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Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng gives back to his native Senegal — and then some

His foundation and partnership with Matter assists with hospital improvements, and he also trains the Senegalese in farming

Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng will never forget seeing a pregnant woman helplessly lying on the floor waiting for medical attention in a severely antiquated hospital in his hometown of Kébémer, Senegal, about 3 1/2 years ago.

It was the same hospital in which Dieng was born on Jan. 18, 1990. There was nothing electronic at this hospital. Most beds didn’t have mattresses, so patients lay on springs. Babies were warmed in incubators by a lightbulb. The odds of getting decent health care were slim.

“I was visiting someone at the hospital and the doctor that was there was the same doctor I saw when I was in Senegal,” Dieng said. “I went to the visiting room to say hi to him and there was a pregnant lady laying on the ground. I asked him what was going on. He said he was waiting for someone to leave a table so she could lay there. I looked at the room and there was only one table there. No beds.

“I asked him if I could take a tour and see what the hospital needs. The building was OK, but the equipment was the issue. I told the doctor to give me a note and tell me everything that he needs. I told him, ‘I’m not going to promise you anything, but I will do my best to help.’ ”

Dieng has done more than his best to help his hometown and Senegal.

The hospital is now updated. There is a new dialysis center with 200 beds. Farming tutoring is offered on his land. There is more on the horizon through his foundation.

Gorgui Dieng of the Minnesota Timberwolves controls the ball against the Denver Nuggets.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The NBA veteran is better known in Senegal for what he has done off the court in saving and improving lives than for what he has done on the court in North America. Dieng, 27, is averaging 6.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in his fifth season with the Timberwolves. He started playing basketball when he was 15 and played in college at Louisville.

“He is a celebrity in Senegal in large part because he’s been all over the media there with his foundation and all he is doing to help his people,” said Quenton Marty, president of Minneapolis-based nonprofit Matter.

In March 2014, Dieng attended the Timberwolves’ FastBreak Foundation’s annual Taste of the Timberwolves fundraising event. Players and coaches from the team dine on local fare from some of the best restaurants in the Twin Cities at their annual fundraiser. Dieng was quietly trying to find help for his hospital back in Senegal while hanging out with the movers and shakers of Minneapolis.

Dieng received an important introduction to Marty during the event. Marty’s organization, Matter, has a mission to “expand access to health, next door and around the world” with a goal to bring access to health aid to 10 million by 2018. Matter has leveraged Minnesota’s renowned health care and agriculture to aid those in need since 2000 and has distributed more than $550 million in resources around the world.

Not long after the Wolves charity event, Marty and Dieng met for breakfast.

“Gorgui is a guy who came from humble beginnings, and I got the sense that he wanted to work with people he could trust that weren’t going to just talk about doing stuff, but we are actually doing stuff,” Marty said. “The one thing I took away was this was a great young guy who wanted to do something to help his people and not just be in the NBA for his own benefit.”

A partnership was born during that breakfast meeting with Matter and Dieng’s budding charity foundation.

They began outlining a plan to aid Dieng’s hometown hospital. Matter next shipped medical supplies to Senegal. Through Dieng’s connections, the equipment sent overseas was able to get through customs relatively smoothly after a journey that took about a month. Matter sent beds, furniture and other hospital basics for treatment.

“After that meeting, I went back to the office, pushed pause on everything and said, ‘We’re going to help Gorgui send medical equipment back to this hospital where he was born,’ ” Marty said. “Within about two weeks, we had a 40-foot container on the water sent back to Senegal, where Gorgui was born and raised. That was the beginning of our relationship.”

Said Dieng: “I met with Matter and have been working with them ever since.”

Gorgui Dieng walks through the farm project that was built near the hospital.

Courtesy of Gorgui Dieng

Marty and a contingent from Matter joined Dieng for a site visit to Senegal in 2014. Marty has seen struggling hospitals all over the world, but he was shocked by what he saw in Dieng’s hometown, saying the hospital had equipment that was “about 50 years behind the times.” Marty immediately began thinking about what more Matter could do to help through Dieng’s foundation.

“Over the last 20 years, because of the work that I do, I’ve seen a lot of dilapidated hospitals,” Marty said. “This one was among the worst. It was pretty small. I just remember seeing a lot of moms with kids that were sick, but the hospital didn’t have the resources to take care of them. Just walking through with Gorgui was a somber experience, knowing that this is where this guy playing in the NBA was born. It was still a place where people didn’t get the treatment they deserved.”

Today, the hospital in Dieng’s hometown is much improved, thanks to Matter and Dieng’s foundation. Another problem in Senegal was a lack of dialysis treatment centers in a country stricken with masses of people with kidney problems. A 200-bed dialysis center was opened in 2016 through Dieng’s foundation and the aid of Matter and other donors. There is also a new neonatal center to help babies. Marty said there are also Wolves season-ticket holders and Minnesota businesses that are aiding Dieng’s foundation.

In July 2018, Matter will join Dieng again with a contingent of about 20 people going to Senegal to tour his projects.

“It’s a much well-oiled machine now that the Gorgui Dieng Foundation is established,” said Marty, who has made three trips to Senegal. “We now have a whole system of requests that Gorgui is getting to help people. It went from the first container helping one hospital to people all over the country requesting our assistance. Within a couple years, we have a program that will go well into the future to help the whole country.

“The hospitals have been upgraded significantly. Now they are able to serve people with dignity and give them the care they need and should have.”

Dieng said he owns more than 100 acres in Senegal that he uses for farming, and it is not uncommon to see him on a tractor or tending to the animals. It also serves as a training ground for local and aspiring farmers.

Goats, lambs, chickens, cows and sheep are raised on Dieng’s land, with employees working the farm. It is difficult to grow fruits and vegetables because the farm has sandy soil on the edge of the Sahara desert. With the aid of Matter, Dieng’s foundation is teaching people how to farm more intelligently and successfully in Senegal. Matter provided the farmers with repurposed equipment from Minnesota farms in 2016. Dieng also has agricultural students working on his farm to gain experience while also aiding them with scholarships.

“Farming is very big in Africa, but people don’t do it the proper way,” Dieng said. “I love farming. Through my foundation, I can train people. I give up my own land so people can practice the proper way to farm. When they finish, they can help their own farm and my foundation can help them with pretty much anything they need. It helped them stabilize their community so people don’t have to go to the city to make money. You can farm where you are, the proper way, get great results and make a way of living.

Gorgui Dieng next to a well that was built to assist in sustainable farming.

Courtesy of Gorgui Dieng

“Things I’m doing right now isn’t just to make money. It’s to stabilize people and keep them in their community. They have the right to go make some money. When they leave the village, or leave the town, no money is going to be there. It will be a dead town. I want them to stay in their town by creating jobs for them.”

Dieng said he truly learned the impact he was making in Senegal when he met a young boy named “Semi” who was affected by a kidney problem at 12 years old.

Dieng said the young boy and his father decided to go by “faith” to travel to see him at his annual offseason basketball camp after seeing him on television and learning what he was doing medically. The father had previously sold his house and car to get the money needed to pay his son’s expensive medical bills. At the time, Semi could not walk either.

Dieng was able to get Semi enrolled for treatment in his hospital that aids with kidney dialysis, and get him transportation for his appointments and food. Semi has improved dramatically since having surgery. The teenage boy can now walk.

“His dad said he never saw Semi do anything with the other kids,” Dieng said. “His son’s only complaint was, ‘Why can’t I go play with the kids?’ His dad was always depressed about it. He wanted to see Semi happy. And after he was doing his treatment, he had surgery at 12 years. After the surgery, he went back home normal. His dad said the first day he saw Semi playing with the kids, he couldn’t believe it. He called me that night praying, and all that kind of good stuff.

“Stuff like that makes me happy. Only God can make stuff like that happen. But we helped Semi get into the right situation.”

Despite being Senegal’s most notable NBA player, Marty said, Dieng was not well-known in Senegal when he made his first visit there with him. But with everything Dieng has done, Marty says, he is now a household name.

The fact that NBA games are now easier to see in Senegal also will help his profile. Dieng hosts a four-day youth basketball camp and coaching clinic in Senegal every offseason, and kids can’t attend unless they have high grades. He also plays for Senegal’s national basketball team. It’s not easy for Dieng to walk around Senegal these days without being recognized, but he believes it is important for the children to be able to touch him.

“It’s tough to go outside and walk around. But I like going outside because the kids, they want to see you. I take pictures and talk to them. That can change a life. Why hide or get security? No,” Dieng said.

The court that was built in Dieng’s hometown.

Senegal showed its respect and belief in Dieng by asking him to be its ambassador of tourism last August.

Through a translated statement, Senegal director general of tourism Mouhamadou Bamba Mbow said, “The ambition of the agency is to rely on the international notoriety of Senegalese personalities to amplify the radiation of the destination.” Dieng said he filmed a tourism promotional commercial for Senegal after touring “beautiful places in the country I had never seen before.” Senegal’s hope is that Dieng will inspire tourists and businesses to visit Senegal. Dieng was very humbled by the appointment.

“Gorgui doesn’t want to be known as just a basketball player,” said New York Knicks scout Makhtar N’Diaye, a Senegal native and former NBA player. “In my opinion, he’s becoming a brand in Senegal and is an inspiration to the youth. He’s working towards becoming an icon. It’s all about legacy for him.

“Many people have come before him and tried. He came and took it to the next level. The best is yet to come for him.”

Marty says that Matter has about 50 other projects going on as well. Even so, Marty plans on going to Senegal again next year and is excited to see the growth of their medical and farm projects for the fourth straight year. Why? It’s Dieng’s love for his people that keeps Marty making the annual trips.

“He is a really impressive guy,” Marty said. “The thing that stands out to me is he really wants to help his people. He loves basketball, but he sees it as the vehicle to help others. I don’t know where it came from. But he has a sincere desire to help other people. I just really admire that about him.”

Dieng is not satisfied with the medical and farming improvements he has made in Senegal. He plans to open a major hospital in his hometown. He also has grander plans of not just helping Senegal but also aiding Africa at large. With the continued aid of Matter and other donations, Dieng plans to make an impact on the continent from a medical, farming, basketball and educational standpoint.

“The reason God put you in a good situation is to help others,” Dieng said. “I strongly believe that good things happen to good people and things happen for a reason. There is a reason why I am playing in the NBA and I’m in a good situation today, not just for me and my family. It is to help others too. That is why I am doing what I am doing right now.

“I’m doing this just to help. I don’t want to be that guy who played in the NBA, makes his money and is gone. I want to have an impact on the community wherever I am at. Whether it is in the States or in China, Senegal, whenever. If you leave somewhere and have an impact, it’s like having a statue in the streets. That’s the way I see things.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.