It was the fall of 2012, and Abdoulaye Gueye wanted to go back home. He had just arrived in Birmingham, Ala., from Senegal at the age of 17, enrolling at a private Christian school. He was away from his family, living with a host family and had just begun learning to speak English.
From 4,500 miles away in Dakar, the capital of the west African nation, came the reply.
“She said, ‘You’re there, you’d better toughen up,’” Gueye told the AJC. “I’m like, wow. And then I stayed.”
Six and a half years later, the Georgia Tech forward will celebrate his mother’s tough love, his own determination and a remarkable journey traveled. Through his will and effort, Gueye has developed into a post player who can hold his own in the ACC while arriving upon the doorstep of a business administration degree earned in a language he is still mastering. He’ll be the first in his immediate family to graduate from college.
He’ll be honored Sunday on senior night before Tech’s home game vs. Boston College. He’ll have the admiration and good feelings of teammates, coaches and staff who have helped him walk his path and experienced his warmth.
“He’s got grit and a big heart,” assistant coach Eric Reveno said.
Gueye grew up in Dakar, one of five children. His father, Ousmane, an official in the national military police force, died of a medical condition when Abdoulaye was in his middle-school years. His mother, Ndeye, is a retired teacher. He lived in a tight community of family and friends.
“You can come to my house, eat if you want, go to my neighbor’s house for lunch, eat for lunchtime,” Gueye said. “Everybody eats together. That’s how it is.”
Aside from French, the national language, he spoke Wolof, the country’s second language, and a little bit of two other African languages.
He was drawn to soccer, the most popular sport in the country, but was often encouraged to play basketball because of his height. He made a goal using the metal frame of a chair that he had welded into a hoop and screwed it to a wooden board, hanging it on the balcony of his home. He tried moves he watched on YouTube.
He attended a prominent basketball academy, but left after a year. But an older friend saw him playing on a playground and was able to connect him with a school in Birmingham, Central Park Christian. He was not enthusiastic about it – he said he had an opportunity to go to Spain – but his mother insisted.
“My mom said, ‘School comes first,’” Gueye said. “So she said, ‘No, we’re not going to Spain. You’ve got to finish your school.’’
Gueye attended Central Park Christian for two years, living with a host family. He was far from home, laboring to learn the language and adapt to life in America.
“And it was hot,” he said.
Still, he endeared himself to his host parents, Nick and Catherine Crawford.
“He’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever known,” Nick Crawford said. “Great humility. He’s such a protector to my wife and my kids. I don’t know – just every moment to serve, he would.”
He arrived at Tech in 2014, where in his first season he was beat up in practice by the likes of Yellow Jackets big men Demarco Cox, Charles Mitchell and Nick Jacobs. No match for their brawn with his gangly body, he wondered if he would ever play.
“They were bigger than me, and I’m like, ‘Guess what? I’ve got to fight,’” Gueye said.
He and fellow 2014 signee Ben Lammers persevered together, joined a year later by Nigerian forward Sylvester Ogbonda, who has become Gueye’s closest friend. He dedicated himself to developing his game and honed a reliable jump hook. Standing 6-foot-9 and then elevating the ball farther with a 7-3 wingspan, the shot is practically unblockable.
“It’s one of those things where you can’t do anything but just stand there and watch him shoot or shove him to the ground,” Lammers said this week by phone from Spain, where he is playing professionally. “I was always jealous of his jump hook.”
His scoring consistency this season has been such that it led coach Josh Pastner to use him with center James Banks, even as it goes against the tenets of the Jackets’ one-post offensive system.
He has applied the same dedication to surviving Tech’s academic rigors, grappling with statistics and accounting in a non-native language.
“You want to cry sometimes, you don’t want to do schoolwork, but if I think about my mom and my family, how they’re depending on me and stuff, it just makes me push a little bit,” Gueye said.
He has further managed all this despite not having been back home to Senegal since 2014, the year he came to Tech. He has been supported by the Crawfords and by an aunt and uncle who live in Canton.
He’ll graduate in May, though, sadly, his mother will not be able to attend because she was unable to obtain a visa.
Gueye hopes to play professionally, but ultimately wants to return to Senegal and find a way to create opportunities for people in his community through business and basketball. For someone endowed with grit and heart, it seems a natural destination.
“He’s come such a long way,” said Amadou Ndiaye, his uncle. “I don’t think he’s going to realize the good decision he made to come to the United States, to go to high school, to go to Tech. To me, it’s a long journey, but it’s worth everything.”
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