Judging by Mamadou Seck’s attitude Sunday, you never would’ve known that his team had just experienced the worst loss in SIU history.
Seck, Saluki starting forward, didn’t seem upset or disgruntled. Instead, he sat on his couch with his wife Gretchen to his left, and both smiled as they looked down at their 8-month-old son, cradled in Seck’s arms.
On top of adjusting to life as a father and as of two weeks ago, a husband, Seck balances his job as a full-time player with his responsibility as a full-time student. To some, Seck’s obligations may seem overwhelming, but to the star basketball player, it’s just life.
“It’s not really easy. But, you know, in life you set your goals,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how hard it is or, you know, how long it’s going to take you. You do it.”
Setting high expectations and accomplishing his goals seems to be a theme in Seck’s life. However, as a child Seck’s interest lay in soccer rather than basketball. Originally from Senegal, Africa, Seck said “futbol” was the sport of his country and basketball was of no interest to him.
Seck said he was around 7 years old when the television program NBA Action became popular in Senegal and one basketball player in particular changed his mind.
“At the beginning my brother, whenever he wanted to play he would be like ‘let’s go shoot,’ and I would be like ‘no,’ and then he would have to give me money or kick my ass or something to make me play,” he said. “I didn’t really like it, but … whenever I got into Michael Jordan I really got into it.”
Seck said it was shortly after he began to practice with his older brother, who he primarily credits for teaching him what he first knew about the sport.
After he played for the Senegal national team, Seck’s opportuinities to play basketball continued to grow, but he said the United States wasn’t in the cards.
On a trip to visit his sister in the United States during the summer of 2007, Seck was shooting hoops at an open gym in Washington when he was approached by a man from Seattle University. Seck said the man told him that if he tried, a scholarship to the school was within his reach.
“When I was in Senegal, mostly ,they didn’t really explain to me what it meant to be on full scholarship,” he said. “My main focus was like, do they pay or don’t they pay? And he said they don’t pay so I’m like done. I didn’t want to talk about it.”
Seck said it was after the man explained to him what was included in a scholarship that he agreed to give it a shot. After coaches at Seattle offered to train him, Seck’s language barrier brought challenges for him, and his ACT score wasn’t high enough for acceptance.
“I was born in a country where we speak French and like everything we do is in French,” he said. “When I was in Senegal I used to have an A in English, but … learning English there is different than English here. Trying to do like math, physics and everything in English wasn’t really easy for me at that time.”
Seck said it was then he was given the option of attending a junior college where he could eventually transfer to play Division I basketball. He said there were only two junior colleges open for international players, one of which is Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg.
When he first started at the junior college, 6-foot-7-inch Seck obviously caught the attention of his schoolmates.
“The first time I saw him at SIC he was wearing a suit and I thought he was a teacher,” Gretchen Seck said. “He was walking down the hall and he was dressed really nice. I thought he was a professor.”
Most people, however, were not under the impression that Seck was a professor. Instead, he said rumors that he was a prince seemed to fly.
“I don’t even know where that came from. Whenever I was in (junior college) people were like ‘you’re a prince?’ I was like ‘hell no,’” he said. “I used to wear a suit all the time … It’s just the kind of way I like to dress and for some reason everybody talked about it.”
Within three years of being in southern Illinois, Seck transferred to SIU as a forward for the men’s basketball team, and he said although he’s in more professional classes for his computer science major, he’s toned down his wardrobe a bit.
Seck continues to be enrolled in full-time classes year-round and said he considers academics just as important as basketball.
Issa Tall, a professor in the department of mathematics and one of Seck’s instructors, said Seck handles his studies well and continues to get high grades.
“The classes I teach are heavy, especially during the summer,” Tall said. “(Seck) is very committed. Not just for this class, but I know him for other reasons. We’re from the same country.”
Although he didn’t know Seck while he lived in Senegal, Tall said Seck is well-known because of his basketball skills. He said it’s common for students who have other commitments to miss class but said Seck has seldom been late.
Tall said Seck’s father stressed the importance of academics from a young age. He said when Seck didn’t do well in school, he wasn’t be allowed to play, which could explain why Seck excels in both.
“He’s a very, very nice person,” Tall said. “He’s very humble and very honest.”
Because of his heavy workload, Seck said he spends little time socializing and tries to balance his time wisely. He said he tries to make time for Gretchen and their son, Mohamed, as much as possible.
When it comes to basketball, Seck said he considers his team another family. Although he doesn’t spend much time with the players off the court, Seck said he’s friends with everyone.
“He works the hardest, he does things right, that would make anyone likeable on the team,” men’s basketball coach Chris Lowery said.
Lowery said he’s watched Seck evolve as a player and as a person.
“He’s done the right things,” he said. “He’s a tremendous human being and for those things we’re obviously very proud.”
Although the Salukis’ season has been up and down, Seck seems to keep the players in a good mood. Lowery laughed and mentioned that Seck’s other passion, singing, is an interesting pastime for him.
“He likes to sing. That’s one thing, he’s always singing,” Lowery said. “Mamadou, he’s not a good singer, but he thinks he can.”
As the Seck family sat in their living room Sunday, Mohamed grabbed one of his teething toys, a plastic microphone, and began to chew on it. As the toy made noise, his eyes lit up and he smiled ear to ear.
“Seck, maybe (Mohamed will) be a singer like you,” Gretchen said.
Seck graduates in May and said he plans to focus a lot of energy on his family. He said he has the option of either going to graduate school and getting a job, or signing a contract and continuing to play basketball.
For now, he will focus on studies and try to finish the SIU season on a good note.