By Matt Langone
LOWELL -- It's not uncommon for Souleymane Wane's French students at Haverhill High School to assign themselves a little research project at some point during the school year.
"The kids will come into class and say to me 'I Googled you yesterday,'" said the 6-foot-11 Wane, a Lowell resident and fourth-year French teacher at Haverhill. "They see how tall I am and they wonder if I played basketball."
General curiosity may indeed be a factor. But you'd also have to assume that it doesn't take long for word to spread through the hallways that a certain teacher won a national title as a center for the University of Connecticut men's basketball team in 1999. That same teacher also met President Bill Clinton, played at the Los Angeles Clippers' training camp and played professional ball for four years overseas.
It's all part of the fascinating life and times of Souleymane Wane.
Born and raised in Dakar, Senegal, the 35-year-old Wane didn't come to the United States until he was 19. He married his college sweetheart Deborah, a Dracut native, and the couple moved to Dracut after Wane's playing career ended in 2005. They moved to Lowell in 2009 and now have two sons, a 3-year-old and a 6-month old.
It's to the benefit of people like UMass Lowell men's basketball coach Greg Herenda that the big man's journey has led him to the Merrimack Valley. This winter, Wane will serve as an assistant coach for the River Hawks on Herenda's staff.
"Souley is very bright and soft-spoken, but he commands a great deal of respect. When he speaks, people listen," said Herenda, who first met Wane at a local fundraiser two years ago. "He has a championship ring and he played for a Hall of Fame coach (Jim Calhoun). He was an intimidating force and we're hoping he can transport that to some of our guys."
It has only been one week of practice, but so far so good.
"(Wane) played at a very, very high level, and he has a lot to bring to the table as a coach," said junior forward Matt Welch, a Lowell native. "He's been in a lot games and a lot of situations. Anything he has to offer us, we'll be listening."
It all began in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, located on the western tip of Africa. The English language was not a part of Wane's upbringing, as French and Wolof are the widely spoken languages in the multi-lingual country.
Also absent from Wane's childhood were dreams of one day playing in the NBA. In Senegal, like much of the rest of the world, soccer is king.
One of Wane's greatest companions growing up was a soccer ball. Utilizing his tremendous height and size, he was not surprisingly a goalie, like his Nigerian-born hero Hakeem Olajuwon. Of course, Olajuwon ultimately found basketball as his calling in life, putting together a Hall of Fame NBA career.
"I remember sneaking out of my house and walking 30 minutes to a university that had cable so that I could watch Hakeem play," Wane said. "I thought, 'Maybe I should play basketball.' My body was made for basketball."
Wane's potential was also recognized by others, including Amadou Gallo Fall, who worked for the Senegalese Basketball Federation. Through Gallo, legendary Georgetown University head coach John Thompson was interested in recruiting Wane, despite the fact that he didn't really start playing until he was 17.
With minimal belongings Wane came to the United States in October of 1995 to attend Redemption Christian Academy in Troy, N.Y.
"I could barely understand what people were saying," he said. "The food, the culture was so different. It was total culture shock. I came over here with just three shirts. It was cold. When I left Senegal it was 90 degrees."
Despite his raw ability and unfamiliarity with his surroundings, colleges came knocking on Wane's door -- Fresno State, DePaul, Houston, UNLV, Georgetown and UConn. The hard part was choosing one, which he did after meeting Calhoun.
"I always thought I was headed to Georgetown. Then last minute, I changed my mind to UConn," Wane said. "Every day for the first couple of years, I just wanted to come home. But I also knew America was the land of opportunity. There was nothing for me in Senegal."
The ultimate victory
Wane's collegiate statistics were by no means gaudy. But considering he was learning a language, culture and sport all on the fly, he did quite well for himself. It was all thanks to hard work and dedication in all facets of his life.
He appeared in at least 28 games each year from his freshman season in 1997-98 to when he graduated in 2001. He had career averages of nearly 14 minutes, 3.2 points and 4.1 rebounds. In his senior season, he averaged nearly five points and five rebounds in over 20 minutes per game. He also won the team's student-athlete award as a freshman.
The ultimate moment was, of course, helping UConn win its first-ever national title.
"I learned a lot playing for coach Calhoun," Wane said. "I wish I could go back to college right now, now that I'm comfortable with everything. I think it would have helped me be a better player. Basketball was never the way I wanted it to be."
His career did move on after UConn. Along with spending time in the Clippers' training camp, he played professionally in Bosnia, Germany and Poland, and he also played on the Senegalese national team in the 2005 FIBA Africa Championship.
When his playing career ended due to hip and knee problems at the age of 29, he had degrees in political science and French to fall back on. He also now speaks five languages. Coach Herenda hopes it all translates into River Hawk victories.