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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Tangara journeys home to Mali

    Sophomore forward Mohamed Tangara goes up for a shot over Jawann McClellan in last Saturdays scrimmage in McKale Center. Tangara made the long journey from Africa six years ago, and finally got a chance to visit his homeland of Mali again this summer.
    Sophomore forward Mohamed Tangara goes up for a shot over Jawann McClellan in last Saturday’s scrimmage in McKale Center. Tangara made the long journey from Africa six years ago, and finally got a chance to visit his homeland of Mali again this summer.

    Mohamed Tangara hadn’t seen his family in six years.

    When he left Bamako, Mali, as a 17-year-old, Tangara was large in stature, raw in talent and leaving his homeland for a completely new world thousands of miles away.

    Over the summer, Tangara finally got a chance to make the 15-hour trek back home to a place that had changed so drastically since he left, a place where he and his 10 siblings once slept on concrete floors and Tangara dreamed about coming to the United States so he could provide a better life for his family.

    When Tangara’s plane took off in mid-July, “”I didn’t know what to expect,”” he said, just like the original flight he took to the U.S.

    “”The airplane kept going and I couldn’t get any sleep. I was just thinking about home, home, home,”” Tangara said. “”From the time I left this country to the time – being in the air for 15 hours, I’m just thinking about home, mom, dad, everybody.

    “”When I got there, I started seeing my family, and it was like a relief.””

    Tangara comes from in a village near the capital city of Bamako, located on the Niger River, near the rapids that divide the Upper and Middle Niger Valleys in the southwestern part of the country. His village has 15,000 people, less than half of the student body at the UA.

    “”It’s way different than Tucson, it’s a very small town,”” Tangara said.

    When Tangara first came to the United States, his family didn’t have a home phone, so when he called, a message had to be relayed to his family and they would schedule a time to use the community phone in order to him call back.

    Two years ago, the Tangara family finally got a phone in the house, and now Mohamed speaks with them once every few weeks. But it isn’t the same. Not when he can’t see their faces, feel their hands against his or hear their voices without the muffling of an international phone call.

    “”It was tears, everybody was crying; and at

    He wouldn’t eat, or he would go get a big bag of potato chips and have that for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

    Josh Pastner,
    UA assistant coach

    the same time I was happy to be home,”” Tangara said. “”It was very emotional to see me back there. No one knows what’s going on in my life and to just go back there, it was amazing.””

    “”He said a lot of family didn’t even recognize him when he got there, when you think about what he was when he left and what he came back as,”” said UA head coach Lute Olson. “”He just thoroughly enjoyed his time in Mali.””

    It wasn’t all positive, though. Tangara was supposed to bring his extended family, the Arizona basketball team, along for the ride. But because of fears of malaria in his village, the basketball team canceled its trip and eventually canceled its European trip because of injuries.

    “”I was very disappointed,”” he said. “”I’d love to have my teammates and to go back home and show them what I’m doing here.””

    Tangara said if he got the chance, the first thing he would have to show them would be his first ever basketball court. Although he doesn’t know who built it, Tangara started showing up every single day at 14 to a height-standard basket dug not into concrete but into grass.

    “”It’s not even close to this one,”” Tangara said, laughing as he pointed to the basket hanging in McKale Center on Lute and Bobbi Olson Court.

    And although the redshirt sophomore’s stint on that court has been short thus far, Tangara remains as popular as ever in his village.

    “”It’s a town where everybody knows me,”” he said. “”My teammates would feel special there. Back home (in Mali), we love the United States.””

    The trip home could have come a lot earlier, when Tangara was struggling to adjust to his new country.

    Mali’s Tucson-like weather made Tangara’s transition to North Carolina, where he played high school basketball at Mount Zion Academy, very difficult.

    “”I almost went back home,”” he said. “”I dreamed to come here, but when I got to (North Carolina) it was cold and my mind was like, ‘Can I do this?'””

    “”I was not used to the snow,”” he added. “”You had to put on a jacket, but you were still cold. Your bones were cold.””

    And then there was the language barrier.

    Tangara couldn’t even muster a sentence for the first few months.

    “”I don’t know how to describe it,”” he said. “”The only thing I knew was, ‘How are you doing,’ ‘Good morning,’ ‘Give me water,’ ‘Can I get some food.'””

    But Tangara was a quick learner and after a few months, “”I was OK,”” he said.

    “”He’s extremely educated, very bright,”” said UA assistant coach Josh Pastner. “”He taught himself how to speak and read English. Himself. No one else to taught him.””

    By the second year, Tangara was starting to have conversations, and he didn’t feel as alone.

    Still, he missed his family deeply and had a sense that he needed to help them more. When he first arrived in Tucson on scholarship, Tangara began receiving scholarship checks. Instead of buying necessities, Tangara paid off his rent and sent the rest of the money back home to his family, sums of money ranging around $150 to $200 at a time.

    “”He wouldn’t eat, or he would go get a big bag of potato chips and have that for breakfast, lunch and dinner,”” Pastner said.

    Tangara’s weight started dropping – he lost 10 pounds. The coaches began to notice and started asking questions.

    “”He wasn’t feeling real well,”” Pastner said. “”He was lacking energy and we confronted him about it.””

    But Tangara wouldn’t admit to it right away.

    “”I had to help my family,”” he said. “”At the time, they needed help, so I had to sacrifice myself, but I understand that I have to take care of my body, and it was balance.””

    “”That just shows how big of a heart Mohamed really has and how compassionate and selfless he really is,”” said forward Bret Brielmaier, who came in with Tangara’s recruiting class.

    Tangara lived in an off-campus apartment and kept his finances to himself.

    “”Josh started asking me questions. He’s always trying to investigate somebody,”” Tangara said jokingly. “”He kept asking me questions. The more he kept questioning me, I finally had to tell him.””

    “”Of course he would deny it,”” Pastner said, “”but then we found out and got to the bottom of it.””

    Pastner and the coaching staff understood Tangara’s situation but they noticed the lack of food was draining his energy and hurting his life.

    “”Bless his heart, he’s doing things for his family, but it was affecting his performance and him in his whole life,”” Pastner said. “”We told him you have to take care of yourself first so you can take care of your family.””

    Now back in the United States after his 23-day trip, Tangara is reinvigorated as he prepares for the upcoming season.

    His large family back home makes him as personable as anyone on the team.

    Beloved by his teammates, the coaches and the community, Tangara’s wide smile and laid-back, unassuming nature make him a 6-foot-9 gentle giant.

    “”The guy is an amazing person to do what he’s done, and the pressure that’s on him at home is enormous,”” Pastner said. “”I don’t think anyone realizes the amount of pressure he has.

    “”He’s as well-respected of a young man – I’m talking you can go meet somebody who’s walking across the street and they come across Mohamed and they just rave about him,”” he added.

    “”Everybody that comes in Mohamed’s presence talks so high about him as a person.””

    Though some of the freshmen are just beginning to know Tangara, some of his older teammates understand what he’s been through.

    “”He’s the type of guy who will do anything for you,”” Brielmaier said. “”If your car broke down in the middle of nowhere, he’d be the one to pick you up. Mohamed is one of the most giving people on this team.””

    And he’s much easier to understand than his freshman year, when all Pastner would tell him is to “”rebound.””

    “”From my freshman year, it’s a lot better,”” Brielmaier said. “”(Indefinite articles) like ‘a’s’ and simple words like that – he’s starting to get them in there.

    “”Before, he just kind of jumbled sentences, but now they’re really good,”” he added. “”I used to have trouble understanding him but now it’s perfect.””

    As his first season wore on, Tangara had back problems, which Pastner said may have come as a result of the weight issues, and he was forced to medically redshirt as a freshman. This summer, Tangara experienced pain in his knee and could barely practice in Mali because of it. But as the season nears, Tangara’s health is fine and his energy appeared strong in the team’s first scrimmage.

    “”He came back with a real smile on his face, as you could imagine if you hadn’t seen family in six years,”” Olson said.

    Whether Tangara eventually realizes his dream of playing professionally or earns his degree in family studies and helps with the family farm in Mali, as he hopes to travel back and forth more consistently after he graduates, Tangara realizes the opportunity he has in front of him living in the United States.

    And after his trip back home to Mali, he can take solace in feeling comfortable in his home away from home.

    “”(The trip) really helped him from a standpoint of feeling good about having been with his family and feeling good about the opportunity he has here,”” Olson said.

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