By Johnny Askounis/ firstname.lastname@example.org
As they say, the trip is more important than the destination. Still, on some occasions, making it on time might be special.
Despite a long flight from Rwanda and a positive coronavirus test preventing him from actually playing for Senegal in the FIBA window featuring 2021 AfroBasket Qualifiers, Maurice Ndour arrived just in time for Rytas Vilnius and the Basketball Champions League. Tuesday’s contest marked a very special day and a unique achievement. He put things into perspective talking to Eurohoops.
“When they told me that I was negative, I started an 18-hour journey back to Vilnius. I left December 7 at 20:30,” he said stressing on the point of departure, “On my layover in Warsaw, I was actually working out, just to get my body moving. I can even remember that at some point I let myself in the people with disabilities bathroom so I can do some lateral movement, some jumping jacks. I guess in a way I was just trying to get my mind and my body ready for the game that was waiting for me back in Vilnius, which was an important game.”
After a very long trip that more than enough to send most people to rest and recover, the determined and well-experienced big arrived at the Vilnius airport. One more venture later, he made himself available just in time for the Basketball Champions League Regular Season Round 6 match featuring his Rytas Vilnius at the Jeep Arena versus VEF Riga.
A night to remember for Maurice Ndour:
18:13 landed in Vilnius airport after 18-hour flight from Rwanda with 2 connections.
19:20 showed up for Rytas-VEF warm-up
Entered the game in the 1stQ, played 29mins, had 9+5 after healing from COVID & not playing for 24 days. pic.twitter.com/OIHYMBrM3q
— Donatas Urbonas (@Urbodo) December 8, 2020
“I landed in Vilnius, 18:20 about one hour before the game,” he added, “They got me straight from the plane escorted by a police car to go straight to the arena. I got there in time to play the game. A lot of people tell me it was crazy to travel all the way there to play the game. Playing was actually the easiest thing to do at that time.”
“When you think about everything going on in the world with the virus, police brutality, some of the young people in Senegal taking boats to go to Europe through the sea. A lot of them are losing their lives in search of a better life somewhere else. In the light of everything that is going on, I wanted to play, I needed to play,” he explained, “I wanted to show people that whatever you have in your life, you should be grateful and thankful. Some people are in terrible situations and sometimes it’s not even their fault that they are in those situations. I am playing basketball, which is the game I love. So I have no excuses to not be there and not play the game.”
A tight Baltic encounter heavily packed with big runs from both sides eventually dropped his side to 1-2 in Group E.
An extremely tough break for Ndour after traveling back to the Lithuanian capital via two connections in an 18-hour flight. Merely minutes prior to the start of the game, the former member of the New York Knicks and Ohio alumni was finally cleared after being sidelined for nearly one month. He produced nine points, five rebounds, two assists, and one steal playing 29 minutes and powering through adversity.
In Rwanda, he did not manage to get on the court for Senegal. However, his national team defeated Kenya, Mozambique, and Angola for a perfect 3-0 run in the first half of the 2021 AfroBasket Group B qualifiers.
“Traveling to Kigali from Vilnius and not being able to suit up with the national team because I was tested positive was really devastating and heartbreaking,” he mentioned recalling the reverse route, “It was an unfortunate situation. But I really applaud the newly-appointed head coach Boniface N’Dong and the rest of my teammates for finishing the window with three wins without really having a practice. It was not an easy situation at all.”
“Being isolated in Rwanda was a very tough situation,” he furthered focusing his positive coronavirus test, “Despite the effort of some of the people there to make the place as comfortable as it can be, it just wasn’t it for me. As a human being, when you are in a spot, stuck for a while, not doing your daily routine, you get stressed out. I can even say traumatized. That made me realize how much I needed basketball, that daily routine as a professional.”
Meanwhile, back in Lithuania, Rytas suffered a loss, 92-45, to Zalgiris Kaunas, in its domestic league last Sunday.
“The timing of the Zalgiris game was just very bad for us. A lot of injuries, players out because of the corona,” he pointed out, “It was a tough loss to swallow knowing how much that game was important to our team.”
With several key players still out and only eight available for head coach Donaldas Kairys, Augustas Marciulionis, son of former NBA player Sarunas Marciulionis, enjoyed a breakout performance competing alongside Ndour. The promising upstart threw in 15 points and seven assists against the Latvian outlet.
“I think Marculionis is a stronger point guard. He had a good game against VEF. He shows flashes of how good he can be every now and then,” Ndour told Eurohoops, “I think if he puts in the work and actually takes the time to understand the game of basketball a little bit more, he can be a heck of a player in Europe.”
Ndour, 28, now turns his focus on helping Rytas progress in the Champions League. In terms of advancing to the next group stage of the 2020-21 season, his team will need to fight back in Latvia versus VEF Riga and Greece against Peristeri before completing the Regular Season at home with SIG Strasbourg visiting.
“We are still working to be a healthy and competitive team. It has really been difficult with players in and out of rotations,” he confessed, “We understand that we are really in a tough situation in the Champions League. But I think we still have a chance to go the second round. It’s not easy but I feel with the addition of Ryan Boatright we are going to have a better stronger backcourt and that will help us, especially in these close games.”
Apart from registering 32 NBA games with the Knicks during the 2016-17 season, the well-equipped forward/center has made his way to 32 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague contests between Real Madrid and Valencia, and to 30 7DAYS EuroCup tilts attached to UNICS Kazan. As a late addition to the squad, he inked a one-year deal with Rytas in mid-October.
“It’s really hard to visualize us advancing to the next round of the Basketball Champions League right now,” he said regarding the end result of his debut BCL season, “Honestly, I am just focusing on really approaching these next games one at a time and also with a lot of focus to give ourselves at least the chance to advance.”
Photo Credit: Basketball Champions League