WILBERFORCE – It’s all about lifting someone up when they need it most.
Penny Williams remembers the game.
Her son, Felix Uadiale, and his Eagles Landing Christian Academy basketball team from McDonough, Georgia, just south of Atlanta, were playing Greenforest-McCalep Christian, a team out of Decatur that included 6-foot-8 Ibrahima Jarjou, who recently had come to the United States from Senegal.
“Ibrahima ran a kid down and went to block the dunk and somehow his hand got caught on the rim,” Williams said. “It flipped him upside down and he landed on his neck and just lay there.
“He was down about 10 minutes -- I thought he’d broken his neck – and I was literally in tears.
“I didn’t know him, except through my son, who is half Nigerian, so they had that African connection. But really, it was just about seeing someone down and helpless.
“He finally got back up, but he took just a couple of steps and collapsed again. They put a neck brace on him and then took him to Grady Hospital. It was all very scary.”
The next morning Williams felt compelled to check on the boy she didn’t know and told her son they were going to the hospital.
“When we got there, he still had on his uniform,” she said.
“Even though he was OK and would be released, something told me, ‘You need to put your arms around this one and watch out for him. He’s a good kid.’”
Maybe her intuition was driven by her job. She’s a realtor and prides herself in being able to read people. Maybe it was the fact that she had been a college athlete – basketball and track – at Boise State and Arizona State.
Mostly, it’s the fact that she is a mom with three kids – Felix and daughters Camille and Obehi.
As for Ibrahima needing a lift, she was right.
He had come to America from Senegal at age 17. Although he lived with a host family, he knew no English.
But he had arrived in Georgia with a solid foundation from his mom, who raised seven sons, and his dad, a military man, who believed in discipline and his oldest son setting an example for his younger brothers.
“I had been excited to come here, but I was sad, too,” said Jarjou, who is about to start his first season at Central State. “I knew I wasn’t going to see my family for a long time, but I knew I was on a mission. One day I want to play professional basketball. And my education is the most important right now. I have to do well in school.”
That drive, that sense of purpose, was evident to Williams, who followed her convictions even though she admits, it may have been more feasible to take a pass.
“There are some things in life that just don’t make sense, but you do them anyway,” she said. “I was taking him into my family and taking on a financial responsibility even though I was a single parent with three kids of my own. But I knew he deserved it.
“You can tell that as soon as you meet him. He has such a warm, inviting, wonderful spirit and he works so hard. He became like another son. He went on trips with us and was at our home for holidays. Later, I took him on college visits.
“The more you get to know him, the more you see he’s pretty special. Just the full package.”
It appears she was right, although the path hasn’t always been easy for him.
After Greenforest, he went to Holy Spirit Prep for his senior year of high school in hopes of getting more exposure. Then came a year at Core4 Prep in Chamblee, Ga.
He ended up with seven Division I offers and chose Austin Peay in Tennessee, where he battled injury and played behind Terry Taylor, the two-time Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year who is with the Indiana Pacers.
He played just four games that first season and then transferred to Emmanuel College, a small Christian school in Franklin Springs, Georgia, where he again dealt with injuries and, Williams said, didn’t feel comfortable there.
That led to the transfer to Central State last winter and he sat on the Marauders’ bench in street clothes for the final three games of the season.
Yet, regardless of the roller-coaster ride on the basketball court, he’s never wavered when it’s come to his academics.
Every place he’s been – Austin Peay, Emmanuel and Central State – he’s not just been on the Dean’s List, but he’s had a near-perfect grade-point average.
He’s in the Psi Chi Honor Society and, at CSU, he’s in the Golden Key International Honor Society.
He’s been just as impressive out of the classroom and in the community.
This past summer he returned to Senegal for the first time in five years and put on a two-day basketball camp and gave out shoes to kids in need in the Casamance region he grew up in in the West African nation.
“I remembered how it was when I grew up and I know there are kids there now playing basketball with no shoes at all or ones that are worn out, or have big holes in them,” he said.
“I haven’t forgotten where I came from.
“I haven’t forgotten home.”
Jarjou’s grandfather is Ankiling Diabone, a Senegalese judoka who competed in the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Games.
His dad is in the military and he said “he taught me to be a leader and an example for my six younger brothers.
“I’ll be honest, when I was growing up, I thought he was pretty tough on me. But now, I’m really grateful. He and my mom helped make me who I am today.”
Jarjou lived in Paris with his maternal grandparents for two years in his mid-teens and soon after Amadou Koundoul, a former University of Pittsburgh player and coach now based in Cleveland, invited him to a basketball camp in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
Although still fairly new to the sport, he impressed enough people and said he was told he could get a scholarship to play at Greenforest in Georgia.
When he got there he tried to learn English anyway he could – from watching TV shows and movies and listening to music to using Google Translate and especially getting help from Aminata Ly, a 6-foot-4 Senegalese player at Greenforest, who is now at Cleveland State.
Coming out of high school, he had scholarship offers from Hofstra, Iona, East Tennessee State, Georgia State, Arkansas State and HBCU’s like Grambling and Morehouse.
He chose Austin Peay, but played just 14 minutes over four games and scored two points and had two rebounds. He never played at Emmanuel.
He got to Central through a connection with Marauders’ women’s coach Cathy Parson.
Ironically, Williams 6-foot son Felix Uadiale – after playing two seasons at Maryville College, a NCAA Division III school near Knoxville, Tennessee – has transferred to Shawnee State in Portsmouth.
“Felix went up to Central State a couple of weekends ago for Homecoming and they hung out,” Williams said. “They have a lot in common. They’re both very committed, very humble and respectful young men.”
‘We’re happy to have him’
Central State opens its season Nov. 11 at the University of West Alabama and, for the first time in three years, Jarjou said he’s fully healthy.
“I had tried to recruit him before, but like a lot of kids he wanted to do the D-I thing and went to Austin Peay first,” said CSU coach Antonio Davis.
“But we’re happy to have him on the squad now. He’s the type of young man I’ve been trying to recruit since I got here. He’s a super athlete and a good human being.”
Davis especially commended him for the camp he put on back home:
“He came from an impoverished area and was able to progress and grow. And because of that, he wanted to give back to the community.”
Jarjou explained the genesis of his effort: “I had an opportunity to come to America – which was a dream for me – and I have gotten a lot of opportunities.
“I’ve played AAU basketball and with different schools and you get a lot of shoes. Some you might wear only a couple of times. Some maybe not at all.
“I started thinking: ‘There’s a lot of people back home who need shoes – life is hard for them – so why don’t I find ways to ship what I have home?’
“That’s how the idea of the camp began.
“And when I told the idea to my host mom (Williams), she supported me and helped me make it happen.”
She has a non-profit foundation – “Impacting Life” – that helped him with his own effort that he called “Casa Made,” a playoff of the Casamance region from which he comes.
He collected shoes from teammates, friends, people at Central State and elsewhere. He got donations as well – to give or find out more visit casamancemade.com – and got a financial boost from the foundation of longtime NBA player, Paul Milsaps.
In early July, Jarjou returned to Senegal. He brought 50 pairs of shoes with him and had sent more ahead. With some of his donations, he bought smaller pairs of shoes in Dakar, since he wears size 15.
And yet there were times, little kids, so wanting a new pair of shoes, claimed 15s – which looked like clown shoes on them – fit their feet perfectly.
He gave out T-shirts and food and with the help of some local coaches and Senegalese players at American colleges who were home for the summer, he gave the kids some basketball instruction and some advice. He spoke to parents, too.
“I talked about the importance of playing sports and how it can keep kids out of trouble and open doors, too,” he said. “I talked about getting an education and how that’s kept me going toward my goal, even when I’ve been hurt.”
Because the turnout was so large, he didn’t have enough shoes and shirts for everybody and had to turn away some youngsters. It’s a problem he hopes to alleviate by next year.
“The kids were just so grateful for anything you did for them,” he said. “You’d give out a T-shirt you wouldn’t think they’d ever wear and they had it on the next day and they were proud of it. It made you feel good and you want to do more for them.
“It means something to them that somebody who left has come back and hasn’t forgotten them.
“And it means something to me, too.”
It’s all about lifting someone up when they need it most.