‘Checking In’ during NBA hiatus with Grizzlies Youth Basketball C.O.Y. Sidy Sall
The NBA has been on hiatus for two months as league players, team officials and fans continue to cope with the global Coronavirus health crisis.
But for the Grizzlies and the league’s 29 other teams, the business and spirit of the game forge ahead by maintaining an impact in their communities as they await a return to the court. When the season was suspended March 11, Memphis was positioned to make the playoffs for the first time in three years as one of the NBA’s youngest and most rapidly improving teams.
So whenever the season resumes, count on the Grizzlies to be ready. Meanwhile, the organization continues to prioritize the health, safety and security of the region it calls home.
For thousands of the franchise’s young fans, that development continues with lessons learned on and off the court from participation in Grizzlies Youth Basketball camps and clinics. Those efforts are highlighted on a national level as part of Jr. NBA Coach Appreciation Week.
Locally, this shines a light on dozens of community volunteers and youth coaches such as Sidy Sall, who have played a vital role in teaching life skills through basketball that have a lasting impact.
Grind City Media uses this space each week to ‘Check In’ with the Grizzlies, their biggest fans and the community as they endure this hiatus together. This week’s ‘Check In’ is with Sall, a Memphis resident and Senegal native named the 2019-2020 Grizzlies Youth Basketball Coach of the Year. That honor qualified Sall for Jr. NBA National Coach of the Year consideration.
Grind City Media: Congratulations on a successful year. How did you first get involved in Grizzlies Youth Basketball and the Jr. NBA?
Sall: I love to talk about my involvement with the Memphis youth basketball program. It started in December 2018, just after I finished my professional basketball career. After Christian Brothers University, I was able to play my first pro year in Bolivia. And after Bolivia, I had the fortune of moving on to playing in Morocco my second year. And my third season was in the Middle East. Unfortunately, I injured my knee in the beginning of my fourth season of ball overseas. So I came back here and was looking for ways to stay involved in the game when I met (Grizzlies Youth Basketball director) Antonio Perez. He invited me to the Grizzlies Christmas Camps. And everything started from there as I started to transition into coaching.
GCM: In the midst of Jr. NBA Coach Appreciation Week, what does it mean to you to be named Grizzlies Coach of the Year for this season?
Sall: Honestly, I didn’t even really know this was something being done as an award. When I do what I do, I do it from the bottom of my heart because I love what I do. I love impacting the next generation in a positive way, and basketball is a great tool for me to use that way because I’ve been around it since I can remember. When I got the news about the award, I was really surprised because I didn’t know they did things like this. Being part of an organization that recognizes the work that you do in the community, it’s priceless.
GCM: At a time like this, when COVID-19 has shut down schools and taken kids out of their routines, how vital are those lessons they’ve learned while attending your camp sessions?
Sall: It’s very important because at the end of the day, the chance to play basketball will end one day. I’m a prime example of that, because I didn’t think my career would end as a player at this age. But basketball taught me a discipline that allows me to fit anywhere in the world. One of the things about life skills is to be able to persevere through adversity and struggles. Work through the pains and have the discipline that will help you fit into the world. That’s being on time, doing what you’re supposed to do and going above and beyond to get things done.
And most of all, being responsible because being a great teammate is like being a great family member. You treat teammates like family. You look out for them, you worry for them, you make sure they’re doing great and have support. Those lessons are important to understand at an early age because it will help them through their journey and will take them far in life.
GCM: Growing up in Senegal before moving to Memphis to attend Christian Brothers, how were you introduced to the game of basketball?
Sall: I grew up in a different environment in Senegal and didn’t start playing until I was 10. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have a family that had a lot of wealth. My mom was able to get me one pair of shoes that I was able to play in for a long time. I walked to the gym, which was five or six miles away back-and-forth, to play the game outside. Being that age and knowing it was something I loved, you push through despite the lack of equipment, lack of financial support. I persevered to get to where I am. That will always be in my mind in terms of how far I’ve come.
My older sister used to play basketball. She was first to play it, and I would go with her to the practices and just sit on the side. The coach one day said, ‘If you come back here and don’t play, I will whip you and tell your mom why. So tell your mom to buy you some basketball shoes and you can start practicing.’ Growing up in Senegal, soccer was the big sport and that’s what I wanted to do. And to be honest, my first basketball shoes were a pair of old soccer shoes I just used to start playing basketball in (laughs). So that’s how I started in basketball, and little by little, I fell in love with the game. So I’m glad that coach really pushed me or I wouldn’t be here.
GCM: Who were your early basketball idols as you learned the game? Africa has a rich tradition of NBA legends, from Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo to current stars Joel Embiid, Serge Ibaka and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Sall: For me, though, it was Kobe Bryant (laughs). At the time, I didn’t have a lot of access to watch NBA basketball. But where I was training in Senegal, they had a painting on the wall of Kobe making a dunk. I saw that, and was like, ‘Yeah, I want to be like that man!’ And when I was able to start watching him play, Kobe was my guy, man. I remember when I was 12 and thought about changing my name to Sidy Kobe Bryant. And as I started watching more and more, I started liking more players and understanding their impact. I got the chance to work with Mutombo in camps for NBA Africa. I also worked with Tracy McGrady when he came over there to Africa. When I got here to Memphis, it was all about Zach Randolph and Mike Conley for me.
GCM: What was your path from Senegal to Memphis?
Sall: When I was around 15, I joined an organization to attend SEED Academy, and was one of 23 students fortunate to be in that development program. At SEED, they had a camp every summer and they would send coaches from America. They would come from the NBA, colleges, high schools and around the world. They would teach us basketball and life skills. And I was able to meet a Grizzlies assistant coach at the time, Barry Hecker. Through God’s plan, I was able to really connect with Barry and he became a mentor. He helped me through SEED come to Memphis and find a school. And when I moved here and would come to FedExForum to see him, Conley and Z-Bo were the first players I got to meet. The love they showed me really helped me with everything here. And soon, I was able to attend Christian Brothers University.
GCM: You’ve been able to maintain outreach efforts and camps in Memphis and back in Africa? Why is that connection important?
Sall: As I was growing up, my goal was to make it to the NBA, then I could give back to my country and maybe build schools back home. When I was got injured and had to retire from basketball early, I thought, ‘Man, I won’t make it to the NBA. How can I make some of those impactful things happen without basketball?’ And then I would always reflect. And I said, ‘You know what? I don’t have to have millions of dollars to do what I want to do for the world, but I still have something to give. And that’s my experience and knowledge. Sharing my journey can help kids. So that’s when my SEED Project and Grind Machine foundations started. I started to raise money to go back to Senegal every summer to help kids in poverty and some that don’t have parents with them. It helps with their education and we do basketball camps for them.
I do everything I can to help with what little I have to give back to them. And I’m thankful that people over here and in Memphis help me to be able to help give back. It’s really important for me. Balancing both is not easy, but it’s definitely important. And to have an organization like the Grizzlies behind me for support is definitely a huge help for me to help out back home. This past summer, I was able to do a clinic back home about the importance of women in sports.
GCM: Going back to Christian Brothers, you led that Division II CBU team to a 74-70 exhibition game upset over the Memphis Tigers in 2014 at FedExForum? What lessons from that game have you carried with you in the years since that major accomplishment?
Sall: That’s a day I’ll never forget. To be honest, that day taught me that no matter how long it takes, just keep working hard because your day will come. If you persevere through the obstacles, your day will come. That was the first time CBU had ever beaten Memphis. And to be a part of that, to experience that joy that we had at the school, playing a part in that upset is a joy that will never end for the rest of my life. It taught me that working hard and being patient are the keys to everything. Your moment is coming. Sooner or later, you will be able to excel.
GCM: Another great connection you have here is the bond reestablished with your former Senegal youth teammate and current Grizzlies center Gorgui Dieng. How was that formed?
Sall: We were at SEED together in Senegal. Small world, huh? He came to the States one year before me to go to a prep school and then to University of Louisville. But Gorgui and I are brothers from way back. We’re both busy in our own worlds, but even this week, we were talking and catching up about all of the stuff going on. We grew up together, so having him in Memphis now is a pleasure because having Gorgui means I have that Senegalese family here. But when we played together in school, I was his point guard and he was my center. We played again for our National Team and played in a World Under-20 Tournament in Portland. And that was the start of a lot of us getting scholarships and opportunities to come to the States.
GCM: You’ve used your basketball journey to help people all over the world. What’s next for you as we all try to combat and overcome a challenging global health crisis?
Sall: I wake up every morning with the mindset, ‘How am I going to help today? How many lives can I touch in a positive way today before I go back to bed?’ Just being with an organization like Grizzlies Youth Basketball and being recognized on a national level like this is nothing but more encouragement to continue doing what I do.
And I take it with pride. Just seeing a smile on someone’s face each day is a great day for me. It doesn’t matter if it’s in basketball, if it’s someone outside, a homeless person I may pass on the street or whoever it is. Whatever I can do to help bring a smile to someone’s face every day is what gets me going and keeps me going.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.