched rivalry game that will dominate this weekend's sporting consciousness; forget the perceptible day-to-day improvement that has made Dieng Louisville's all-time single-season blocks leader and arguably the Cardinals' most indispensable player.
How far has Dieng come? Last season, when Louisville was upset in the first round by Morehead State, Dieng, then a freshman, didn't understand why the season had to end.
"I didn't know the Sweet 16," Dieng said. "I promise. I didn't know a lot of things about this tournament. After we got knocked out in the first round, I asked why we can't play anymore and stuff. [My teammates] explained everything."
"I know that it's fun," Dieng said. "And I know that it's six games to get to the national championship, and if you don't win you go home. That's the most important to understand -- if you don't win you go home."
Indeed, Dieng's life is an exercise in constant education, an ongoing stream of new information, new skills, new cultures and new experiences. He arrived at Huntington Prep in 2009, the product of the SEEDS Academy (Sports for Education and Economic Development) in Senegal after a standout performance at a Basketball Without Borders clinic. Since then, Dieng has added English to his list of languages (he also speaks French, some Italian and his native tongue, Wolof), passed the NCAA's SAT eligibility requirement in his new language with room to spare, morphed from a 187-pound beanpole to a 235-pound defensive force, and gone from an unsure kid who "never left [his] room" to one capable of commanding an NCAA tournament media breakout session for an hour, holding court on topics ranging from basketball to culture, philosophy and everything in between.
"When Gorgui came in in December [of 2010], he spoke very little English," Pitino said. "He came back in February and spoke great English -- better than some of the rest of the guys on my team."
Dieng struggled when he arrived in the United States. But he was stubborn, he said, and his father, Momar Dieng, pushed him to take everything in, to learn as much as he could about the culture and to stop calling home -- lest he stay in his room too much and fail to pick up the new language he would so desperately need.
Dieng has adopted much of his new country's culture, but he has eschewed some as well. He doesn't like the idea of fast food ("You can eat whenever you want here, and I think that's not very disciplined"), and it bothers him that families don't eat every meal together, like at home. ("It doesn't matter where you're gonna be, what you're gonna do, when it's time to eat with your family you give up and go eat with your family.") He misses the tight-knit communities of Senegal, where, thanks to decades of close tribal proximity, everyone really knows your name. ("I think people have more morals. People live by community.")
If I play in the NBA one day, I'll complete 70 percent of my goals. If I made it one day I'm going to change people's lives where I'm from. They going to start looking at me and say, 'He was in school, and now he is a pro.' People are going to start realizing how important school and sport and education are.
--Louisville's Gorgui Dieng
But the center with the 7-foot-6 wingspan has long since made the transition. He's now a favorite among his teammates, who praise his ability not only to learn the game of basketball but also to pick up countless minuscule cultural differences -- manners and mannerisms, lingo and slang.
The most obvious improvements, at least to outsiders, have come on the court. As Dieng's body has taken shape, so has his game. His shot-blocking has made him a game-planning nightmare for opposing coaches. On Thursday, Dieng dominated one of the bigger and most physical interior teams in the country in Michigan State, swatting seven shots (tying Pervis Ellison's single-game Louisville tournament record) and grabbing nine rebounds en route to his team's defensively dominant Sweet 16 win. On Saturday, Dieng was quieter, but his block of Florida guard Bradley Beal with 2:05 remaining was monumental during Louisville's late comeback and eventual 72-68 win.
That big-time defensive presence not only has Louisville days away from playing in the Final Four. It has Dieng closer to his dream -- an eventual spot in the NBA -- than ever before. He isn't likely to earn much NBA draft attention this season (ESPN Insider Chad Ford ranks him No. 102 overall on his NBA draft board), but another year of development, and an increased focus on a still-growing but increasingly polished offensive game, could make Dieng a tantalizing NBA prospect in seasons to come.
Since he was young, Dieng said, he has been telling people he would be a pro basketball player someday. But he says his goal is borne not simply out of a desire for personal success. In an era in which many athletes eagerly downplay the notion of their status as role models, Dieng is just as eager to seek it out.
"If I play in the NBA one day, I'll complete 70 percent of my goals," Dieng said. "If I made it one day I'm going to change people's lives where I'm from. They going to start looking at me and say, 'He was in school, and now he is a pro.' People are going to start realizing how important school and sport and education are.
"The other 30 percent is to be a role model," Dieng said. "I want to go back home and kind of give back, the people that helped me, took care of me, playing basketball, with school, I want to go back home and do the same thing for the kids."
That desire seems to come from his father, a school principal and legislator in Senegal spoken of reverently by his transplanted son. Dieng shared his favorite story about his father: One day, he said, Momar came from work and put his monthly salary on the table. He told Gorgui that he should never expect to receive any of his father's money -- that if he wanted money, he would have to go out and work for it himself. Then, Dieng said, Momar took his money and gave it to poor families in their village, purchasing food and school supplies for those who couldn't afford it themselves.
Momar "don't care about basketball," Dieng said. "If you tell my dad about basketball, he just ignore you. He don't care. All he care about is how I do in school."
Dieng's father is determined to see his son get his degree, and as such, Gorgui said, he isn't worried about the NBA just yet. But the dream -- and the thought of all the good that money could do in Kebemer -- remains.
That dream was the first thing Dieng shared with Pitino when he arrived at Louisville last season. Pitino responded that Dieng would have to work -- and work and work -- to get there.
Despite the occasional complaint -- and no shortage of inappropriate laughter, to be sure -- Dieng listened to his coach and added the defensive prowess to his ever-growing list of new skills and experiences and perspectives.
"I love Gorgui so much," Pitino said. "We're not a humble society, athletes today. The Africans are so humble and so hungry. It's just so much fun coaching him. Because it's a throwback."
Now a world away from Kebemer, the Cardinals center sits on the precipice of a career-defining game. It is not only the Final Four. It is not only the mano a mano matchup with Anthony Davis. For fans of both programs, it is something like the hoops-pocaylpse, just like the Mayans (sort of) predicted. It is Rick Pitino versus John Calipari. It is provincial hate writ large. It is a state torn asunder, battling not only for bragging rights but for the right to play for the sport's largest prize.
It is, in a phrase, Louisville-Kentucky at the Final Four. Games don't get any bigger than this. Roles in such games don't get any bigger than Dieng's.
How does he feel about all this? What are his thoughts on the UK-UL rivalry? Where does he stand on the basketball madness that will soon -- if it hasn't already -- envelop him on every side?
"I don't care about rivalries," Dieng said. "I don't want to play basketball to make enemies. I love this game, and I want to have fun with people."
Such is the unusual brilliance of Gorgui Dieng: Basketball is supposed to be fun; rivalries are for the fans; the games we play are just that, games, whose importance is realized only in the "impact it can have on your life." And when "Coach P" gets mad and screams at Russ Smith, when he widens his eyeballs and contorts his face and lays into a missed screen or a dumb turnover or a stupid foul, it isn't the end of the world. It's just funny.
No wonder Dieng laughs. If you saw this strange American world through his eyes, you'd be laughing, too.