“I’ve just got to teach them that they’re not going to start off playing good, but just keep your head up and be positive,” Sango Niang, now one of the captains of the men’s basketball team, explains what he feels he needs to teach his younger teammates.
Niang is now the bonafide star of the team, and it’s hard to imagine the senior point guard being anything less. However, the advice he offers his teammates comes from having gone through the process himself — perhaps through a harder road than most — in a true underdog story.
Sango was born in Paris, France, the son of an Olympian track and field runner. He moved to California with his family when he was six. “It was a hard adjustment because I didn’t speak English at all,” he explains.
Although he was athletic, running track and field himself, he didn’t even begin playing basketball until his freshman year in high school. Needless to say, he did not receive much playing time at first — in his sophomore year, he didn’t even make the team.
Despite missing the cut, he pursued the game with dogged determination: “I usually went to 24 Hour Fitness and just practice[d] by myself, and my parents would have to tell me to go home, do my homework, ‘you did enough for today.’ But I used to go outside in the rain, walk to the gym 10 miles away and just get my work in.”
However, despite his hard work, he had few chances to actually play the game. Sango ended up making the junior and senior varsity teams at Summit High, but would have to wait for college to get his chance to shine.
“After high school, I went to junior college next to my house and I tried out [for the basketball team],” he says. “The coach told me I was going to redshirt because I wasn’t good enough yet.”
However, it would be here that he would finally get his chance: “[The coach] let me play in one of their tournaments preseason and I had 27 points. He told me, ‘You’re going to be my starting point guard.’
“I always kept the doubters at the back of my mind and always worked hard to prove everybody wrong,” he explains.
One of the challenges that remains for Sango is the distance from his family, who still live in California. “That’s the hardest part, being away from home.
“We’ll talk on the phone a lot,” he adds. “Before and after every game, I talk to my dad.”
His passion for basketball becomes apparent when he explains his cure for the homesick blues: “Basketball gets me through it. When I get homesick, I just go to the gym and get some shots up.”
Now, he is an integral part of a new high-scoring offence for the Clan, with the team scoring about 130 points per game so far. “It’s a more fun playing style,” he says.
A good part of the reason he came to SFU was head coach James Blake. “[Blake] believed in me first, and he gave me opportunities so I signed with SFU. We’re going to change the team, me and him together.”
However, Sango’s leadership role means he has to do more than focus on his own game — he also has to make the players around him better.
“I push them by being an asshole at practice, just talking smack to them, making sure everyone is practicing at game speed,” he explains. “If you aren’t practicing at game speed, it’s going to be difficult when you play the game. So I try to make practice intense and make it a real in-game situation.”
He explains that in order for the team to win, he can’t just be focused on individual achievements.
“I know other teams [have] me on the scouting report and they’re going to try and block me, so I try and get everyone involved. So when the time is right, I just get my points and try not to take bad shots,” he explains.
“I just play hard. If you play hard, you’re going to play good. It’s not just about scoring, it’s about winning. You’ve got to make everyone around you better.”
Sango enters 2015 with the knowledge that he will be playing his last games of college basketball, and that he’ll have to make an impression this year if he wants to play professionally.
To get to the next level, he says, “I’ve just got to work harder, be a good leader, have a good season — a winning season.”
With the team ending 2014 at 6–3, and Sango averaging over 20 points per game, it appears that he is well on his way towards his dreams.