Maurice Ndour on his Japan days, NBA career and why he chose Galatasaray

2022-03-04T13:04:56+00:00 2022-03-06T12:34:35+00:00.

Mehmet Bahadır Akgün

04/Mar/22 13:04

Maurice Ndour sits down with Eurohoops and talks about his career ventures and the decision to join Galatasaray

By Semih Tuna /

Galatasaray Nef newcomer Maurice Ndour opens up on Eurohoops about his career ventures, starting from when he was discovered in Senegal at a young age, to college and up to his decision to move to Turkey in February, his NBA experience, as well as his pastimes, family, among plenty more topics.

Ndour, 29, landed in Galatasaray to reinforce the squad in its battle for the Basketball Champions League Round of 16 and ultimately, the Final Four, bringing in valuable experience that he earned through many stops in his career.

Eurohoops: – You have such an interesting career path. You were discovered in Senegal at an early age, and traveled to a whole different country by going to Japan, where you stayed for three years. You could talk to your family only once a week during that time. How did Japan experience help you both personally and basketball-wise?

Maurice Ndour: – Japan was honestly the best thing that could have happened to me, man. Growing up in Senegal, there is not a lot of opportunities in basketball. When that opportunity came for me to go to Japan, I did not even think twice about it. I jumped on it. Once there, it was a great experience in terms of growing up. At a young age, at 15 years old, you go to a completely different country. So you have to mature, grow up quickly. Also in terms of learning the game of basketball and also hard-work… Because one thing that I always say about the Japanese people is that they were the most hardworking people I’ve ever seen. I just had that cultured instilled in me when I was there. It was the best thing that could have happened to me honestly.

– Looking back from today, do you think it was the right call to go to Japan?

– Oh yes, most definitely. Most definitely. I would do it again.

– Japan is not known for its basketball culture actually.

– Actually it is not known around the world, but if you go there, you will see that baseball is the Number One sports there. After that, there is definitely basketball. They play basketball in high school, college tournaments. It is amazing. Besides baseball, basketball is definitely the second sports in Japan. Like you said, to the rest of the world, it is not known. But if you live there, you go to high school there as I did, you will definitely see that these people love basketball. And then also when you see the Japanese National Team play now, you can see how they play. I think they are getting better as a country. They are also getting to be known. They start to win. It is definitely something that will keep getting better over the years.

– There are some Japanese players in the NBA as well, such as Yuta Watanabe and Rui Hachimura. You are obviously right.

– It is actually funny, because when I was in Japan, I was a senior and Yuta was a freshman. I even played against his team. I met him in a tournament in Hawaii, but I was in college. I was with Ohio University and I met him over there. We just chatted about how we missed our days in Japan. I got a lot of respect for the Japanese people, I love them. They are really hardworking people, and I love that. I love that culture too.

– Then you have been to the US for the college. You were part of a Junior College in Monroe. Then-coach Jeff Brusted wanted you in his team as soon as he saw you. What was your motivation behind this decision?

– It was a crazy story. I am a senior in high school, and this point, I had the opportunity to go pro right after the high school in Japan. But to me, I was like “I want to go to the US and challenge myself. I want to play against better players, you know? And my high school coach was like “If you go to the US, they will cut you. You are skinny, they are physical…” He was giving me all these excuses. I was like “Okay, I want to play with guys better than myself.” And I was trying to get to the Portland University, but with the grading system, it could not happen. I had to go to either a junior college or a prep school. So I started talking with the Hampton Prep. At that point I was like “I am going to go think by myself.” So I went home, to Senegal. I was home for like six months playing for the local team and waiting and believing in myself. One day, a brother of mine who actually played in Monroe and who was in the US, he said that Long Island University called him. He asked if I was still looking for a school in the US. I said “Yeah, man”, and he said “Send me your highlights video and I will see what I can do.” I sent it to him, he sent it to coach Jeff Brusted. Right away, they offered me a full scholarship, man. In a matter of two weeks, I got the acceptance, I got the visa, I got the plane tickets and I was off to New York. It was amazing.

– Jeff Brusted calls you “sort of a player-coach”. And he says that you did a lot of stuff for them and always played hard — gave 110 percent whether in the game or practice. Actually everybody mentions your character and mentality when it comes to you. Your former teammate Antonio Campbell calls you “a source of inspiration”. Furthermore, Jeff Hornacek and Mark Cuban says similar things of you. It must be flattering to hear such nice things of yourself.

– Definitely flattering. I cannot take all the credit to myself. I think it comes from my upbringing, you know, growing up in Senegal and the values that were instilled in me. And then again, like I said earlier, going to Japan, just learning from their culture, seeing how hard they work… For me it is normal. It is nothing that I think it is extraordinary. It is just normal for me to be that guy. We are all united with this one orange ball. At the end of the day, it is beyond the basketball. Whatever I can do for one person or another, if they can be a better version of themselves by me giving my 100%, I will do that man. That is one of the things I believe. But yeah, it is definitely amazing that they said these things.

– Also, are you and Antonio Campbell still friends? Do you still keep in touch?

– We have not spoken, I guess, for a couple of years now actually. Actually no, we spoke last year when he was with Orlando. We spoke briefly. I had one of my young guys who was playing for them, so I got him on the phone and we talked briefly.

– Following that, you’ve moved to Ohio for college. Actually you also had offers from St. John’s, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Oklahoma State for your junior and senior years. What played a role behind your decision to move to Ohio?

– I will tell you this: By the time I was a sophomore at Monroe, I did not know anything about the recording or any of those things. Now, I was overwhelmed with all these colleges calling. My cell phone was just ringing constantly. But to me, I was not tempted to go to a high major university just to say that I went there. I was realistic, I was coming out of a junior college. So I had only two years to prove myself. So I wanted to go to a situation where coach believed in me, where they would let me play my game and basically showcase myself. So I picked Ohio University, which was a mid-major. And when I did, everybody was asking me why I went there. Answer was simple: I had two years, coach really liked me and they told me that I went there, I would be the player I want and that is what happened. I went there for two years and showcased myself, which is really I wanted. People have to realize that okay, you can say “I went to this major, did this and that”, but at the end of the day, I just want to play basketball. I want to be part of a team, where I can say I contribute. That is why going to Ohio was an easy decision, honestly.

– You had a real nice Summer League stint with Dallas Mavericks, but then the unfortunate injury happened. Did you think you would make the team if it weren’t for that injury?

– For sure. Most definitely. Look, I got to Dallas. When I tell you coach Carlisle was playing me the 1, the 2, the 3, the 4 and the 5, you would not believe it. He was playing me all the positions, all of them. I swear to you, all of them. I remember vividly that some of my teammates were asking me if I was okay, because I was going through so much reps without rest. It was the NBA, I had to give it all. But yes, I am definitely sure that they wanted to keep me. They expressed this to me. Just to tell you how crazy it went, they cut me 30 minutes before the deadline. I had a meeting with the coach and he expressed that they wanted me there, but they had to build the team. My injury just messed everything up at that point. It is one of those things that is unfortunate, but it is what is. You learn from it and you advance.

– Following the college, you’ve started your professional career in Europe with Real Madrid. Considering that it was your professional debut, you’ve started with a top European club in Real Madrid directly after the college. Could you please tell me about that period a bit? Because the top EuroLeague teams do not tend to sign the European-rookie players so easily.

– Right, right. First of all, it was amazing coming out of college and playing for Real Madrid, a huge club in Europe right off the bat. I mean, I was like “Wow, let’s go!” But let me tell you this, I got there and it was like I had never played basketball before. I really struggled, I am not going to lie. I struggled. I was stressed out, I was frustrated. Because European basketball is definitely different especially for a guy who came from the US, played in that system. Having to come to Europe, it was tough. I really struggled and I was doubting myself, questioning myself a lot. I knew I could hoop. To give their credit, they let me make mistakes, they let me learn. Again, I worked hard and that was one of the things they liked. No matter what, I always came to practice, I worked hard and I gave everything that I had. I also learned a lot in terms of game in Europe, playing alongside great players in Sergio Llull, Felipe Reyes and all these guys that were there, my veterans. They really helped me understand the game, learn and grow from it. It was very tough, I am not going to lie. It was very tough.

– Maybe Real Madrid stint was not as good as expected for you on the court, but your hardwork paid off as you have moved to New York Knicks, where you played in 24 games. In the first game which you started, you had your mom with you. Honestly, I cannot imagine more proud of a moment for anyone. You had to be “the man” since you were a kid, as you were away from your family, and now, you were making your mom proud playing in the NBA. You had one of the best games of your career. Could you please tell us about that game a bit?

– First of all, I did not know that I was starting even at the shootaround. You go to the practice, you go to your team, do your little individual work before the game. And then coach came to me and told me I was starting. I was like “Me?!?” He said yeah. I was nervous. I was so nervous. I was like “I am about to start…” I went back to the weight-lifting room. I laid down my mat, and I started doing some yoga. Calm down and get ready for this game. I did that, and I went on the court. I just played the game, I was not thinking and I was not nervous at that point anymore. I was like “I am just going to go out there and hoop.” That is what I did. I played hard. It was one of my best games on both ends of the floor, because I remember this image of Rondo coming down with the ball and I stole the ball from him. In my head, I saw the ball and I was like “Wow, I just stole the ball from Rondo! This is amazing!” (Laughs.) Then also I remember Jimmy Butler, who is a great defender, closing out on me. I took him to the basket, did a spin and had the bucket. It was an amazing moment. I enjoyed it. My wife had framed that moment and with my stats and hung it in our house in the US. I loved it. It was amazing playing in New York. It was special that my mom was there. She got to witness me. Actually I think that was maybe the second or third time she saw me play basketball live. It was a lot of things that were happening during that time, and it was amazing. I still can go back to the moment and feel proud and happy.

– I believe your wife is also a basketball player, right?

– Yeah, she used to play basketball.

– Because I was thinking, you have three kids. Basically, you had to end her basketball career at such an early age then…

– (Laughs.) You know, sometimes I make fun of her saying that I made her stop playing basketball, but really I didn’t do it. I think it was the right timing for her. At that point, she had already played in Mexico, in Poland and then we actually met in Spain when I was playing for Real Madrid. She was also playing in Spain. We met in Spain and I think it was just the right timing for her to stop playing basketball. I asked her to move in with me. We started living better and having this life. I don’t think she regretted it. (Laughs.) It’s been great.

– At what point you said “Alright, things are not going as I would want them to” in the States?

– I think it was after my stint with New York. That summer they could pick my option, which was not going to cost them a lot of money. I went to the Summer League. I was actually getting ready to play in the Summer League, and they had to make a decision whether to pick my option or waive me. Everybody liked me at that point, coach told me that he wanted me in his team. Everybody wanted me on the team. I went through the practices, and honestly, it was unfair. When you have that moment in your life where you go like “Are they going to pick me or not?” So you just have to focus and go like “I am going to go to practice and I am going to kill everyone that is in front of me.” That is what I did. I was destroying everybody. At the end, they waived me. I felt sad, but then again, I had always been to the places where I fell down and I still got back up. After that, I was like, “You know what, I tested the NBA.” I could still say that I played in the NBA. At the end of the day, I do not think that it is only about the basketball, there is a lot that goes into it. If you are outside, you would not know until you are inside. And I experienced that. After that, I was like “I am going to somewhere I can play, make some money and be happy playing basketball.” I can say that it was after the stint with the New York Knicks and the fact that they waived me, I said that “You know what? I am done.” People are always like “I think you can still play, don’t you want to come back?” I am like “I am not trying to do that again, I am cool.”

– Then you moved back to Europe signing with UNICS Kazan, where you spent two seasons and won your first cup. You said that your stint in Russia is one of the most memorable periods of your career. Could you please elaborate on that?

– At that point, it was not my first in Europe anymore. Because I had played in Madrid. So I got to take some tricks here and there. I came to Kazan and coach let me play. I was just playing my game. Offensively and defensively, I was doing my thing. There was no limits, no restrictions, nothing. I was just hooping and having fun playing alongside great teammates too. It was one of my best years. Like I said, I have got to familiarize myself with the European basketball at that point. It was great. Actually, you know what was funny? I remember I used to say that if there was one country I do not want to go and play, it was Russia.

– Really? Why?

– Because, it is Russia, it is cold. I had not liked nothing about it. I was trying not to go there, but it happened. Kazan is a great city to me, I loved it. My family loved it. We had a great time over there. Like I said, basketball was great, I learned a lot of things, I grew up a lot as a person and basketball player. So I loved it. If I were to do it again, I would definitely do it again. With UNICS, for sure.

– About a month before your arrival in Galatasaray, Rytas had announced that your contract had been extended till the end of the season. What happened there? How did you end up with Galatasaray? Because actually you were doing pretty good in Basketball Champions League having finished the regular season in the first place in an unexpected group.

– Right, right. I don’t know what is the thing with me and Rytas, there is this bond, this love that I have for them and they have for me, so somehow, I always end up there. Yes, they had picked my contract for the rest of the season, but I had an out clause. There was a deadline for me to leave the team and go somewhere else. I think it was somewhere in February. I don’t remember the exact date, but if I had not left until that, my contract would be for the whole season. Then Galatasaray called, and I had injured my groin. When they called, I just needed to figure out what I wanted to do at this point. I looked at the team, and I thought they have better quality players. At this point in my career, I really want to win. That is what I want to do. I want to win, I want to lift up a trophy. So I thought “What are the chances for me to win the Basketball Champions League? With Rytas or with Galatasaray?” Literally, this is how I made that decision. When I looked at the roster, I thought that I have better chances of winning with Galatasaray. That is why I made the choice of coming here, honestly.

– This was going to be my other question actually. I am sure money must have played a role, but what was behind your decision to come to Turkey? But once again, I got my answer in a great way again.

– Besides the money, it is just the idea of me winning with this group of guys. If you look at the roster, there are experienced guys. We have Dee Bost, who won the EuroCup last year. Akoon-Purcell, Melo Trimble, Kerry Blackshear, all these guys that I can play with. So I was like “If I come in that mix, we definitely have a chance.” That is all I want to do. I want to win. With Rytas, that was my goal. I don’t know about winning with Rytas, but for sure, I would do whatever I could to come to the Final Four. Now I am with Galatasaray, and sky is the limit.

– With its three dynamic guards, Galatasaray has become one of the most entertaining teams in Europe. And now you are also part of this team for a while. I know that the team chemistry and the friendship in the team are pretty much fun. How did you adjust to that?

– I am getting used to it. (Laughs.) It is not easy to come into a team in the middle of the season and blend in right away. I mean, we are getting to know each other still. I was not able to play with them when I first came in. I had to watch them play games, and it was tough. But just the atmosphere being great, like you said, these are great guys and there is a great group of guys. The locker room atmosphere is definitely fun, we are always laughing and joking around. I am getting used to it. I think having this FIBA break has really helped us gel as a team and get to know each other, know what I can do and bring on the table for the team, and for them to see where I would like to take my shots, I would like to get on the court and familiarize with me. You can only do that through practice. Now, we had time to do practices. It is getting there. It is going to take a while, but it is getting there.

– Are you a gamer? Do you also join your teammates’ Call of Duty sessions?

– I am the worst. I don’t play any video games. (Laughs.) For me, I would rather do something else than playing. You know what I mean? I would rather read, sit down and stretch, do some yoga, spend some quality time with my wife and the family. I remember one time I was alone. I was like “I am going to buy a PlayStation and start playing.” I have only played maybe three times when I bought it. I ended up giving it away, because I was not playing.

– DeVaugh Akoon-Purcell and Melo Trimble are the gamers, and they are not married. You are married. You know what I mean?

– Right, there is no way I come home and start playing video games. I come home from practice and I have this small window to spend some time with my kids and to put them to sleep. In the morning, I have to take them to the school. Now, I have time, but it is definitely different. When you have a family, it is entirely different.

– Galatasaray did not have many African players in its history, but the ones that played for Galatasaray left their marks in the history. Lasme was your teammate in Kazan, but I want to talk about Boniface Ndong, who is your coach in the national team as well. He was part of the team that won the championship 13 years ago. Everyone has such fond memories of him. How is your relationship with him? Had he ever talked to you about his time in Galatasaray?

– He did. Boni is like a brother to me. We actually don’t live too far from each other in Senegal. We are always in touch. Growing up, when he was playing for the Senegalese team, I was still in Senegal. I was not even playing semi-pros. I was just picking up basketball, and he was, like, our idol. He was the guy I looked up to. He was tall and he could play, I was thinking. He is an amazing person. Great guy. As I said in terms of my relationship with him, he is like a brother to me. I remember the very first time I came to the national team in 2014, he had just retired. He was a manager of our national team. I remember him talking about his time with Galatasaray. And then, he actually had a contract on the table to play with them again, and he turned it down. I was like “How come this guy turned this amount of money down to leave it on the table?” He must have been really satisfied at that point. Boni is a great guy. I love him. He is also funny. He is crushing me in the national team now. We have great time together. There is no way you cannot like this guy. He is an amazing man. He is that man. He is the guy that you want to be friends with. He is the guy that you want to be around. He is always ready to help and give great advises in whatever he can do. He is also always available. If I call him right now, he would call me right back even if he does not pick it up immediately. He is the man.

– This summer you played in Senegalese national team along with Fenerbahce guard Pierria Henry, whom you played together in Kazan as well. Did you talk to him about İstanbul and Turkey while deciding to move to Galatasaray?

– Yes, I called him. I told him I was going to come to Turkey. I spoke to him briefly and asked him how the games and referees are. He gave me his opinions. He is my friend, like a brother to me. We always keep in touch, even though now we are playing as two enemies for these two clubs. On the basketball court, we are enemies for sure. But off the court, we are like brothers.

– I know you speak five languages. Did you already start learning some Turkish?

– Not really. People always ask me that when I go somewhere because I speak so many languages. (Laughs.) It is normal for them to ask me, but for me it is like, it is so different. When you are young and in a country that the language is spoken, it is easy for you to pick it up. All of these languages, I picked them up from school and living there or just having friends. That is the quickest way to learn a language. But now, it is family time. So you have no time hang out and meet other people. It is kind of hard to pick up the language. But there are few words like “Elhamdülillah, inşallah” that I know just because we use these words a lot in Senegal. Senegal is a Muslim country, so we use these words a lot. All of these words, we use them. Maybe I will pick up some other words. Usually it is also bad words. That is the first thing you pick up with a new language.

– You had been to Istanbul numerous times, but now you are living in it. How do you feel about the life here? Does it look anything like the previous cities you had lived?

– Very different, very vibrant, very dynamic. It is a mix of Senegal and a little bit of New York. You know what I mean? I can see that the traffic is the same here with Dakar. The way people drive here and in Senegal is the same thing. People walking in front of the cars, they do the same thing in Senegal. Senegal is also a Muslim country, so there is a lot of similarities between Dakar and İstanbul if I am to compare. But there is that fast pace here. I love it. My family loves it. It is great that my kids can get up and walk to the school. I don’t have to go five kilometers to take them to the school. Also living here is very, very, very cheap. This is the cheapest place I have ever lived in. We go out and I am like “Hold on, is this right? It cannot be right!” I love it. (Laughs.)

– For foreigners, it absolutely is. But for us, it is a bit crazy of a situation economically.

– I know, I know. (Laughs.) Like I said, this is one of the things that we have the same way in Senegal. People who live in Senegal are like “This is really expensive.” But for example when I go there, it is not much. That is unfortunately how life is. Life is not always fair. I like it here, though. Weather is not too bad either.

– I know you are interested in soccer too. Did you follow the African Cup?

– Yes, and no. I think I watched maybe one game. Definitely just the final game. But it was amazing. It’s been a long time coming. The whole country was waiting for the soccer team to get a trophy. It has been a long time coming. I am just happy for the players. They battled for that. This time they stuck with it, kept working and finally it came. I am happy for them and us. It has been long time coming. On the flip side, it puts a lot of pressure on the basketball too. Now we have to go out there and win. (Laughs.)

I remember that you wanted to retire from the national team. Is that correct?

– Definitely correct. I have been doing this since 2014, and national team is very hard. People don’t understand. It is very hard to get a group of people together in such a short period of time and go out there to compete. Also being the person that I am, when I am committed, I am committed. I am in 100%. I am only there to win. I don’t care about scoring 30 or 40 points. I want to do whatever it takes to win. With that being said, not everybody is on the same page as me. You know? Some people come to the national team, and they play out of character. Basically what they are used to do for their club, they don’t do it. They want to do more. That is not the way to go. That is not how you are going to win. I feel like we have been doing the same thing over and over and over and over, and expect a different result, which is insane. And every time I leave the national team, I am stressed, I am drained. My energy is low, mentally I am drained just because of a lot of stuff off the court that are happening and that you have to deal with. Also just missing that family time. Because summer is the only time you can get to be with the family.

People definitely underestimate this. I have missed the birth of my second child because of the national team. I have missed my kids going to play soccer or swimming lessons because of the national team. At this point, I am just like “I cannot do this anymore.” If I have to do it again, it has to be something that it is clear-cut that guys are coming to go and win it. Because I think, if you look at our roster, we have the best players in Africa. The roster is the best in Africa, but we never win. It also goes to saying that it doesn’t matter if you have the best players. Because it takes a lot of sacrifices, maturity to come together as a team and go out there and compete. For all these reasons, I am just taking my time off. I am not closing that door. Because I spoke to coach Boniface and he is my friend, he is my brother. He would like me on the team again. Because he values me, and he also knows what I bring to the table. So he wants me to play, but I told him I needed a time off.

I just want to be with my family, because I haven’t been with them for the past 4-5 years. So I just want to take some time off, maybe re-evaluate and go from there. It makes it hard when the others do not commit. We can win so easily, if we all just focus on this thing and getting it done. But it is me. That’s what drains me, and it drives me crazy. That is why when I leave the national team, I literally shut down. I don’t want to talk to anybody. I just want to be in peace, I just want to go chill and relax. Because mentally, I am drained. Because you give so much, and you don’t get the same from the other guys. It is tiring. It is not easy.

– Guys that approach the game, and maybe also the life, the way you do with passion are generally fan favorites. Would you like to say anything to Galatasaray fans?

– Like I said when I first came here, I think the fans would love me because I just go out there and I play hard, leave everything that I have. They will see the passion, they will see the sacrifice, they will see the hard work, they will see how much I want it. They will just see me. This is nothing new. I have always been this guy, it is not going to stop just because I am in Galatasaray. I am hoping and expecting myself to be better each year on each team that I am with. I just want to go out there and play hard, win or lose. Because at the end of the day, it is the game of basketball where you can do everything right and still lose. But at the end of the day, if you go out there and do everything that you are supposed to do and give everything, give yourself a chance to win, you can live with that even if you don’t win. If they see that not only in me, but all the players just going out there committed, playing with passion, playing hard and doing everything we can to win, they will rock with us, whether we win or lose. I cannot wait to play a home game in front of the fans, because I am yet to do that. I can’t wait. I am looking forward.