Tangara sacrifices himself to help family in Mali
Arizona freshman power forward Mohamed Tangara knows what isolation is. I’m not talking about the NBA’s favorite way to run an offense, either.
The native of Mali in West Africa hasn’t seen his family in close to four years now, and while you may have known about that, up until now no one was sure just how much it was affecting him.
Tangara is one of ten siblings in a large African family. He grew up in the third-world surroundings of Bamako in Mali and eventually found a way out thanks to basketball. He came to the U.S. in December of 2000 and hasn’t seen a single member of his family since that time.
“I haven’t seen anybody in my family since I’ve been here. Nobody.” Tangara says in broken, yet improving, English. “Yes it’s hard (at times) but I talk to my dad on the phone a couple times per month.”
Remember when you went away to college for the first time? Calling home to mom and dad was pretty simple. You picked up the phone, dialed and waited for one of your parents to answer. Tangara’s experience is slightly different than what we’re used to in America.
Using a pre-paid phone card, Tangara dials 011 to get out of the American grid, 223 for Mali’s country code, and then another local number over in Bamako. The problem is that the number doesn’t go to the Tangara residence (“where my family lives we don’t have a phone,” Mohamed says), it goes to a predetermined place.
When the call comes in, Mohamed identifies himself and tells the person who answered that he would like to speak with the man he calls his “daddy.” That person then sends someone to the Tangara home, informs them of the phone call from their Stateside son/brother, and they return to take the call.
“I’ve been able to call my family a couple times a month,” Tangara said late Monday night. “I just talked my dad because most times when I call my mom is not home or she is busy cooking. But I did talk to her about two months ago. She said that they miss me but told me to keep working hard.”
Tangara’s mother, Sitan, and younger brother, Hamadou, seem to be the two family members Arizona’s prized big man recruit miss the most. He has made it clear for a few years now that his ultimate goal is to get good enough to make the NBA so that he can afford to help his family escape the depths of poverty most Americans can’t even imagine.
And this man – he is the furthest thing from a boy the Arizona basketball program has – isn’t waiting for the NBA’s millions before he does something about it, either. Tangara has started his own personal relief fund since arriving in Tucson in early June by sending home whatever money he receives in his scholarship check and his part-time job each month.
“Yes,” he said candidly, “I would send the money I had home. I send it by Western Union and it gets there in an hour.”
But the touching part of the story isn’t that he sent money home to a family in desperate need of every spare cent, it’s what Tangara sacrificed himself in order to provide for those he loves.
The money he had been getting from his monthly stipend was meant to buy food for himself. Instead, Tangara stored it away and then sent it to Bamako when the time came. It was like Ramadan every month because of the fasting he was going through. When it came time to eat or use the money to help his family, well, Mohamed Tangara went to bed hungry most nights.
He had put on quite a bit of muscle in the two or three months after arriving on campus, according to strength coach Brad Arnett, but soon a lot of that was gone.
“Mohamed was up right at the 250 mark,” Arnett said. “But he lost 15 pounds and dropped down to around 235. We have him back up above 240 now.”
But not before both Arnett and UA assistant coach Josh Pastner, Tangara’s lead recruiter when he was still in high school, had a serious talk with him about things.
“I would send money home but then I realized I had to eat and coach Brad (Arnett) told me I had to eat,” Tangara said. “They changed it so that I can’t send all of it home anymore. I talked to Josh and Brad and they told me I had to spend the money on myself and that my body is very important. I’ll still send some money home when I can.”
As a 20-year-old freshman with perhaps twice the maturity level of most of his classmates, Tangara asked for and was granted permission to live alone this year. Generally all Wildcat freshmen are required to live in the dorms for a year but Tangara was given an exception.
In his modest apartment near campus, Tangara once again knows what it is to be isolated. He’s tough and he’s been through a lot, but the loneliness of it all still finds a way to stab at him from time to time.
"You get frustrated and don’t know who to talk to or who to trust,” Tangara said. “It would be great to have the opportunity to bring my brother here with me but I don’t know how I’m going to do that yet. He isn’t good enough at basketball to play in Division I so he will need (an academic) scholarship.”
Hamadou Tangara, 18, is “6-7 or 6-8 and maybe 198-200 pounds,” according to Mohamed. “I have a picture of him from last year so I don’t know if he has grown since then. He is tall like I am but not as wide; he’s skinny.”
Mohamed has a chance to break into Arizona’s eight-man playing rotation this season, and says that he already notices progress in his game just from individual workouts. He says that he feels very good about the upcoming year and knows that he could be a major contributor if he keeps working hard to improve.
Of course, the more Tangara’s game improves the more it helps everyone. Himself, his teammates, fans of the program and, most of all, his family. He’s still very raw at this point but who’s to say that in three or four years he won’t be a legitimate NBA first round pick?
“The best way for me to help my family is by helping myself,” Tangara said. “I have to find way to get better and better or get a degree in a couple years. I will get my family more money and send it home but I would like to bring my mom and my brother over here to be with me.”
Fifteen years from now my guess is that the story of Mohamed Tangara’s sacrifices to help his family some 6,000 miles away in Africa will still be talked about: a college freshman who gave up eating in order to send those that he loves the most a few extra dollars.
This is the human side of major college basketball. And this also provides a whopping dose of perspective.
It would be impossible for me to pull for Mohamed Tangara anymore than I already am.
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