- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Hassan Fofana speaks five languages, but his English needs the most work. Clearly, however, he is getting better at it.

After Maryland’s 6-foot-10, 280-pound freshman drew his second quick foul Sunday in the Terps’ victory over Florida State at Comcast Center, he said something to the official before heading to the bench. Fofana believes the ref understood him perfectly because nine seconds after re-entering the game in the second half, he picked up his third foul. He came out less than a minute later.

“I told him I didn’t think I did anything,” Fofana said afterward. “I think he held that against me. I’d like to tell him I’m sorry.”

He added, “I’ve got to learn not to say anything.”

Fofana has had much to learn. Since he said goodbye to his parents, nine brothers and sisters and friends in Africa 3-1/2 years ago, he has attended four schools, including Maryland, and lived with three different families before settling in College Park. Fofana’s college basketball career might be starting, but he already has had a long, interesting journey.

That was the point.

Fofana left his home in Togo (he was born in Guinea) “to get a better education and to enjoy a new world,” he said. “My parents were born in Africa, but they got a chance to go outside Africa and [see] the world. My father grew up in Africa. It wasn’t the best for him. But when he went outside and came back, he realized a lot. He did a lot of stuff.”

A lot of stuff has happened to Fofana, too, in a relatively brief amount of time. By all accounts he seems to have handled it well.

“He’s an amazing young man,” said Mike Crotty, his former AAU coach. “A phenomenal human being. He’s done so many things on his own, and he’s really accomplished so much. I don’t know how anyone can come from Africa and bounce around three different high schools and stay focused.”

Jim Davolio, who was Fofana’s coach during his junior year at Holy Name High School in Worcester, Mass., said, “He’s a very trusting, thoughtful kid. You could tell he had a good upbringing. I think that’s where his strength comes from, his character.

“Some of those things made coaching him difficult because he asked a lot of questions. ‘Why should I set a screen here?’ ‘Because we told you to, you nut. We’ve been doing it that way for a hundred years.’ He’s a very intelligent, inquisitive kid.”

Growing up, Fofana’s best sport was soccer. Imagine a 6-foot-6, 200-pound midfielder. Opponents wished they could merely imagine it, too. According to just about everyone who knows him, Fofana has a sweet, infectious disposition and a sly, playful sense of humor. But he was a terror on the field. At least two opponents, he said, suffered broken legs as a result of colliding with him.

Even some teammates can’t avoid contact with Fofana, who is expected eventually to provide the same type of bulky, body-scattering, inside presence Lonny Baxter did with the Final Four teams of 2001 and 2002. During a recent practice, reserve Mike Grinnon turned to run upcourt, ran smack into Fofana and went down.

“I didn’t know where I was for a couple of seconds,” said Grinnon, a feisty, 6-6, 210-pounder who is hardly a pushover.

“He got airborne,” Terps coach Gary Williams marveled. “It was like he got body-slammed. It was amazing.”

Fofana barely played against Florida State. But in the Terps’ previous game, a 71-67 road win over Virginia, he had 10 rebounds in 20 minutes. Both were season bests by far. As with most big men, Fofana’s progress has been measured. But he is starting to get it. Maryland now has four freshmen who contribute, and Fofana, who can get his size-19 sneakers up and down the court despite his bulk, provides not just height but size.

“He played three years of organized ball before this year,” Williams said. “All the great players do a lot of things based on instinct; it’s not automatic with him. So he’s learning the game. He’s smart. He speaks four languages or whatever.”

Fofana, who also is in much better shape than he was during the fall, admits he was thrown by the complexities of the game. But he is a quick study and a willing student. He even has fellow freshman Mike Jones test him on diagramming plays before class. “In the beginning,” Fofana said, “I couldn’t run any play right.”

After a growth spurt in high school, Fofana started playing more basketball and was discovered by then Loyola (Ill.) assistant Scott Spinelli, who has a long history of bringing African players to the United States. He was supposed to attend Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., where a couple of relatives had gone, but he didn’t like it. So he ended up attending public high school in Ayer, Mass., and lived with Spinelli’s parents.

Fofana, who speaks French and three African languages, was ineligible to play at Ayer, but he did learn English. “It was very tough,” he said. “I wasn’t good at English, so they really didn’t grade my stuff. The next semester I did better.”

Fofana’s indoctrination to American basketball came the next summer when he played for Crotty’s successful AAU team, the Middlesex (Mass.) Magic. Crotty said a friend told him about Fofana but didn’t include that many details.

“My wife and I went to pick him up,” Crotty said. “Little did we realize he’d be this 6-foot-10, 300-pound kid. He spoke four languages, but none of them was English. Fortunately for us, one of our other players spoke French. He was our 12th player. We put him in late in the first half. He blocked three or four shots, grabbed every rebound. I told them, ‘Fellas, this guy is gonna have to play a little more.’”

Fofana became friends with one of the players on the Magic, Casey Gibbons, whose father, Gary, is a vascular surgeon. Eventually, Hassan and Casey (who plays for Division III power Williams) became close, and Hassan moved in with the family near Boston. Gary Gibbons, who is considered Fofana’s guardian, said he helped Fofana stay on top of his schoolwork and provided him with the “support structure” he needed. “I think the No.1 thing he got from our family,” Gibbons said, “was family.”

Meanwhile, through various connections, Fofana transferred for his junior year to Holy Name, which has a good academic reputation and plays a tough schedule that includes schools from out of state. One of those connections was J.P. Ricciardi, then the Holy Name coach. “I think Hassan wanted a little more of a challenge to get his game going,” Ricciardi said.

In addition to coaching, Ricciardi was director of player personnel for the Oakland Athletics. He was considered a rising young star in major league baseball, so much so that shortly after Fofana enrolled at Holy Name, Ricciardi left to become general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Fofana played at Holy Name for Ricciardi’s longtime assistant, Davolio, whose friend Mike Zona took Fofana into his home. Fofana lived with Zona during the week and visited the Gibbonses on weekends.

“My heart goes out to this kid,” Zona said. “Here’s a kid, he came over and leaves behind nine brothers and sisters and a mother and father. It’s got to be tough.”

It was and still is, especially since Fofana learned two years ago that his father, Foumghe, is battling prostate cancer.

“It’s hard, sometimes, very hard to stay focused and do the right thing, when at the same time you’re thinking about what’s going on back there,” Fofana said. “It’s very tough.”

Playing at Holy Name, Fofana outmuscled his opponents, most of whom were smaller. His defensive, rebounding and passing skills were solid; offense would come later. Recruiters started to take notice of the big, smart kid who could move.

Maryland assistant Jimmy Patsos heard of Fofana, although by accident. Visiting northern California to recruit prep star Leon Powe, Patsos had some time to kill and figured he would go see the A’s play. He dialed up his old buddy from Catholic University, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, to see whether he could get him into a game. Cashman said to call his friend, J.P. Ricciardi, with the A’s. Patsos got his ticket. He also got a call back from Ricciardi, who said something like, “By the way, I’ve got a player you might be interested in.”

Because Fofana turned 19 during the spring of his junior year at Holy Name, he was ruled ineligible in Massachusetts, so he transferred to Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va. The prep school sent several players to the ACC, including Baxter and former Wake Forest star Josh Howard.

“We were mainly looking at a place where he could intensify his basketball experience and prepare him academically for college,” Gibbons said. “He liked the coach. He liked the academics. Being a military environment, it was a more structured environment. But it was a little disappointing basketball-wise.”

Fofana said Hargrave wasn’t a great experience. The team had several good players, and he did not get the playing time he wanted or felt he deserved. “I didn’t learn a whole lot,” he said. “It seemed like when I went there my basketball skill didn’t go higher. It seemed like it stayed the same or even went down.”

But Fofana said the tough academics helped him, especially in preparing for the ACT standardized test. And he left in much better shape physically and with a much clearer idea of where he wants to go. After basketball ends, whenever that is, he said he would like to start his own company or take over his father’s import-export business.

“I could have stayed home and enjoyed being with my parents and my friends,” he said. “But I want to run my life, and they gave me a chance to do it, and they trust me. Sometimes I call and I say I have this or that going on. What should I do? My dad told me, ‘Trust your heart.’”

Even if it’s a wandering one.

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