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Timberwolves’ Gorgui Dieng Aims to Help All Back Home in Senegal

PHOENIX -- Three years ago, while visiting his hometown of Kebemer in Senegal, Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng witnessed something that would change his perspective—which, in turn, would change countless lives in West Africa.

“I saw a pregnant woman laying on the ground because they don’t have a bed for her,” Gorgui tells CloseUp360 at Timberwolves practice in Phoenix. “That’s when I started getting involved. That was the first day I talked to the doctor. I was, like, ‘Listen, I don’t promise anything to you guys, but I want to know exactly what you guys need.’ And since then, I’ve taken over from there.”

Some of the hospital rooms only had tables instead of beds. And most of the beds that were around didn’t have mattresses, so patients had to lay directly on springs.

This was typical of life in Senegal until 2014, when Gorgui started his foundation to provide medical assistance and food to the people back in his native country. As much as basketball has done for him, he hopes to do so much more with the game—and the platform it’s led him to the NBA—to give back to where he’s from.

“I’m more excited about the things I do off the court,” Gorgui says. “I don’t want people to label me as a basketball player. I want people to label me like I care. What I do is to help my community and help people.”

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Gorgui Dieng peers into the maternity ward at the hospital in Kebemer, Senegal, this past summer. (Courtesy of Gorgui Dieng)

In partnership with MATTER, a Minnesota-based global health nonprofit, the Gorgui Dieng Foundation fulfilled the doctor’s orders for the hospital in Kebemer—including 200 beds, exam tables, dialysis machines, X-ray machines and patient monitors for a new dialysis center.

“We were able to send a lot of those items to those babies to make sure they had a good shot at making it,” says Quenton Marty, the president of MATTER. “This hospital serves the whole region for premature babies.”

Gorgui and Quenton met in March 2014 at the Timberwolves’ FastBreak Foundation’s annual “Taste of the Timberwolves” fundraising event. Gorgui was looking to start his foundation and accomplish his dream of helping his home country, while Quenton’s organization had a mission to “expand access to health, next door and around the world” to 10 million people by 2018.

It was a perfect fit.

After their initial connection, Gorgui and Quenton bonded over breakfast in Minneapolis. They decided to join forces to fight malnutrition and the lack of medical resources in Senegal. Since then, Quenton has traveled to Gorgui’s hometown to see the living conditions for himself.

“I’ve been to his hometown a number of times and it’s amazing, and quite a story that it wasn’t that long ago that he was walking around in kind of a dusty, sandy place,” Quenton says. “He basically grew up right on the edge of the Sahara desert. It’s a difficult community there and they have a lack of access to resources and, as a result, his family went through a lot of hardship and poverty.”

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Gorgui owns more than 100 acres in Senegal where he assists in sustainable farming and trains locals in the fields. (Courtesy of Gorgui Dieng)

Gorgui saw first-hand what it was like for people in his community to be without the proper resources to live. So when it comes to his efforts, he is hands-on with the whole process. He doesn’t just collect the money and send it off. He visits Senegal every summer to teach people back home how to farm and see what else they need.

“I think the best way to help them stay home and see what their abilities are like [is] what they can do while they are in their villages that they have to learn and use,” Gorgui says. “So I’m teaching them to do farming.”

Basketball is another key component of his efforts. The sport has put him in position, in terms of both access and resources, to help those in need back home.

“I couldn’t do it without basketball,” Gorgui says. “I always say that basketball is very small and it does a lot of good for me. Throughout basketball, I’ve met a lot of great people and they invested so much into me.”

Gorgui’s career on the court started at 16, when he literally outgrew his first sporting love: soccer. After standing out during a tournament in 2007 and honing his skills in 2008 at the SEED Project (Sports for Education and Economic Development), a Senegalese basketball academy, Gorgui caught the basketball world’s attention in 2009 at Basketball Without Borders, the NBA and FIBA’s global basketball development and community outreach program. There, he first met his current Wolves teammate and mentor Luol Deng, who was born in South Sudan.

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“When I was young, he would always make deals with me, like, ‘You’re going to make it to the NBA. You’re going to have a good life, but you got to be smart, go to school, be patient, you have to work on this, work on that,’” Gorgui recalls. “When I was in college, he used to come to Senegal in the summertime, so I got to see him and spend time with him.”

Because of those efforts, Gorgui started a basketball camp of his own to provide the same type of leadership he was given as a child.

“I have 400 to 500 kids every year that we bring for a week,” he says, “so we are going to look at some of the good players, mentor them, help them with their classes, help them with everything.”

The camp is free, including gear, food, lodging and insurance for the campers. For Gorgui, showing these kids their capabilities and potential is one of the most rewarding parts of his outreach.

“All these young kids, I know they look up to me,” he says. “[I tell them], ‘If you work hard, you will see what’s next.’ It’s not only basketball. It might be education. It can be whatever he wants. It’s up to him. But whatever he does successful or whatever he does, experience is the most important. He can go back and share with his young brothers and sisters.”

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Gorgui at one of his basketball events this past summer. (Courtesy of Gorgui Dieng)

The Gorgui Dieng Foundation also focuses heavily on helping to end malnutrition in Senegal by providing rice meals to hundreds of thousands of kids in need.

“We send over 4-5 rice meals that are designed to help kids who are in a situation where they are, for one reason or another, [and] don’t have access to nutrition that they need,” Quenton says. “So these meals are designed to help reanimate them and get them back to a healthy place, so they can get onto a more balanced diet.”

To date, the foundation has sent more than 1.5 million meals to Senegal.

“The feedback is great,” Gorgui says. “Like the people we give the meal plans [to], they always come back to us. I went to see the kids that we’re giving them [to] and they really changed. They’re really changing. They look a lot healthier. It’s amazing.”

Gorgui wants to continue fighting malnutrition and focus on the maternity ward in Senegal. He also has camps every summer for kids in the Special Olympics.

Back in the states, Gorgui has garnered support from his teammates in Minnesota, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins donating to his cause. In the future, he hopes to join with Luol to expand his efforts beyond Senegal, though nothing is set yet.

“They talk about doing projects not just in Sudan or Senegal, but they talk about helping people in Africa more broadly,” Quenton says. “They’re a real inspiration to want to link arms, whether it’s in our home country or somewhere else.”

Gorgui makes sure he’s always available for the people in Senegal, even when he’s not around.

“I reach out to them, they reach out to me, like I’ll make myself available when I’m home, so they can come see me and tell me the news [since I’ve been gone],” Gorgui says. “A lot of people we help and they get back to us. Right now, when I leave home, I would leave money there, like all the money we raised to pay people’s hospital bills, [to] make sure they get their medication for free because they can’t afford it. If you have someone who has surgery, you have to follow up with him and see if they want help.”

Though Gorgui is already a hero in his home country, he’s still building on his efforts in Senegal. In the year to come, he’s aiming to further aid the maternity ward at the hospital in Kebemer with infant incubators, supplies for mothers and their babies, and donations to cover hospital bills. He hopes to continue raising money to make sure his people can all live healthy, successful lives, starting from birth.

“The world is not fair. Everything can’t be equal,” Gorgui says. “But I wish it can [be] if I can help a little bit.”

 

Ashley Nevel is a veteran NBA writer and producer based in Phoenix. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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