WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The 17-year-old had spent all day travelling, leaving his home country of Senegal bound for the United States. He stepped off the plane in Wilmington, looking for a family he’d never met or even spoken with before this moment.
“They did not speak my language, and I didn’t understand English,” Boubacar Aw remembers about his first meeting with Gary and Eva Battle. “He (Gary) is trying to ask me ‘Are you hungry?’ He talks really fast. I’m like ‘What is he talking about?’. He asked ‘Are you hungry? Are you hungry?’ I’m like ‘What is he talking about?” Finally, he starts rubbing his belly. I’m like ‘That’s universal right there. I understand that part!’”
The relationship between young Boubacar and the Battle Family blossomed out of that airport meeting in 1993. Battle had been contacted by one of his former players at Acme-Delco High School, John Jacques, who was playing for Coach John Thompson at Georgetown. They needed a host family for a young player coming to the United States from Africa.
More than four thousand miles from Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina, Boubacar Aw had become a star basketball player. Born in the city of Thies, Senegal, Boubacar had switched sports when he started growing taller than most of the other soccer players at his school.
“I was one of the biggest guys on the soccer field, and another guy told me ‘You know, maybe soccer may not be your thing, not because you’re not skilled, but dude, every time I see you you’re getting taller and taller. Have you ever tried basketball?’,” Boubacar recalls being told. “Basketball was not big at the time. So, I gave it a try, and ended up falling in love with it.”
Boubacar says he met then-Georgetown Assistant Coach Craig Esherick at a youth basketball competition, and they struck up a conversation about his interest in attending the university. Plans ultimately solidified for him to live with the Battle family, and enroll at the Washington, DC school following graduation from East Columbus High school.
“Over time, they’ve become my own family,” Boubacar says about the Battles. “Eva Battle and Gary Battle, I call them ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’. Great people. I was pretty lucky. They agreed to host me, to mentor me and teach me everything I needed to know about this country, the culture, the language, the way of life. They’ve done a marvelous job.”
“I didn’t hardly sleep that night, and he didn’t either,” Gary Battle says about the first night Boubacar spent at the family’s home in Lake Waccamaw. “The first day of school he followed me. He didn’t know what was going on. But he learned things real fast.”
Battle taught at ECHS, along with coaching the boys’ basketball team. He says Boubacar immersed himself in learning and picked it up quickly. While other players would go home after school and return for late afternoon or early evening practice, Boubacar would spend those off-hours in classrooms working with teachers. New concepts became familiar, including multiple-choice exams.
“Here I am, taking a test, and the answer is given to me in multiple choice,” Boubacar said, reliving the amazement first shown 20-plus years earlier. “We (students in Senegal) used the French system. If you take a test, you have to write the answer. If they ask you a question, you have to come up with the answer. This was awesome. This is great. The answer is given to me, I just have to know it and pick it!”
Adding Boubacar Aw’s talents made the Gators a success on the basketball court. The school won the regular-season and conference championships, and the senior standout was off to the next level, Big-East basketball under the leadership of legendary Georgetown Head Coach John Thompson. Boubacar talks about the on and off-court life there, including his reaction at being assigned to room with future NBA star Allen Iverson, starting at 22:40 of the podcast.
“I don’t think anybody can prepare you for what you will experience at Georgetown until you go through it,” said Boubacar. “I like to tell people that I spent four years at Georgetown, I felt like I was there for twenty years. You’re a student-athlete. Even in the off-season, that’s what you are. You will study. You will work out. It’s not like ‘I’m going to go have fun or on vacation’. There’s no vacation. It was 24/7. It was a job.”
After four years with the Hoyas, which included a trip to the Elite-8 of the 1996 NCAA Tournament and being named captain of the 1997-98 squad, Boubacar continued his basketball career playing professionally overseas. He had success with teams in Uruguay, Argentina and Mexico. Boubacar was named the Most Valuable Player leading the 2005 Senegalese National Team. He retired from professional basketball in 2011, and came back to Wilmington to start a new career.
Inspired by the Battles, who are lifelong educators, Boubacar went into teaching. He earned substitute jobs in Pender County and at Cape Fear Academy, where he also helped coach the basketball team. Boubacar landed a full-time position at Hoggard High teaching Spanish (he speaks five languages), and in 2012 was named the head coach of the girls’ basketball team. His teams have won at least 20 games in each of the past five seasons, and in 2016 Boubacar was named the Mideastern Conference ‘Coach of the Year’.
“I’ve been blessed,” he says, reflecting on his life’s experiences in Senegal and the United States. “This is a great community. I came to a great community, to a great family. Without them I would not have been able to do what I’ve accomplished because they took the time to teach me English, to teach me the way of life and to support me. That’s why I came back. This is home. Wilmington is home for me now.”
You can hear my full interview with Boubacar Aw by clicking on any of the links below.
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