The Stratosphere is a 921-foot-high observation deck that overlooks the miles of neon lights and big dreams of Las Vegas. It is the tallest of its kind in the United States, and at the top there is a thrill ride called the “Big Shot” that propels the willing and steel-stomached another 160 feet at 45 miles per hour before dropping them and vaulting them up again.
During the NBA summer league last month, a Celtics contingent went to the top of the tower, and some of them shuddered.
“I kept telling the players, ‘Look, there are 10-year-olds doing it. I think you can do it,’ ” director of player personnel Austin Ainge said with a chuckle.
When 7-foot-6-inch center Tacko Fall was ready to try, it got everyone’s attention. There was some question about whether the ride was safe for him, but the only height restriction is that customers must be at least 48 inches tall. That, of course, was not an issue.
The ride operators said that as long as Fall could fit into the harness, he would be fine. And so the tallest man in Las Vegas was catapulted to the city’s highest point, offering another opportunity for onlookers to pull out their iPhones in wonder.
It takes a lot to stand out in Sin City, but for 10 days last month this undrafted rookie from Central Florida commanded attention in a way few summer league players ever have.
Fans roared when he checked into games and booed when he was removed. They chanted his name when he was on the bench and celebrated when he reached up and dunked the ball as effortlessly as you might put something on a low shelf.
Whenever Fall left his hotel, people hovered and snapped selfies with him, sometimes without even speaking to him before scurrying off. And when he took part in a free autograph session in the basketball arena’s concourse after a Celtics game, the line snaked hundreds of people deep.
Fall told the organizers that he would autograph as much as he could in 15 minutes, and he did not hesitate when a fan handed him a No. 11 Kyrie Irving Celtics jersey to sign. But as he sat there alongside his agent, Justin Haynes, Fall did not talk about the line or the Irving jersey or the fans who sidled up wearing taco costumes.
“I should have scored 40 points today,” Fall said softly.
And that statement illustrates perhaps the only part of this unusual spotlight that Fall finds vexing. He embraces the attention, but he does not intend to become a sideshow. He is going through all of this because he is a nice, patient person, and because he believes it is part of his path to the NBA.
Fall’s chances of playing for the Celtics next season remain uncertain. Boston has one open roster spot, and Fall is expected to compete for it at training camp. Nevertheless, despite the legions of Celtics fans who have fallen for Fall and essentially begged president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to put him on the team, there is work to be done. But that has never dissuaded this player.
A leap of faith
Elhadji Tacko Sereigne Diop Fall was born on Dec. 10, 1995, in Dakar, Senegal. Even though he was quite tall as a child, he had no interest in basketball. Friends began suggesting to Fall’s mother that he should try the sport, but she mostly shrugged.
When Fall was about 16, Ibrahima Ndiaye, who ran a local basketball academy, met with Fall and his mother and told them that basketball could lead to wonderful educational opportunities in the US.
About six months later, Fall and his friend Ange Badji were each packing single suitcases for a trip to a world they did not know. They spoke little English, and they did not even know much about the sport they were traveling thousands of miles to play.
“The idea was exciting,” Fall said. “You have all these thoughts about how it’s going to be. And then once I got here it really hit me, like, ‘I’m in a different country. I probably won’t see my mom or my brother for a while.’ That’s when it really hit me.”
Ndiaye had arranged for Fall and Badji to attend a charter school in the Houston area. But that fell through, in part because of questions about the school’s validity. And the search for a different option was challenging.
New complications arose because of visa and eligibility issues, and as the group bounced from Illinois to Kansas to Tennessee to Georgia to Ohio over about eight months, they struggled to find a suitable school that was willing to accept the boys. Finally, in the fall of 2013, a friend of Ndiaye’s connected them to Liberty Christian Prep in Tavares, Fla.
Mandy Wettstein’s mother-in-law was a guidance counselor there, and she told Wettstein and her husband, Davis Talmage, that two students from Africa were enrolling but needed a place to live.
“Tacko’s pipeline hadn’t really had a real plan for the kids, or a place to put them,” Wettstein said. “We thought it was an opportunity to help out kids that needed some stability.
“When Tacko first came to us he was not a very trusting individual, which was understandable given what he’d gone through since coming to the US. So it took a long time to establish that connection. He was a pretty introverted kid, but we worked through that and let him know we were going to be here through whatever.”
‘Like nothing you’ve ever seen’
For Fall, this new living situation was understandably awkward at first. His host family pushed two mattresses together hoping it’d be comfortable enough. Whenever he wanted something to eat he would ask first, until Wettstein finally made him realize that he could just open the refrigerator whenever he pleased.
“Tacko could consume,” Wettstein said with a chuckle. “I wish I could tell you we fed everyone salmon and quinoa. But we didn’t. We had two ravenous teenage kids in the house who were discovering American junk food for the first time.”
Wettstein said she once watched Fall eat two baskets of garlic knots, three large pizzas, and countless refills of lemonade in a sitting.
When she taught Fall how to drive, it was surprisingly easy for him to cram into a medium-sized sedan. Issues arose when he tried to move his size-23 right foot between the gas and brake pedals, because it often covered both of them.
In school, Fall’s transition was more seamless. He spoke English better than anyone expected and as a child was a self-described “computer nerd.” He took the SAT about three weeks after arriving in Florida, and Wettstein said he scored in the 95th percentile.
Fall’s basketball skills remained crude, but when you are 7-4 and playing against high school students, that doesn’t matter all that much. When Fall was a junior, Liberty Christian coach Tony Atkins called then-Central Florida coach Donnie Jones, whose university was just 45 minutes away in Orlando.
“He said, ‘Hey, I want you to just see this kid,’ ” Jones recalled. “ ‘He’s a long ways away but, golly, he’s nothing like you’ve ever seen before.’ ”
Jones later looked on in awe as the skinny teenager with the thick glasses contorted his body just to get through a doorway at the UCF basketball facility. That day the two just sat and talked, and it was clear to Jones that Fall was eager to learn the game.
UCF offered Fall a scholarship late in his junior year, but other opportunities were sparse. Then that spring Fall started to shine on the Nike EYBL travel circuit and more colleges took notice.
Fall was invited to the prestigious NBA Top 100 camp, which featured most of the top prospects in the rising senior class. The event was held in Charlottesville, Va., and Fall didn’t really know anyone there when he arrived. After two days, he called Wettstein back in Florida. He sounded sad.
“I don’t think I belong here,” Fall told his host mother.
But Wettstein would have none of it. She reminded Fall that he had come to a foreign country and mostly taught himself English, that he had been playing basketball for a little more than a year and already made great strides, and that he was competing against elite athletes who had been playing for most of their lives.
Later in the week, Wettstein received a text message from an assistant coach at the University of Florida telling her that the Gators were extremely interested in Fall. He was named to the camp’s all-star team.
The scholarship offers poured in. Fall ended up with 33 in all, and he was not just recruited by basketball blue bloods. Schools such as Harvard and Princeton reached out, too, intrigued by Fall’s skills and academic potential.
Fall felt loyalty toward Central Florida because it had expressed interest in him before everyone else, and he loved that the school was so close to his host family. He committed to the Knights.
“They believed in me, in what I could do and what I could become,” Fall said. “So that really helped.”
Fall had spent two years playing for a high school that had an enrollment of about 300 students, and now he had access to Division 1 facilities and coaches and teammates. He also had some new luxuries, such as the 10-foot shower the university installed for him after receiving clearance from the NCAA.
Fall began poring over clips of centers past and present such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and Rudy Gobert, and he worked out with the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who tried to teach Fall his classic skyhook.
Over four seasons with the Knights, Fall averaged 10.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game, and his star power exceeded those numbers. An assistant coach or manager was assigned to shadow him whenever he walked through an airport to shield him when autograph and picture requests became excessive.
A 7-6 man is fully capable of handling a crowd by himself, of course, but the problem with Fall was he just could never say no.
Fall truly introduced himself to the nation last March, when he had 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 blocks as Central Florida nearly upset top-seeded Duke and No. 1 NBA draft pick Zion Williamson in the NCAA Tournament’s second round.
“I think that game validated what he knew about himself,” said UCF coach Johnny Dawkins, who replaced Jones after Fall’s freshman season. “He was confident that he would be successful, and I think it just validated it for him. He knew he belonged at that type of level.”
‘One of the toughest days’
In May, Fall parlayed a strong performance in the G League combine into an invite to the NBA combine, where he competed against some of the top players in his draft class in front of representatives from every NBA team.
As always, Fall generated attention for obvious reasons, setting combine records for height in shoes (7-7), wingspan (8-2¼), and standing reach (10-2½). He played well, too, and he believed his performances there and at predraft workouts, along with his body of work from college, would get him picked.
It was no surprise that Fall was not one of the 20 prospects invited to the NBA Draft’s green room, but he traveled to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn anyway and sat in the stands along with the fans. He waited all night and never heard his name called. He went back to his New York hotel room, discouraged and confused.
“That was probably one of the toughest days of my life,” Fall said. “I wanted to experience it and I did believe I was going to get picked. It was hard for a few days, but you’ve just got to keep pushing.”
The Celtics had been tracking Fall for several years and had even held a predraft workout for him after his sophomore season, before he decided to return to school. They were a bit surprised that he was not selected, but they were hopeful that they would now have a chance.
“His footwork has gotten better. His hands have gotten better. His post moves have gotten better,” Austin Ainge said. “It wasn’t night and day, but slow, steady progression.”
The morning after the draft, Fall agreed to an Exhibit 10 contract with the Celtics. It is a one-year, nonguaranteed deal that would put Fall on the summer league and training camp rosters. And if he is waived after training camp and decides to join Boston’s G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws, he will receive a $50,000 bonus.
But Fall does not want to settle for that route. He is trying to make Boston’s final roster, and because the team waived forward Guerschon Yabusele last month, he should at least get a chance.
“If the Celtics release him, I don’t think he goes unclaimed,” said Haynes, Fall’s agent. “I think somebody will take a shot on him because he’s done enough to show he can find a place in the NBA. I’m really hopeful that it’s Boston. I hope they find a way, and they do have a vision for him.”
The dream is closer
As Fall turned into a sensation at the Las Vegas summer league last month — Celtics coach Brad Stevens acknowledged that his two young children watched the games to see Fall — he was focused on showing how he can be a useful big man in the NBA.
He runs the floor well for his size and his conditioning has improved, and he finishes efficiently enough in the post that he must be accounted for. But his free throw shooting remains poor and he sometimes struggles to defend pick-and-pop big men, and in the modern NBA they are everywhere. More physical players are capable of overpowering him, too.
“I think that if we really wanted to tailor things over a long season for him, he could be even better,” Ainge said. “It would probably take a willingness to do that, because he does have some pronounced strengths that can be utilized to your advantage if we are willing to change some things for him.”
Fall has been working with skills trainer Drew Hanlen, who counts Celtics forward Jayson Tatum among his high-profile clients. Hanlen said he has tried to keep the workload simple, focusing on Fall’s balance, screen setting, hook shots, and free throw shooting.
Hanlen believes that Fall is “for sure” an NBA player, but said he still needs some development. The challenge is that he will be trying to make a roster in a little more than one month, so they have had to expedite the process a bit.
When Fall returned home to Senegal last month to take part in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, Hanlen even had him work out against one of his other top clients, 76ers All-Star Joel Embiid.
That was Fall’s first time home in seven years, and he said it was a blessing that he was able to spend time with his mother, grandmother, other family members, and friends. They were in awe of how far he has already come, and they are excited about what might come next.
Dawkins, Fall’s former UCF coach who spent nine years in the NBA, is confident that his former pupil will find a way.
“There’s nobody like Tacko,” Dawkins said. “Nobody in middle school, high school, college or the NBA. There’s nobody out there that’s 7-7. I think he’s equipped to be able to compete at that level, and I’m a believer. This has been a dream of his, and he’s so close.”