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Senegal's Makhtar Ndiaye: ''We used to be the hunted, now we are the hunters''
(TEXAS) USA - On paper, Senegal has one of the strongest and deeply talented squads in Africa and have always come into every FIBA AfroBasket edition as title favourites, however, the reality on court tells a different story.
With a decent continental trophy cabinet displaying five trophies in total, the Lions have earned their seat on the high table of African basketball.
Those that came before the current generation fought tooth and nail to carry their nation's flag high up above the sky winning four titles between 1968 and 1980 in seven editions. Back then, Senegal were relentless and commanded an air of dominance and sheer efficiency on court.
A walk down memory lane to 1997 when the Lions conquered the continent again for the first time in 17 years, the team setup was not as talented as the ones that came before them. At least that is what squad member Makhtar Ndiaye thinks.
"We were not the most talented squad but we were a family. We had the chemistry and we held each other accountable. The thing about our squad is that we grew up together in the same neighbourhood. We were a bunch of friends. We ate together and we had the chemistry," Ndiaye reminisced.
"I started with the national team in 1990 and at the AfroBasket in 1995, we played really well and lost to Angola in the final. We went back two years later without about three players, same faces and that kind of helped us. A lot of things were said and done."
"Now, it is different. These players do not have the chemistry. When you have them in one place, you can build but most of our players ply their trade abroad and only come together for short windows. Sometimes, even for just four days. That is a very short period to create team chemistry. It is difficult."
Ndiaye, who was the first Senegalese player to feature in the NBA back in 1999 for the now defunct Vancouver Grizzlies, has been appointed as the new Team Manager of the Lions.
This appointment did not come as a surprise for any basketball enthusiast in the West African nation. It was expected and everyone believes unanimously that this is a match made in heaven.
Ndiaye and Technical Director Moustapha Gaye come a very long way.
"Tapha and I have a very personal relationship. At age 16, he took me under his wing like a big brother and uncle. Back then we were in the same school Saint Michel. I have always looked up to him. He has won as a player and as a coach finished second and third. He is a mentor to me."
"I did not want people to think that I got this job because of our relationship but because of the experience and exposure I have established over the years working in the NBA. Hopefully, I will not disappoint him."
Ndiaye insists there are no shortcuts to success
Senegal were drawn in Group B in the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 Qualifiers set for November 25-29 in Kigali, Rwanda with old rivals Angola, Mozambique and Kenya.
When the Lions lineup to battle for a ticket to the biggest basketball showpiece on the African continent, the expectations are clear. They must qualify if they are to have any chance at glory next year. Ndiaye and his side are men on a mission.
They are chasing a sixth title but to achieve this, they have to go through the process and believe in it too. They must pay the price that it takes to get to the top.
"Look at the last two AfroBasket editions won by Nigeria and Tunisia. They put themselves in a place to enjoy success. This is normal for them to see all the sacrifices necessary. If you want to go to heaven, you have to die first."
"We are outsiders. We have a lot of work to do. We used to be the hunted, now we are the hunters. In 1997, we did not have the best players. We had the best team. That is the mentality we want to put on the floor. We cannot rely on the past."
"The goal remains the same. How can we take that and combine it with what we have today? We have to adapt. The players have to meet us halfway. The small country is dreaming about winning and so is the big one. It will not happen overnight. We have to be patient."
Senegal was among the five nations that competed at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in China and are in strong contention for a place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics next year.
This status has established an aura of pressure on this squad as they yearn to write their own history. It is understandably a tough ask but as the saying goes, to be the best, you have to beat the best.
The platform in Kigali from November 25-29 presents an opportunity to write their own history and return smiles on the faces of Senegalese basketball fans.