WICHITA, Kan. — There are times in March Madness, when the pep bands are blasting and the faces are painted and the roaring noise hits you like a shower of BB pellets, that this whole college basketball thing can seem like a foreign country.
Unless, of course, you come from a foreign country.
In which case, it seems like the moon.
Welcome to the moon, for Makhtar Ndiaye and Olivier Saint- Jean, who pretty much fell from the sky anyhow, as far as Michigan is concerned. They wound up, quite by accident, in maize and blue uniforms this season — Olivier, thanks to a chance phone call, Makhtar, thanks to another school’s hanky- panky.
And now, as if joining a nationally famous roster wasn’t weird enough, they emerge from the tunnel at the Kansas Coliseum on Wednesday and see thousands of strangers watching . . . practice.
Practice? It’s March, n’est-ce pas?
“What do they call it, this tournament,” Ndiaye says, looking for the words, “do or die?”
That’s what they call it. He has studied. So has Saint- Jean. Still, you have to wonder if any amount of work can truly prepare a foreigner for the parade of school colors in the streets, eight teams playing in one building in one day, a bazaar of T-shirts, pennants and caps, and a seemingly endless stream of highlight footage on TV, day basketball, night basketball, day and night basketball.
Or, for that matter, Dick Vitale.
“The first time I saw him I didn’t know what he was,” Saint- Jean admits,
“but I say, this guy, he’s figured out a way to make a lot of money, so, hey, that’s straight.”
Maybe it’s not as hard as I thought.
The language changes
Of course, Saint-Jean and Ndiaye were tossed into a locker room that doesn’t stand on ceremony, unless the ceremony involves throwing towels and hurling insults. Jalen Rose, who from his arrival at Michigan has been the designated Don Rickles, went right for the weak spot on his foreign teammates’ armor.
“You gonna eat some giraffe’s feet tonight?” he would say, laughing, to Ndiaye, who comes from Senegal, West Africa. “You gonna kill a lion for dinner?”
For Saint-Jean, he said, “Where you think you’re at, France? This ain’t France. They can’t play basketball in France.”
It’s part of the Fab Five razzing ritual, and the two outsiders enjoyed it, because it made them feel part of the group. But think how hard this really is. First of all, no one is speaking your native language. Second of all, no one is even speaking English, at least not the kind you learned in overseas school. Saint-Jean says in Paris, the young generation has its own slang, it turns words backward. “Bonjour” is pronounced “jour-bon,” it’s a code, a hip thing in the city.
Of course this means Olivier had to learn French, hip French, English and hip English. And he’s not even a language major. As for Makhtar, well, his linguistic education began his first day at Michigan, when Juwan Howard dropped him off in front of the dorm, and he hadn’t taken two steps when people began yelling his name — or what they thought was his name. “Mah-tari! Maketar! Injay! Ninjay!”
He has heard more pronunciations than Berlitz.
Moments of Fabness?
And yet, here they are, two freshman foreigners in a classically American moment: opening day of the tournament. And although they have no experience, they do have a legacy. In each of the Fab-era tournament runs, both of which went to the championship games, the bench players had shining moments. James Voskuil against Cincinnati. Eric Riley against Oklahoma State.
This time around, if Michigan is to go far, contributions will have to come from the 6-foot-7 Saint-Jean and 6-8 Ndiaye, two players who are still getting over the fact that we pronounce the “s” at the end of a word.
And that’s the easy part. The hard part? Many Wolverines will have relatives at these games. Others know the family is watching on TV. Ndiaye and Saint-Jean don’t have that. Saint- Jean says the games don’t get on Paris TV until the Final Four. “So we have to go that far for my mother to see us.”
Ndiaye, the son of a diplomat, was pretty much raised by his grandmother, but doesn’t have her watching anymore. Funny. She hadn’t wanted him to come to America. Too dangerous, she said. He talked to her one night last year, while attending high school in Virginia. She was ill. The next morning, his father called to say she had died. Makhtar couldn’t make the funeral. He never got his chance to say good-bye.
Welcome to the moon. I’m not sure where March Madness rates on a college education scale, but I know two players who, despite their attempts at American cool, will have their eyes bulging with each new round. It’s a U.S. thing, this road to the Final Four, but one of the odd little concrete cracks
is that Michigan — like many other big-time schools — is depending now on foreign-exchange students.
“What would you change about American college basketball if you could?” Saint-Jean is asked.
“Pay the players,” he snaps.
They’re learning fast.