Center of attention: Where Tacko Fall stands in basketball


HE TRAINED HIMSELF to be gracious, even though no one afforded him the same consideration.

When kids in Senegal taunted him simply because he towered above them, he refused to retaliate, refused to dissolve into tears, refused to scamper home and tattle to his mother, even though he was just an 8-year-old boy.

“I could not tell my mother,” Tacko Fall says. “She would have killed them.”

So when they mocked him and called him Botoumboo, a goofy Senegalese cartoon character, he stood straight and silent, just as his mother had taught him. He quietly absorbed insults from boys four years older — poking fun at someone so big made them feel tougher, stronger, cooler.

“As a kid, these are things you go through,” Fall explains. “These are the things that make or break you.”

When he came to America, the slights continued, but often out of ignorance rather than cruelty. Donnie Jones, his college coach at the University of Central Florida, is incredulous at the things people said as Tacko moved through the airport, from the usual “How’s the weather up there?” to the more sinister “You could be in the circus!” Eventually, Jones instructed Fall to stay seated while awaiting their flights so people couldn’t gauge how tall he truly was. “This is all part of your education,” Jones would console him. “They only see your body, not your beautiful mind.”

Tacko Fall is a man now, accustomed to life in an elongated fish bowl. When you are 7-foot-7 and cannot squeeze into a car unless you push the seat all the way back and recline so you can unfurl your spindly legs, when you cannot purchase a turtleneck long enough to cover your slender frame for the cold New England winters, you learn to improvise. You learn that people will stare — they always have, and they always will.

“It’s awkward sometimes,” Fall admits. “I’m low-key, but I attract a lot of attention, and I’m not always comfortable with that.”

It is an ongoing battle, this quest to persuade others to see Tacko Fall as something more than a curiosity. When they rush to greet him, pushing and jostling for a better view, they don’t know (or care) that he’s an inquisitive intellect with an engineering degree who scored so high on his SATs (taken in English, his second language) that he met the qualifications for Ivy League schools. They don’t stop to consider his humanitarian efforts in his native country, his fervent wish to make this basketball thing work so he can establish his own foundation to help his people. “Be a global leader,” Jones says. “We talk about that all the time.”

These days, as the wildly popular center of the Boston Celtics, it’s adoration, not derision, that engulfs Tacko Fall. But that too has a price.

Some have called Tacko Fall a basketball phenomenon, but that isn’t entirely accurate. He is still learning, not ready to stake a claim in the NBA game. Under the stipulations of his contract, he can play a maximum of only 45 games for the Celtics and will spend most of his time in the G League affiliate in Portland, Maine. His passionate followers should brace themselves for the very real possibility that Fall will play but a handful of NBA minutes this season.

That won’t stop them from dressing up in bulky fast-food costumes to pay homage. It won’t stop men, women and kids, basketball and non-basketball fans alike, to lose their minds when they see him.

In July, when he and teammate Grant Williams stood to leave a Red Sox game, the patrons abandoned their seats and their baseball team to pursue Fall for a picture, an autograph, a handshake. It took him over an hour and a half to leave Fenway; there was no place to hide.

When you’re Tacko Fall, there is never a place to hide.

“He’s exhausted,” Williams says. “But Tacko will never say no. He’s still going to smile, stop and sign, and take the picture.

“I worry about him. People don’t mean any harm, but they need to understand he’s a human being like the rest of us.”

Even the basketball court has threatened to lapse into a vaudeville show. It started at NBA Summer League in Vegas, when Fall’s on-court appearances were greeted with the same enthusiasm as the coronation of the king. And if the discerning fans didn’t get their daily dose of Tacko, they impatiently began chanting his name, demanding a cameo.

This continued once he shared the bench with Celtics teammates in preseason. It has continued into the regular season, when Madison Square Garden chanted for him on Saturday.

“It’s nothing we can control,” coach Brad Stevens says. “I try to recognize it. I go up to him and I say, ‘Hey, man, this stinks for both of us. We’ll figure it out.’ He appreciates how much people love him, and this is his chance, with this platform, to show people how special he is.

“Obviously you want the fans to be happy, but when they start chanting his name, the only thing I care about in that moment is to make sure Tacko isn’t uncomfortable.”

He is, of course. Basketball is not a dalliance to him. He wants to earn his minutes based on his progress and his performance, like every other prospect.

“I don’t want to take away from the focus of my teammates,” Fall says. “And I know it’s tough for Brad to hear the fans chanting, because he is also trying to focus. I want to play, of course, but it’s the coach’s job to decide when they need me.”

And, for the moment, that isn’t now.

TACKO FALL HAS never heard of Chuck Nevitt, whose nickname in the ’80s was the Human Victory Cigar. Nevitt, a 7-foot-5 center, logged 825 career minutes in 10 NBA seasons wearing five different uniforms. He handled his status as a garbage-time spectacle with great humor. Sports Illustrated once wrote a feature on Nevitt in which someone asked him if he played basketball. “Some would say I do,” Nevitt quipped, “and some would say I don’t.”

Seven-foot-seven Manute Bol — who played regular minutes for the Golden State Warriors and others from 1985 to 1995, amassing 2,687 career rebounds and 2,086 blocks — was less amused by the attention he garnered, delivering biting retorts to those who dared to gawk. Conversely, former Washington big man Gheorghe Muresan embraced his size — all 7 feet, 5 inches of it — and started his own basketball school when he retired that he named Giant Basketball Academy.

Boban Marjanovic, at 7-foot-3, became an instant fan favorite in San Antonio, even though he saw action only in games that had been long decided. The fans’ fervor for him was coined “Boban Mania,” and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was so bothered, he felt compelled to remind everyone, “He’s a basketball player. He’s not some sort of an odd thing.”

Stevens harbors similar concerns for Tacko. “He’s not just tall,” Stevens says. “He’s someone who cares about community, who cares about the team. I saw [teammate] Rob Williams’ spirit go to a whole different level when Tacko Fall was in the gym with him in preseason. His energy is contagious. I hope people appreciate there’s more to him than his size.”

FROM DAKAR, SENEGAL, Elhadji Tacko Sereigne Diop Fall was born into a devout Muslim home. His first love was soccer, but his mother kept him close, and he only occasionally ventured to the fields to play with the other boys. His family was so poor that when his village encountered an outbreak of malaria, they were unable to pay for mosquito nets to cover their beds.

“They cost less than $3,” Fall says, “but we couldn’t afford them. I was thankful that none of us got it. I had malaria when I was small and it was miserable. Fever. Chills. Scary.”

Fall left for the States when he was in ninth grade, bouncing around to different schools and host families. Donnie Jones met him a year later and says, without elaborating, that Tacko’s life in Senegal was “very dark, very hard.

“He came to America hoping to trust somebody,” Jones says.

Fall found a basketball family at UCF, where Jones dialed up the Houston Rockets and queried them about how they trained Yao Ming without putting too much stress on his feet, knees and back. Jones special-ordered sweat pants so Tacko could have a pair that actually went below the knee. When Fall fumbled a series of easy passes, Jones took him for an eye test, then bought him contacts. “We worked hard to build his self-esteem,” Jones says. “I never wanted him to feel like some guy from another planet who didn’t fit.”

In a quieter moment, Jones asked Fall if he ever got tired of people asking for pictures. Fall lowered his head and answered, “Coach, I know they’re not taking them because of my basketball.”

TACKO FALL DOESN’T want to be a human victory cigar. He also doesn’t want to be Mamadou N’Diaye, a fellow 7-foot-6 player from Dakar who ventured to America, played at UC Irvine, signed one afternoon with the Detroit Pistons, then was waived before the day was over.

Fall hopes to harness his expansive wingspan — 8 feet, 2.25 inches, an NBA combine record — into a defensive weapon. He has massive hands and is learning to use them not just to block shots but to deflect passes and initiate fast breaks.

“One day he’ll be with us full time, for sure,” Kemba Walker says. “He’s talented, and he works so hard. I don’t think people understand things he can do for his size. He surprised me with his ability to get up and down the court.”

“He actually does a pretty good job of sitting down, guarding the pick-and-roll,” Stevens adds. “Now, there’s going to be some matchups that are very tough. And then there’s getting the speed of the game down.

“I don’t care how fast you are, whether you are Kemba Walker or Jaylen Brown, there’s still a transition in learning the speed of the game. It’s the hardest part for young players.”

When Fall arrived in Boston over the summer, he had a pronounced hitch in his shot — “honestly, it was three hitches, the worse thing I’ve ever seen,” Williams says — and spent hours in the gym with assistant coach Jay Larranaga trying to extricate it from his game.

“It’s gone,” Fall declares. “Ask Coach Jay. I fixed it with repetition, repetition, repetition.”

Fall understands his strength, defensive instincts, offensive touch and mobility must improve for him to stick. In the meantime, his Celtics teammates have formed a protective armor around their celebrity rookie, closing ranks when chaos descends.

“Tacko is so likable, with such positive energy, that people forget,” says Enes Kanter. “He has feelings. He gets sad, he gets mad, he gets tired, he gets frustrated.

“At some point, he will have to learn to say no. This can’t go on.”

It’s all about perspective, Fall says. If he looks at the constant attention as a burden, “then it will become one.”

“I am used to this,” Fall says. “I feel like I’m mentally strong enough to not let it bother me too much. Luckily, every day I get on the court, I have fun. That is my sanctuary.”

He dreams of the day they chant his name because he scores the winning basket or makes a game-saving block. In the meantime, Tacko Fall stands tall and straight, just as he was taught, silently awaiting the moment that will make all those slights worth it.

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