- Tacko Fall, one of the tallest people in human history, has walked into one of the major narratives of the NCAA tournament, going up against Duke and consensus No. 1 NBA draft pick Zion Williamson.
COLUMBIA, S.C — Let me tell you about my experience with really tall people. Not people who are taller than I am, which doesn’t take a lot. Not even people who are a lot taller than me, because the world is also full of them, as I discover every time I’m at the back of a crowd trying to see someone on stage. I mean, really tall people who are really tall even compared to other really tall people.
In the early 1980s, at the invitation of a basketball scout named Leo Papile, I went to the Shelburne Center in Roxbury in Boston. Leo and Kevin Mackey, the guy who eventually coached Cleveland State to that memorable upset of Indiana in the first round of the tournament, had arranged a tryout for Manute Bol in front of a number of coaches and scouts from the old Continental Basketball Association. Manute was every inch of seven-foot, six inches and he stood out on the Shelburne’s floor like a giraffe among Pomeranians. Later, we adjourned to an after-hours joint of dubious provenance that Leo knew in Boston’s North End. (Leo’s father had been a detective and was more than familiar with the local demimonde de espresso.) We walked in, Leo and me and Manute and a couple of other guys, and it looked like we had wandered into Old-Timer’s Day for the Patriarca mob. I was fascinated watching Manute open a bottle of beer. He used only the tips of two fingers, which looked like they had an extra knuckle or two.
A few years later, I went down to LSU to write a story about Shaquille O’Neal, who had just started there that fall. My photographer, a gifted NYC artsy type, wanted to get up on the ladder and shoot Shaq dunking. “You know,” Shaq told him, “I dunk pretty hard.” The photographer waved off the concern and Shaq threw one down that must have registered on seismographs in Kazakhstan. The ladder fell down. The photographer was hung on the backboard like laundry on a line. Shaq walked around the backboard, told the guy to “put your feet down in my hands,” and lowered him gently to the ground.
Then, on Friday, as I arrived at the Colonial Life Arena for the opening round quadruple-header here, I wound up standing behind Ralph Sampson, the former Virginia star who, at 7'4", had to bend low to get through the metal detectors. I felt like a funhouse mirror version of myself. Tall people fascinate me. They throw everything out of perspective for the rest of us, and they even throw everything out of perspective for other tall people, like basketball players.
Tacko Fall is from Senegal. His full name is Elhadji Tacko Sereigne Diop Fall. He is 7'6", plays for the University of Central Florida, and he screws up the entire court. He weighs 310 pounds that appear to be an optical illusion. He is one of the 60 tallest humans in history. On Friday night, when he simply removed the center third of the floor from the Virginia Commonwealth offense. It wasn’t just the five blocks, although those helped. It was watching the VCU forwards, who were between 6'7" and 6'8", try to go through the seven basic ballet positions in midair trying to contort up a shot or bend a pass in a fashion to confound the laws of aerodynamics. The best moment came on the last possession of the half, and it goes into my memory book of what very tall people do that has made me happy.
UCF was trying to inbound the ball under its own basket. Fall was in the lane. He was sandwiched between two 6'7" VCU forwards and he was trying to get the referee’s attention. So he pointed down at the top of their heads, and it was amazing.
UCF squashed Virginia Commonwealth, 73-58 on Friday night. The Knights ran out to a 20-point lead at the beginning of the second half as VCU went almost six minutes without scoring. The Rams, however, leaned into their full court pressure and cut the lead to nine. But Fall started roaming the middle again, causing chaos, grabbing rebounds flatfooted and getting loose and marginally airborne for dunks. On one memorable sequence, he tipped a rebound to Aubrey Dawkins for a dunk and then hit a field goal himself while getting knocked down on his backside, which is a considerable drop. His three-point play opened up the lead again to 70-56 and pretty much sealed the win. That pushes UCF into a Sunday match up with Duke, which will pit Tacko Fall against wunderkind Zion Williamson who, it should be noted, is a foot shorter than Tacko Fall. Which is also quite an amazing thing.
On senior night a couple of weeks back, Tacko Fall’s mother saw her son for the first time in six years. It was a moving ceremony for all concerned. Back when I first saw Manute Bol, African-born players were a rare thing. There was Manute, and there was Hakeem Olajuwon, and that pretty much was it. Now, though, because of opportunities and improved scouting, and because of the endless cycles of poverty and violence afflicting especially sub-Saharan Africa, more and more young people are coming here, sponsored by church groups and other non-governmental organizations. That was the route that Tacko Fall took out of Senegal in 2013.
“As a person and a player, he's one of the best human beings you're going to meet. Hands down. And I've coached a lot of terrific people, and none any better than Tacko,” said UCF coach Johnny Dawkins. “He’s a beautiful human being. Engaging, intelligent, just—he's funny. He has the whole gamut. He's a great young man. In basketball, I think he has a bright future. I hear the game has changed and his style of play no longer exists, but when you have a player like Tacko Fall with his personality, with who he is, in any community, he'll be one of the best people you'll ever have in the community.
“I see him playing on the highest level. I don't know how and what path he's going to take, but a 7'6", 300, still has a huge upside in this game because he does. He's gotten even better this year. Throughout the season, I've seen improvement. I see him playing at the next level, and I think that's something he can accomplish because of his ability on and off the court.”
Fall came to the United States at 16. In 2013, he bounced around three high schools in two states and was dreadfully homesick. Finally, he found a host family in Orlando and began attending Liberty Christian Prep before moving on to UCF. There, Fall, a devout Muslim, did his best to blend in. He speaks four languages, including an African dialect called Wolof, and he’s carried a 4.0 GPA ever since he landed at Liberty Christian Prep. On Friday, he was asked about the administration’s Muslim ban and the assault on the mosques in New Zealand, and his answer was direct and heartfelt.
“For me, I love the game of basketball, but it's always bigger than that,” he said. “Being able to represent what we are about means a great deal to me. I was very sad when I saw what happened down in New Zealand. I thought about it a lot. But we've just got to learn how to get along. I mean, everybody—we all pretty much are people, regardless of the religion.
“Me, I grew up in Senegal. We have a lot of Muslims. We have a lot of Christians. We all get along, and that's a culture where I grew in. So I really don't see that. But at the same time, we've got to learn to love each other, and that's how I see things.”
Now, of course, he has walked into one of the major narratives of the tournament when, on Sunday, he goes up against Williamson, the consensus No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft. More than a few pundits around the country have been shilling for this matchup ever since the brackets were revealed last Sunday. “I feel like I’ve been the same,” he said. “You don’t just turn it on or off. You got to do it every single night to prepare you for nights like this.”
Zion Williamson is 6-7 and 285 pounds. He is a foot shorter and 25 pounds lighter than Tacko Fall, who bends and shapes the very air in which the game is played, and this will be something amazing to see. It surely will be that.