Nov. 1, 2013
Editor's note: This story is the third in a five-part series highlighting the new members of the 2013-14 men's basketball team. Stay tuned for the last two features on freshmen Antonio Campbell and Khari Harley next week.
"Mo, what is the definition of `kizon'?" a voice yelled from the Convocation Center floor. "K-I-Z-O-N."
"Kizon? I don't know, coach," Mo replied.
"Come on Mo, you're supposed to speak fluent Japanese," Ohio head coach Jim Christian teased.
"Look it up after practice, you should know that," was the coach's final request. Mo shook his head and wiped his face with his No. 5 jersey, the same jersey that was worn by D.J. Cooper the previous four seasons.
A number that also represents how many languages Mo can speak fluently (English, French, Japanese, Wolof and Serer),something Coach Christian can both poke fun of and admire.
But this isn't the first time Mo has been in a new place. It's not the first time he'd have to prove himself on and off the court.
In fact, it's his fourth stop on a three-continent journey that has taken him from West Africa to the Far East, to the East Coast of the United States and now to the hills of southeastern Ohio.
Mothers Know Best
Maurice Ndour was just an average kid in Mbour, Senegal, 15 years ago when his mother made a simple suggestion.
"Why don't you give basketball a try," he recited the words his mother told him when he eight years old.
Anne Marie Dione could tell her son needed an outlet for his boundless energy and passion.
"The reason I played basketball was because I stopped playing soccer for a while and wasn't doing anything," he explained. "She just wanted me to apply myself doing something, so I tried out."
As he grew - he's now 6-feet-9-inches tall - his passion for basketball grew as well. A handful of years later Ndour received another suggestion.
"I was at a tournament and a guy saw me play there and asked if I wanted to go to Japan to play basketball," he recounted. "I told him I'd have to talk to my mom and see."
"The next thing you know I just took the opportunity."
High School in Japan
Just seven years after picking up basketball and at the age of 15, Ndour was off on the first leg of his around the world journey - alone.
""It was tough experience," he said about being thousands of miles from home in Okayama, Japan. "It was hard my freshman year as far as being homesick and all that stuff, but after that I got used to it."
Transitioning to a life without his family wasn't the only hard part. Ndour had to learn a new culture, a new language and a new brand of ball.
"The game was fast there," he recalls about his time at Okayama Gakugeikan High School. "People think it's easier because of my height, but it wasn't easy because everyone had their eyes on me as the tallest person in the gym."
However, Ndour said the decision worked out and the long hours at practice, four hours on weekdays and sometimes eight on weekends, helped prepare him for his next step of the journey: New York City.
Coming to America
The next landing spot for Ndour was Monroe College in New Rochelle, N.Y.
"People would always say `Wow, it's your first time in the U.S. and you're in New York City, that has to be hard,'" he said with a laugh explaining how he's managed to acclimate in each new city. "I'm here for basketball and school, so it doesn't matter which city I'm in."
The change in scenery didn't affect his performance on the court either. Despite another cross-continent trip, Ndour quickly found himself having success.
"I had to compete for minutes, I had to make people believe in me," he said of the challenges he faced at Monroe. "After two games, I was in the starting roster and we ended up in the National Championship."
In his second and final year at Monroe, Ndour averaged a double-double with 16.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game while earning NJCAA All-Region honors.
Although his second season at Monroe College didn't result in the same kind of team success, but Ndour said he used the second year to step up his game and improve his ball handling and three-point shooting.
Fitting in the Midwest
"It's a big change," Ndour said with a laugh while trying to decide if the move from New York City to Athens was similar to moving from one country to another. "All you see is green and grass, compared to New York City and all the buildings - it's a big change."
However, with his focus on school and basketball, the geographical setting didn't factor into Ndour's decision to come to Ohio University.
"It was about the fit," the telecommunications major explained about his college choice. "I didn't want to go to a high major school and among mid major schools that were recruiting me I chose between Ohio University and Western Kentucky University." "I picked Ohio because I fit in their system, the way they play and the way Coach Christian coaches. I think I can be an impact player this year."
Senior wing Ricardo Johnson agrees.
"Mo brings a lot of energy," Johnson said with a grin that showed his comment might've been an understatement. "He's an athletic `big' that can block shots."
A fitting description of Ndour, who says he tries to emulate his favorite player Kevin Garnett's toughness and defensive presence. However, he denies being the same type of trash-talker Garnett is.
"I'm not really a trash talker, I may every once in a while but not all the time," Ndour paused then continued. "If someone is talking trash to me I try to quiet them down by just playing basketball."
Johnson and Ndour both said it's important for himself and Ohio's five freshmen to not try and replace the 2013 seniors, but to simply be themselves and everything will work out fine for the Bobcats.
"They'll figure out [Division I basketball] after a while," Johnson said about the newcomers. "They don't have to replace [the 2013 seniors]; they just play their game."
When it comes to Ndour's off the court skills, Johnson said that he has only heard two languages from Ndour, English and... well, he doesn't know.
"We're actually roommates on the road and I heard him talking in another language on the phone," Johnson explained. "I didn't ask him what it was, but I thought it was pretty cool."
Johnson, unlike Christian, has not tested Ndour's knowledge of Japanese, French, Wolof or Serer. Instead he's just excited to see what the new No. 5 can do on the floor.
Ndour says he's ready as well and can't wait to show Bobcat Nation what he can do. And just before running out on the floor for practice, he had one message for Bobcat fans.
"Get ready because `Nature Boy' is in the building. We're going to have fun."