Just before he left for the airport Christmas Eve morning to welcome his mom and dad to the United States, Louisville center Gorgui Dieng sent a text to the woman who arranged for his parents to visit.
"I can never repay you or thank you enough for making this happen," the Senegal native wrote.
That giddy, gracious text was all the thanks Proctorville, Ohio, resident Lesley Thomas needed for her efforts to enable Dieng's parents to watch him play on U.S. soil for the first time. Thomas and her husband Scott, Dieng's host family while he played high school ball at Huntington Prep, spent the past five months working on the logistics of getting Momar Dieng and Seynabou Diagne to Louisville in time to spend Christmas with their son and attend Saturday's game against rival Kentucky.
Since obtaining passports and visas can often be problematic in Senegal, Thomas worked with Dieng's English-speaking family friend Assane Badji to complete the necessary steps and arranged for Louisville officials to send letters to the Senegalese embassy verifying Dieng's good academic standing. Thomas and her husband also purchased round-trip plane tickets for Dieng's parents enabling them to come to Louisville for two weeks.
Even after that arduous process was done, there was still another complication. The fractured wrist Dieng suffered in late-November threatened to sideline him into January, but the 6-foot-11 junior recovered quicker than expected and received clearance from doctors this week to return for Saturday's Final Four rematch.
"We're elated to be able to do something like this for Gorgui," Lesley Thomas said. "I think it's a thrill just to see my kids play in youth leagues, and Gorgui's playing for a Division I school and his parents have never gotten to watch him. It has made our Christmas to see Gorgui so happy because our kids have gotten to experience something you can't wrap up in paper."
Since his father was a teacher turned legislator who emphasized the importance of education, Dieng had little choice but to prioritize academics as much as basketball growing up. He blossomed as a basketball player at SEEDS Academy, a Senegal-based high school started by former Dallas Mavericks personnel director Amadou Gallo Fall that prepares students to continue their studies in the U.S.
Those close to Dieng are especially excited for him because they know how close he and his parents are. Though unfamiliar foods, chilly winters and the challenges of learning English contributed to Dieng's homesickness when he arrived at Huntington Prep in 2009, the toughest part of his transition was being away from his mom and dad for the first time.
"It hit Gorgui right then that he probably wasn't going to see his parents for a while," Fulford said. "It's tough on a kid coming over here as a 17 or 18-year-old and packing up and leaving everything behind. He didn't speak English, he didn't know anyone and he missed his family. All that came out in one have-it-out cry session that made us understand what he gave up to come over here."
For the first few months at Huntington, Dieng stayed in his room and called home constantly. Gradually, however, he became fluent in English, he made friends and he found things he liked about the U.S. -- from movies, to video games, to Lesley Thomas' homemade lasagna.
With his homesickness under control, Dieng dazzled the Louisville coaches with his potential, earned a scholarship offer and began the process of blossoming into an NBA prospect at center.
Rick Pitino and his staff have helped the rail-thin Dieng bulk up in the weight room and shifted his focus to defense and rebounding, enabling him to become the ideal rim protector to pair with Louisville's gambling perimeter defenders. Along the way, Dieng continued to prioritize his studies, making steady progress toward a degree in sports administration.
"Everything he has done has been about making his parents proud," Fulford said. "He got an education first. I know a lot of kids say that but he really means that. He did very well in school here. He's doing great at Louisville. It's a testament to his parents and how they raised him."
Dieng returned home to see his family and friends in Senegal for the first time this summer, but his parents still hadn't seen him play in person in over three years. That's why Scott and Lesley Thomas were crushed when they saw Dieng sit out the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game against Duke with what they knew was likely a broken wrist.
Doctors assured Lesley when Dieng got out of surgery the following week that there was a good chance he would be healthy by the Kentucky game, and the 6-foot-11 big man did everything in his power to make that happen. He attended practice hours after his surgery so his teammates knew he'd be back soon and rode a stationary bike at practice the following day.
One of Dieng's biggest motivations was to make sure his parents got a chance to watch him play in a rivalry game as intense as any in the nation. It will be their first exposure to college basketball, and Dieng is looking forward to their reaction.
"He kept saying, 'I can't wait to see their faces. They're going to be in such culture shock,'" Lesley said. "I was like, 'Gorgui, are you sure this is a game they can handle?' We're either going to have to escort them out or they're going to have the time of their lives."
Lesley and Scott Thomas have yet to meet Dieng's parents yet, but that will soon change. The entire Thomas family will attend the Kentucky game Saturday, and they can't wait to see the faces of Momar and Seynabou when Dieng enters the game for the first time in a month to a standing ovation.
It would have been a nice moment regardless. Two visitors from halfway across the world simply give it added significance.
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