Imagine coming to America from Dakar, Senegal, to play basketball when you were 18 years old. No family. No friends. You learn English by taking notes while you watch TV or listen to the radio. You don’t have a phone to communicate with your family, because you’re told it will help immerse you in the culture and improve your language. At basketball practice, you hide behind the line and watch what everyone else does, and do your best to duplicate it.
You try to get your family to attend your college graduation from Dallas Baptist University after not seeing them for so many years, but twice, they are denied a Visa.
Sometimes you have some mental breakdowns, but that is what motivated me the most, honestly, to keep working hard, and just always think there is a reason why I am doing all of this.
For Remy Ndiaye, player development specialist for the Sixers, that reason is family, a family he hasn’t seen in over four years.
This is the story of sending Remy home.
It was a cold, grey morning outside of the Sixers practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, while forward Jonah Bolden was standing in front of his coaches and teammates, delivering a PowerPoint presentation on the subject of his choosing, artificial intelligence. (It's become a customary practice to players to speaking on a topic they're interested at the Sixers' monthly team breakfasts).
As Ndiaye stood in the back and Bolden finished up his presentation, head coach Brett Brown took the floor and pulled up a photo of Dakar.
But before we get to that, let’s backtrack.
Two weeks prior, Brown was chatting with Ndiaye about the team breakfasts, asking him about Senegal and intimating that he might have Ndiaye speak about Senegal — at least that is what Ndiaye thought.
So when Ndiaye saw the photo of Dakar projected in front of his teammates, he assumed Brown was calling him up to announce him as the presenter at the next team breakfast.
Little did Ndiaye know that the group chat that he received asking for family photos weeks prior for a Christmas card was also all part of the plan.
“It was a complete sham,” said Rich Fernando, the Sixers' director of coaching administration, who helped coordinate the surprise. “We didn't want to just call him into the office; that would be too plain, too bland. We wanted to do it in front of everyone because he means a lot to a lot of people here.”
After the photo of his hometown, there was a photo of a flight path from Philadelphia to Dakar. Then, the photo of his family appeared. Ndiaye’s mom and dad, Thereze and Henry, his brothers John and Francis, his sisters Edith, Marta, and Mary.
“When’s the last time you saw your mum?” Brown asked in front of the entire staff.
“It’s been four years,” Ndiaye said, clutching the collar of his shirt as he tried to conceal his emotion.
“We’re going to send you home, Rem," Brown said. "You’re going to go back and see your family and Merry Christmas.”
“That’s when it hit me," Ndiaye said. "I started crying, it was unbelievable. It hit me a lot when I saw the love of every single player getting up and giving me a hug and that’s when I realized, this is my second family.”
That love from his teammates is real.
Ndiaye wasn’t the only one who started to get emotional.
“To tell you the truth, it was emotional for me too,” Jimmy Butler says. “I could've cried for real. That type of stuff gets me. Family, love, and that's what this Philly thing is based around, man. It's so much more than just basketball and seeing how happy he was right then, in that moment, that’s what life is about, to make other people feel great and just to bring a smile on their face. Especially for him, who works as hard as he does every single day, and comes in and never ever complains about absolutely anything.
“He's smiling every second of every day. I wish I could do that, I wish the world could do that, because we wouldn't worry about half the things that we worry about today. If everyone would just smile and be grateful for what they have, and not what they don't have, and Remy is like, probably the biggest example that I've ever seen in my life.”
The same goes for T.J. McConnell.
“He brings the best attitude to the gym every day," McConnell said. "If you're in a bad mood and you just talk to him, he's one of those guys that can talk you right out of a bad mood. I got a little emotional seeing him break down like that because I don't know what I would do if I didn't see my family for that long, so when I saw him get emotional, it was a cool moment.”
Mike Muscala said it was especially cool for him, because a week prior Ndiaye was driving him to assistant coach Billy Lange’s house for Thanksgiving, and was talking about how much he hoped to see his family.
And for Joel Embiid, who can relate on so many levels, both in being from Africa and knowing what it’s like to not see your family for such long periods.
“I hadn't seen my parents for a long time when I left, so I can understand the excitement of him being in that situation," Embiid said, "because I know, I've been through it. I went a couple years without seeing my whole family and I know how that feels, and that’s why when these guys made it happen, I was so happy for him.”
“It changes you. Every summer, I go back to Africa and it reminds me of where I'm from and what it's about where I came from and how hard it is to get to this place.”
It will be Ndiaye's first Christmas home since 2008. It will be the first time he sees his nieces and nephews, and he’s only got one thing on his mind.
“It’s been 10 years since I’ve spent Christmas with them," Ndiaye said. Just hug everybody, one by one.”
All photos courtesy of Sixers Digital (Studio 76).
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