Tacko Fall is Much More Than the Tallest Man in the NBA Draft

LOS ANGELES -- Ever since he stonewalled Zion Williamson at the rim in the NCAA tournament—and really, ever since he first set foot on American soil as a wide-eyed 16-year-old from Senegal in 2012—Tacko Fall has been the subject of public fascination.

Understandably so. At 7’7” (in shoes), he would join Gheorghe Muresan and Manute Bol as the tallest players in NBA history, should he make it to the league. With a standing reach of 10’2.5”, he can dunk without jumping.

And his name is Tacko, so of course people are intrigued. Just like the homonymous food—which he, too, enjoys—everybody seems to love him.

“Tacko’s the best,” Luke Cooper, one of his trainers through Pure Sweat Basketball, remarks during a workout at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey.

But as someone with whom others are so often fascinated, what is it that fascinates Tacko Fall?

“Everything. Life in general,” Tacko tells CloseUp360 after a film session at the school with NBA skills coaching consultant Drew Hanlen. “Just, I'm a thinker.”

He thinks about basketball, sure. As a 23-year-old who loves it, lives it every day and hopes to do the same in the NBA, it’s never far from his mind. But there’s plenty of room inside that supersized brain of his to ponder the many mysteries of existence.

Which, again, is understandable, given what it took to get this genial (and genius) giant from Africa’s western-most tip to the precipice of his dreams.

“It's like sometimes we could look at the sky, I'm, like, ‘Man, we really in this,’ you know?” Tacko says. “Like, some weird stuff. Some people would think it's weird, but it's really like deep, deep stuff.

“Like, you think about the universe, you think about us just being on this earth, you think about what's beyond there. It’s just, I'm fascinated by all these things.”

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Tacko’s journey is more than fascinating. In some respects, it’s surreal, beyond belief even, as much for how far he’s come in such short order as for the people with whom he’s crossed paths along the way.

Before he was the literal definition of a can’t-miss basketball prospect, Tacko towered over other kids on the soccer field in Senegal. A man named Ibrahim N’Diaye, whose younger brother, Mamadou, would play at UC Irvine, spotted Tacko on the pitch and invited him to his basketball academy. Though he hesitated at first, Tacko was ultimately swayed by the opportunity to use the game to further his education in America.

“My family is very locked in on school, so it's something that was always a priority for me,” he says.

That led Tacko—along with his friend, Ange Badji—to Houston, where he enrolled at Jamie’s House Charter School. Though his time in Texas was short-lived (the school closed mere months after he arrived) and somewhat stressful (adjusting to a new culture, dealing with homesickness and needing to re-apply for his Form I-20 certificate of eligibility to stay in the U.S.), he did make at least one long-lasting and uplifting connection: Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon.

“It's funny because that was around that time where I started watching YouTube videos, and then I saw a couple YouTube videos where [Hakeem] worked out LeBron and Kobe and Amar'e and JaVale McGee, and players like that,” Tacko says. “When I went to the same gym, I was, like, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ Now, I realize how big of a deal that was. I mean, back then, I was still kind of new to the game and I knew who Hakeem was. But now I have more sense of why I was really blessed to have the opportunity.”

Hakeem was the first legend to mentor Tacko, but he would hardly be the last.

Once he finished high school (with a 3.6 GPA) at Liberty Christian Prep in Tavares, Florida—while living with the family of a local public relations consultant named Mandy Wettstein—Tacko went on to play college basketball at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. There, he befriended Dr. Richard Lapchick, the founder and director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES). Dr. Lapchick, in turn, happened to be close friends with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

So after getting a glimpse of the Dream Shake from Hakeem, Tacko got a crash course in the Sky Hook from Kareem, along with many more lessons about life beyond basketball.

“Kareem is one of the smartest people that I've met,” Tacko says. “Just his personality is totally different from a lot of other basketball players that you would meet, but his things are a lot more things off the court. Just how you handle yourself off the court, the things that you do for the community and things like that.”

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In between forging those relationships, Tacko got to strengthen an even more important one: with his father, Ama.

After leaving Houston, and before a brief stint in Tennessee, he went to live in Cincinnati with Ama, who worked as a driver—first cabs, now buses. Prior to that, the father and his eldest son had only gotten to spend time together once every three years, when Ama would go back to Senegal.

“We have a really good relationship,” Tacko says. “He's probably one of the hardest workers that I know.”

Tacko would need that work ethic to hold his own in computer science at UCF. But two years in, the dueling demands of academics and athletics forced him to change to a more flexible course of study.

“The schedule kind of got a little crazy, especially with our traveling and everything,” he says. “And it's engineering. It's like you have to be in those courses. You can't miss a lot of days. So it was just tough to keep up.”

Not that Tacko slacked off at all after switching out of computer science. He opted, instead, to major in interdisciplinary studies and business, with a minor in psychology.

By then, he’d become a key contributor for the Knights under head coach Johnny Dawkins, who’d previously coached at Stanford and spent nine years playing in the NBA after starring for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

As a senior, Tacko reconnected with a second-year transfer named Ibrahim Famouke Doumbia. He and Ibrahim had known each other through the basketball community. When the Mali-born forward wanted to know if UCF would be a good place to transfer from South Carolina, he called Tacko, who told him it was.

Ibrahim also happened to be close with another talented big man: Mohamed Bamba. Ibrahim and Mo played AAU ball together in Harlem, and wound up in Florida at the same time—the former at UCF, the latter as a 2018 lottery pick of the Orlando Magic.

Through Ibrahim, Tacko got to know Mo. And through Mo, Tacko met Drew Hanlen.

Drew helped Tacko tackle his free throws. Then, after UCF’s season was over, he texted Tacko with an offer to work him out in LA for the draft. Tacko accepted, and flew out shortly after finishing school.

“I'm pretty unique, but I feel like he has observed me so much and studied and has found ways, for example, to help me with my free throws, to make the game easier for me on the post and to help me read the game, especially on pick-and-rolls and things like that,” Tacko says. “He's been really helpful.”

Tacko Fall Drew Hanlen

This spring, Tacko Fall came out to Los Angeles to do his pre-draft work with NBA skills coaching consultant Drew Hanlen (left). (Josh Martin)

It’s a big day for the biggest man in this week’s NBA draft. Here, inside the gym at Saint Bernard—a stone’s throw from Los Angeles International Airport—Tacko takes the court for Drew’s pro day.

In the stands sit scouts and executives from teams across the league, logos emblazoned on polos throughout. Brent Barry, a 14-year NBA veteran and broadcaster-turned-vice president of basketball operations for the San Antonio Spurs, has a spot in the front row. Up top, another 14-year vet and former champion—Tayshaun Prince—sits with members of the Memphis Grizzlies’ front office.

Sure, they’re there to see Western Kentucky’s Charles Bassey, Duke’s Javin DeLaurier, Florida’s Jalen Hudson and Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite, among others. But even to people who watch basketball for a living, Tacko can’t help but stand out.

He jostles jocularly with Javin, whom he also stymied during UCF’s March Madness thriller against Duke. He battles for rebounds with prospects who look up to Tacko the way normal-sized people look up to them. He calls for the ball down low, eager to show off his post moves.

“I’m hungry,” Tacko barks. “Feed me.”

He even gets to run some point—as if Ben Simmons, at 6’10”, wasn’t big enough.

“I had a great time. It was fun,” Tacko says. “Guys came and competed. Drew prepared us well. There was a lot of scouts. We had the opportunity for us to showcase what we can do.”

After the audition ends, Tacko, joining the other guys, climbs into the stands to greet and shake hands with each and every front-office person who’d come from all over town—and across the country before that—to watch.

Soon enough, he would be the one traveling to meet with them—to Orlando and Sacramento, Charlotte and Indianapolis, New York and Cleveland and back to LA.

Though he’s not projected to be picked anywhere near Zion in this year’s draft, the pre-draft process has only emboldened Tacko’s belief that he can play in the NBA.

“When you play against people that are projected to be drafted, especially like be drafted really high, you're, like, ‘Wow, I can hold myself, you know, I can do this,’” he says. “I just got to keep working, stay the course, you know, have fun.”

If, for whatever reason, basketball doesn’t work out for one of the tallest people on Earth, Tacko will have other career options. He says if he wasn’t a hooper, he’d be a computer engineer. When he has the wherewithal to start investing, he wants to put his money into technology.

With all the scrutiny that attends the typical pre-draft process, non-basketball passions like Tacko’s can be weaponized against prospects by the people doing the evaluations. How much can someone with so many interests—and who’s so new to the game—truly love basketball?

“It's a known barrier. I knew people were gonna ask that,” he says. “I would think just my journey is a testament to how much I love it. I mean, it wasn't easy. If I didn't love it, I probably would have stopped a while ago.”

Instead, Tacko has gotten better and better at the game he loves. He finished his college career as the NCAA’s all-time leader in field-goal percentage—along with his academic degrees.

It’s tough to imagine him presenting any character issues either. As an observant Muslim, he doesn’t drink or party. As a man of unusual proportions, he concerns himself less with expensive designer brands than with simply finding clothes that fit his massive frame and size-22 shoes.

“Once you get to that lifestyle, you get caught in the trap of you gotta have everything,” he says. “You gotta be smart with your money, gotta make good investments.”

Tacko Fall

If not for basketball, Tacko would have pursued a career in computer science. (Josh Martin)

Tacko also envisions a future wherein he uses his resources to give back to communities in Senegal. In addition to other philanthropic work, he wants to open his own academy, where he can help kids get a proper education on and off the court.

“This is what I've grown to love,” he says. “They say, ‘You always find out what you're supposed to do, but when you find it, you know.’ I feel like this is my calling, and I feel like I can use basketball to do a lot more things.”

But before Tacko can do all those things—be they back home in Senegal, where he hasn’t been since he left nearly seven years ago, or in whichever city he lands as a pro—he’ll first have to finish showing his skills to all those folks who want to see who he is, and what he can do on the basketball court.

The fascinations continues.

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.