TAVARES, Fla. – The grade-schoolers, lined up in the hallway in their uniforms, look skyward and beam with joy.
"Tacko!!!" they yell.
He peers down at them through his glasses, grinning and reaching his long left arm out. To the kids, these are very high-fives: Tacko Fall, high school senior, is 7-feet-6-inches tall. And growing.
The morning greeting looks like a homecoming for a visiting hero, even though Fall is simply on his way to the gymnasium during his free period at Liberty Christian Prep. When he enters, more kids serenade him: "Tackoooo!!!"
He smiles and stands under the basketball hoop, reaching up with that same left arm and nearly touching the rim without lifting his heels. He smiles for a photo. He's used to that. He gets snapped wherever he goes, even without his permission.
He understands. He's one of the 60 or so tallest people known ever to walk the Earth.
"I would be surprised to see me, too," he quips.
Especially here. Fall is a Senegalese teenager living in a rural Florida town between Orlando and Gainesville, one of just 15 students in his class. He's a devout Muslim at a school that pledges allegiance every morning to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible. In two years he's gone from Dakar to Texas to Ohio to Tennessee to Georgia and then here. Next year, he'll be at the University of Central Florida on a basketball scholarship. Beyond that? Well, everyone knows what the goal is: the NBA. He's averaging a triple-double in this young season, and he's getting better rapidly.
It's intriguing to imagine where a 7-6, 19-year-old basketball player will end up, but it's even more fascinating to trace the winding path Tacko Fall took to get to his unlikely home.
Elhadji Tacko Sereigne Diop Fall was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal, the largest city in the westernmost country in Africa. There was no early clue that Tacko would be a giant. He has an uncle who's about 6-8, but neither his brother nor his half-sister are especially tall. Neither are his parents. Yet up Tacko sprung, so tall that in his early teen years there was only one pair of sandals that fit him. He kept busting out of them and he had to keep patching them together. There was no other way.
Soccer was his sport until a few years ago, when a man named Ibrahim N'Diaye spotted him and offered him a chance to train in his Senegalese basketball academy. N'Diaye was credible: his brother, Mamadou, played in the NBA and is now an assistant coach at Georgia Tech. (The latter N'Diaye, reached by phone, declined to speak about Fall.)
Fall wasn't immediately sold on basketball, but the potential opportunity to go to America, study and possibly pursue a professional career was enticing for the entire family.
"I was doubting at first," Fall says, curled into a chair in his principal's office, with his long legs stretched out in front of him. "But I had the height."
He went to N'Diaye's academy, and late in 2012 he was placed at a high school in Texas.
He wouldn't be there for long.
Fall landed at a Houston school called Jamie's House Charter. He was 16 and homesick. Only a few months later the school closed. That left Fall bereft of not only a place to go, but the I-20 certificate of eligibility he needed to stay and study in the U.S. He would have to reapply, which would take months.
He spent a short time with his dad, who is a taxi driver in Cincinnati. He tried another school in Georgia and still another in Tennessee, but again the paperwork was an obstacle. He spent most of 2013 as an academic nomad.
"I was really homesick the first year," he said. "I missed waking up and seeing [my mom and siblings]. We were a close family."
Finally a friend of Mamadou N'Diaye who lived in Central Florida suggested Liberty Christian Prep. The new principal there, Tony Atkins, was also the basketball coach. But there was still an issue about where Tacko and one of his friends who came with him from Senegal, Ange Badji, would live.
A public relations consultant in the Tavares area named Mandy Wettstein, who represented Liberty Christian Prep as a client, heard about two Senegalese boys needing a home. She wanted to help, but nobody seemed to know when they would arrive.
"We didn't have a lot of time to think about it or prepare," said Wettstein, who now hosts Tacko and Ange. "We were figuring this out together. We thought [we had] three days. It was 48 hours."
Suddenly there the boys were, in her home with her two daughters, and it was clear there would need to be some adjustments.
Fall spends a lot of his day ducking: through doorways, into cars, in the shower. He cannot sit on an airplane outside of an emergency exit row. Wettstein obviously didn't have a bed long enough to fit him, so she improvised: laying a second mattress at the foot of Tacko's bed so the boy could sleep.
Fall, by the way, is still growing and might end up at 7-7 or taller. He's never been a misfit socially, but he's a misfit physically. He still doesn't own a pair of dress shoes, and he has to drive to the nearest big city to shop for clothes that fit. And now he was trying to fit into a new family, a new school, a new state and a new sport.
"He doesn't know any different," Wettstein says. "He lives in our world. He's always had to fit into it."
Hardest of all, it all could have vanished at any point. He and Ange could go to Liberty Christian Prep while they appealed for a restored I-20 form, but if they got denied, they would have to return to Senegal for 10 years. That would be the end of their American dream.
"They were very afraid," Wettstein says. "Ange asked me every day, 'Is there news? Have you heard anything?' "
It wasn't until April of this year that the good news came. Finally Fall could focus on school, and basketball.
It's the night after Thanksgiving, and an Orlando gym is mostly filled with families cheering for their sons in a high school holiday hoops tournament. At around 5 p.m., a line of players files in for the next in a series of games, and heads swivel. It's Liberty Christian Prep and its 7-6 star. Fall's name is misspelled on the printed roster – T-A-C-O – but everyone here knows who he is. There are a few college coaches here, too, and they can certainly spell Tacko's name.
Immediately it's clear how unfair all this is. Fall goes through a layup line and hardly has to jump to drop the ball into the hoop. His wingspan is eight feet. He dunks nonchalantly and spends the rest of his warmup time taking jumpers. His motion is quite fluid for someone who's still only two years into his basketball odyssey. His AAU coach, Edward Francis, who is watching from underneath the basket stanchion, calls Fall's progress "night and day" from when he started. He even had to be taught to dunk.
Fall lines up for the tip and reaches up softly as if waving away an errant fly. He jogs to the post and he's met by two opponents. One shoves him from behind and one stands directly in front of him. A teammate simply lobs the ball high and Fall grabs it. He turns and dribbles and the ball is swatted away. It's a mistake he won't be making again in this game.
His presence is far more effective on the defensive end. Every opposing shot is recalculated and sometimes altered by the lanky kid in goggles underneath the hoop. At one point, a guard tries to come at him and Fall swats the ball so hard that the shooter falls to the hardwood. Fall doesn't get every rebound, but it feels like he could if he wanted to.
"Tacko is an NBA player," Francis says. "You ain't gonna find a guy that tall who can do the things he can do."
It's not just the size; it's the work ethic. Francis has pushed Fall for months, training him in not only fundamental basketball, but how to move on the court. "He was 'running tall,' not opening his legs up," Francis says. "We made him run up and down the court as fast as he could. Once you start doing that, we'd throw the ball to him and let him catch it. Then the agility drills. He did a lot of work."
The result is a player who is still raw but much more solid on those mammoth feet. He's well on his way to growing into his frame, which would double his already-large advantage.
There is a price to all this, and it is this: Tacko is a target. Everybody wants a shot at Godzilla. By halftime, he's been pushed around a lot and he's bent over at the waist, dripping sweat. "He's tired," Wettstein says from the sideline.
As his legend grows, there will be more of a bounty. There's even a popular Vine of a portly boy bumping up against Fall, frustrated at having to cover him. One fellow prep dunked on Fall in December and the crowd erupted as if a game-winning three-pointer was made.
Tacko understands it takes more than a few months to learn a sport, so he's patient with himself, but he's already heard he's "terrible" from opponents and he was embarrassed when he arrived in the States without the coordination to dunk. Tacko is the gentlest of giants, without any enmity toward anyone, but people see the height, not the heart.
"At times it's been stressful," Wettstein says. "Tacko's way more than a 7-6 basketball player. He's a whole person. We try to stay focused on that."
Fall's finally in a good place. His English, a fourth language after French, Arabic and an African language called Wolof, is excellent. He has a 4.0 GPA and he's decided on UCF for college, which will keep him near his host family and his friends. It will put him on the path to an engineering job; he hopes to someday work for a tech company like Siemens or Microsoft.
Choosing a college also ends the rancor of recruiting, although his AAU coach is asked if he can be convinced to switch. Tacko can spend his senior season learning the game and enjoying the cocoon of a tiny school in an out-of-the-way place.
"I want to be a McDonald's All-American," he says with a smile.
He learned to drive, which he did with Wettstein's help over the last few weeks. He had to slide the driver's seat in Wettstein's car all the way back, and his feet barely fit in the footwell.
"He drives like a Florida grandma," she jokes.
Fall told Wettstein's daughter, Jordyn, that he's "driving like a boss."
He and his host family celebrated his 19th birthday on Dec. 10 – Fall had broccoli and cheese sauce, one of his favorite foods. (Yes, Tacko does enjoy tacos.) Wettstein couldn't wait to unveil his gift, which she spent weeks trying to find: size 22 flip-flops. They would become the only footwear Tacko owns that isn't some form of sneakers. Tacko was thrilled; for years he only had that one pair of worn-out sandals.
A ton of attention is coming. At UCF, he'll be playing in a major market, and both his highlights and his mistakes will get extra scrutiny. He will be expected to make the NBA, which is both a gift and a burden. One day he may be able to buy an extra-large bed, a house with an extra-large shower, and sit on planes with extra-large seats. For now, one of the best luxuries is the sight of the extra-small kids who line up to high-five him in the hallways, happy to see him walk by.