Through no fault of his own, Gorgui Dieng and I got off to a bit of a rocky start.
I was doing research in the U of L law library in early September, 2010 (reason enough for Dieng's alpha days at Louisville to be unfairly saddled with a negative stigma) when I received a tip that the freshman big man had not qualified and was officially being declared ineligible by the NCAA. I was put in touch with a source who would have known more about the situation than anyone else, and he confirmed the initial message. I wrote a quick post with the details I was aware of, hit publish, and trudged off to class.
So there you have it. U of L comes out and flatly denies this Internet report.
Those were legitimately the very first words I heard after starting my car. Twenty-four hours later I was sick of hearing about myself. I listened to people I'd never met before defend Card Chronicle and claim they knew me on a personal level. I also heard stories of people who admitted to having never met me talk about how much they disliked me on a personal level. It was the f---ed up high school experience I'd always felt so fortunate to have avoided.
As for the actual news itself, Louisville's positon shifted from "this is completely false," to "he hasn't been cleared but he's going to be," to "ok, yeah, he's ineligible."
The worst part about the whole situation wasn't knowing that I was right and having to sit around and hear people say otherwise, it was that it was made to seem by some like I wanted to be right. Outside of a potential increase in traffic - and I get paid as much for one hit on this site as I do a billion (rhymes with "hero") - there's no benefit in breaking bad news for a partisan scribe. In such instances there will be a group of people mad at you because they don't want to believe the news, and another equally mad at you because they couldn't control the way the information was released. Some people are fine with making a living out of pissing people off. I'd prefer not to.
The situation was finally put to bed when Louisville won its appeal and Dieng was cleared by the NCAA two weeks before the start of the 2010-11 season. It was the best possible (and the only just) conclusion for all parties involved, but I still walked away from the mess wishing it hadn't ever started. Accurate or not, it felt like a person I had never spoken to and of whom I knew next-to-nothing about was very mad at me.
The saving grace of the whole autumn ordeal, of course, was that it introduced all of us to the first real, and still most widely known, Gorgui Dieng anecdote.
"Did you know Gorgui Dieng can speak five languages?"
Louisville fans were aware of Gorgui Dieng's status as a multilingual before they had any idea how to correctly pronounce either his first or his last name. They didn't know what his strengths and weaknesses on the basketball court were, but they knew he spoke better English than they spoke French or... Wolof?...and that was impressive.
Not that it was easy.
It was very hard for me. The first week I would just stay in my room. I couldn't speak to anybody. I couldn't do anything 'cause I couldn't speak one word of English. If you said Hi to me I would just look at you. I didn't know what to say.
By the time he was finally ready to take the court for the first time, Dieng's academic prowess had become somewhat of a big fish story.
Various SAT scores (all startlingly high) were tossed around liberally, reports from "classmates" of perfect quiz performances and mind-blowing presentations began popping up. For two months, Gorgui could lay claim to the title of having the largest divide between academic reputation and athletic reputation of any (scholarship) basketball player in Louisville history.
"When people said, 'oh, you play like Kevin Garnett,' I just said, 'nah, I'm Gorgui Dieng.'"
Gorgui Dieng's first shot attempt, and his first made basket, as a Louisville Cardinal was a 3-pointer, a fact so out of character that you'd expect to see it as the lede to a Russ Smith retrospective. Dieng's debut performance, which came in an exhibition win over Northern Kentucky, saw him finish with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and a team-high 11 rebounds. He also turned the ball over four times and committed two goaltending violations.
The expectations for Dieng were quickly cemented. He was the goofy foreign player who had obvious skill, but who was going to do too many silly things on the floor for his raw skill to have a chance to develop in any sort of significant way.
Freshman Gorgui had his goofy moments - the goaltends continued at a furious pace, he didn't realize until two months into the season that offensive fouls counted as part of your foul total, and then there was him famously not understanding why Louisville's season was over after it was stunned by Morehead State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament - but he also showcased a level of talent and a knack for rapid improvement that exceeded even the most optimistic Cardinal fan's early season expectation. He had an unusually soft touch around the basket, a solid mid-range jump shot, and the make-up and instincts of an elite shot-blocker.
How good he wanted to be, not how good he could be, was the question most often asked about Dieng in the months in between his freshman and sophomore campaigns.
"Since we lost to Morehead State - you can ask coach (Ray Ganong) or whoever you want - I don't take a day off. I just came here and lifted by myself or with Coach G. I do everything I need to get better because I don't want this to happen again."
"I don't want to let the team down like in front of 22,000 people. I will try to do the best I can. I'm not saying that I will carry the team by myself, but I'm going to do the best I can to achieve our goals this year."
Statements like these will earn a fan base's respect. Following through with them will earn their love.
"I've had one goal since I came to Louisville: win. That's all I need. It doesn't matter if I score 100 points or zero points, as long as we win."
Kentucky isn't the problem with the one-and-done system, they're just the only program successful enough at recruiting to cast the brightest possible light on its, for lack of a better term, cheap nature. There isn't a coaching staff or a fan base in college basketball that wouldn't do what UK has done over the past four years if it had the chance to.
That's not to say that it doesn't feel a whole lot better doing it like this.
The best and worst thing about being a sports fan in the Internet age is that we're able to learn more about the guys who wear the jersey we love than we ever could before. Because of people like Gorgui, that fact has made the past three years the most enjoyable I've known as a fan. I don't think I'm alone in that regard.
Knowing Gorgui Dieng simply as the guy who can speak five languages, who set Louisville's single-season blocked shots record and who helped lead the Cards to the Final Four would be fine. Knowing Gorgui Dieng as all those things plus the guy who can speak passionately and intelligently about things like politics and the moral fiber of America, who isn't afraid to admit how easy he thinks his life is right now and how fortunate he is for that, and who will sometimes put his hands up and say "no English" to out-of-town reporters because he thinks it's funny is better. It's much, much better.
He'd been on campus for a year and-a-half before any of us had any idea that Gorgui had as captivating and endearing a personality as anyone to sport the red and black.
Straight basketball fans love his game, old school fans love his humility, and the online contingent of fans love his personality. Truly a man for all seasons.
"I want to go back home and give back. People helped me to get here to go to school and play basketball, I want to go back home and do the same thing for the kids. I think they really want it. I don't want to be selfish. People who helped me do what I'm doing right now, I want to go back and do the same thing for them."
I'm asked on almost a weekly basis why I don't utilize a press pass or pursue another avenue that will bring me closer to the program. The answer I typically give is that the site works better when the narrator's perspective is that of a true fan. The more honest answer is that I'm selfish, and being a fan is way more enjoyable.
"Don't meet your heroes" has earned its status as a modern cliché. Get too close to anything you've idolized from afar and you're liable to lose sight of what attracted you to it in the first place.
High-profile college athletes, especially the ones with legitimate aspirations of being paid to play their game, typically aren't the nicest people in the world. Some have drug or alcohol problems, others treat women poorly, many are way too into themselves to have any rationale perspective on anything. It's why it's so much easier, and healthier, to keep our personal relationships with these folks limited to what we see on TV and a five-second camera photo if we see them in public. Is this ignorance? Of course. But isn't one of the ultimate attractions of rabid fandom the opportunity to play ignorant to some of the parts of life that bum us out for a few hours every day?
The above would be the undisputed way of the sports world were it not for athletes like Gorgui Dieng. I only say that I've met and spoken with him multiple times in order to put weight behind these words: He is the genuine article. The quotes you hear, the comments you read, the actions you see, that's him.
Cardinal fans have celebrated the Senior Days of former players with tremendous talent, work ethic, intelligence, character and humility, but I'm not sure they've ever bid farewell to one with this type of combination of all those traits.
Louisville's most interesting man will be celebrated, and eventually missed, more than any of us could have envisioned three autumns ago.