Who said Minneapolis isn’t cool? Kevin Garnett on the soul of a Twin City The Timberwolves legend talks Prince, a Janet Jackson lap dance and who he’s rooting for in the Super Bowl

One night in the mid-1990s, Kevin Garnett was hanging out with a few of his Minnesota Timberwolves teammates at South Beach, his favorite Minneapolis nightclub at the time. He saw a legend walking toward him.

The icon pulled Garnett to the side — Prince wanted to have a conversation about basketball. Prince loved the game, and he engaged young Garnett in a conversation. Music blared all around them, but the two men were focused on a shared love for a sport that they both played pretty well.

“We just had a connection right there,” Garnett said. “Sat there the whole night and talked, and I kind of forgot my night. He told us on Fridays that he [did] little minishows just to hear new music he curated. They were never short of eventful. Some of the stuff that he would play, I never heard it come out. The set used to start at 4 in the morning.”

It was the beginning of a friendship. Two giants in Minneapolis — one who towered at 6-foot-11 and would go on to lead the team to eight consecutive playoff appearances, and the other who, with more than 100 million records sold, was one of the best-selling and most influential musicians of all time.

“During the season, I couldn’t go to a lot of them,” Garnett added, laughing at the memory, “but … we had a blast with that, man.”

“I was coming with a raw edge that I wanted the city to embrace. And they embraced it. And I think I matured.” — Kevin Garnett

The experience Garnett had with Prince, and eventually with other greats such as superproducers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, helped shape what Garnett thought of what many considered a stuffy city. When Garnett landed in Minneapolis in 1995, the fifth overall pick and the first NBA player drafted out of high school in 20 years, he wasn’t sure what to expect. For the South Carolina native, the snow was a real concern, even after high school in Chicago. And he’d heard things that gave him pause, including an influx of gang culture.

But he was ready to dive in and make Minneapolis home. The city was known for contributing so much to pop music by way of genre-exemplifying musicians such as Prince, Jam, Lewis, Morris Day and The Time — artists that all soundtracked the ’80s and ’90s and paved the way for rhythm and blues music to reach some of its greatest heights.

What was missing around the time Garnett arrived was a daily feeling of how deeply Minnesota musicians had contributed to pop culture, and changed the world. The world most certainly knew, considering that by the late ’80s the Grammy-winning Jam and Lewis were household names in black families, known for their creative partnership with Janet Jackson, reviving influential singing group New Edition and creating their Flyte Tyme productions, which has worked with everyone from Alexander O’Neal to Mary J. Blige to Michael Jackson.

But locally? There wasn’t even a radio station that consistently played the music the area most famously was responsible for. No urban music radio station was in Minneapolis in the mid-1990s, when hip-hop was rising up the charts and R&B music was ubiquitous? “I was like, Whaaaat,” Garnett said with a laugh.

But change was a-coming.


It’s the city in which Garnett, the Boston Celtics champion, became a superstar, and this weekend it’s hosting the biggest game in professional football. A Super Bowl Live music festival has been going on for a week along Nicollet Mall, and among other funky cultural moments, there was a massive Prince tribute Tuesday. In the past two decades, the city has evolved greatly. When the future first-ballot Hall of Famer landed in Minneapolis, whether he knew it or not, his arrival signaled change. He was ready to win and bring a championship to the Twin Cities. “After making the All-Rookie Second Team during his rookie season,” says the NBA’s site, “Garnett skyrocketed to stardom in his next two seasons with averages of 17.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.5 steals.”

The young man who would become a 15-time All-Star had a great jumper, low post moves and an impressive defensive presence. Someone with that size and skill who lacked an awkwardness you might normally find in a big man? Forget about it. And he brought an excitement to the city that needed a good basketball team to root for.

Prince was the Commander-in-Chief of Culture. And Garnett was the Prime Minister of Cool. “I don’t know, in particular, which [parts of] culture I did bring, but I’d definitely say I was part of the wave, and I helped … tried to give it a different taste … with music, sports, a lot of things at the time weren’t being done.” Garnett said he felt a responsibility to the city. “I was coming from a hard background,” he said. “I wasn’t going to be afraid to show emotion. I wasn’t going to be afraid to say, ‘I like this’ or ‘I love this.’ I wasn’t going to be afraid that I didn’t speak correctly, or that my teeth were jacked up, or that my hair needed to be cut. I was coming with a raw-ass edge that I wanted the city to embrace. And they embraced it. And I think I matured.”

By the summer of 1998, Flip Saunders had coached the Timberwolves to the playoffs. Garnett and Stephon Marbury were hailed as two of the NBA’s best emerging talents. Garnett made it to the 1998 NBA All-Star Game, and the playoffs, but his team was ultimately eliminated by the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round.

But there was still reason to celebrate that summer. Per usual, the Target Center, where the Timberwolves ball, was thriving in the offseason with some of the biggest names in music. Perhaps the biggest performer to come through that summer was Jackson, who was in the middle of her Velvet Rope tour.

The concert date was special for Jackson. Minneapolis was like a second home for the pop superstar; it’s where her life became legend. The youngest of the Jackson clan, she’d spent the fall of 1985 in the city at Flyte Tyme working with Jam and Lewis on what would become one of the most influential projects of all time, Control. For 1997’s The Velvet Rope, her sixth studio effort, she’d spent half a year recording in Flyte Tyme’s studio. I was at the show. I’d spent that summer interning in the entertainment section at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and had bought some nosebleed tickets along with a few fellow interns.

One of the most memorable moments was seeing Jackson pull Garnett up on that stage for a lap dance. The audience went wild. Their biggest star athlete was on stage, on the court where he’d spent the past three seasons balling out, with one of the world’s biggest stars.

“Try getting a lap dance by Janet Jackson with your girlfriend watching. You talk about pressure? You talk about control?! I just had to keep it together,” he said with a laugh. It wasn’t all bad. His girlfriend at the time, Brandi Padilla, is the sister-in-law of Jimmy Jam. Garnett and Padilla married in 2004.

Garnett isn’t quite sure where he’ll be this weekend as the world arrives in Minneapolis. But he’ll be celebrating the fact that this city, the one he helped to make cool, is hosting the big game. And in case you’re wondering, he’ll be rooting for the New England Patriots.

“I’ve lived in Boston. I’ve lived in Brooklyn. I’ve lived in L.A. I’m a Southern guy. But Minneapolis is still a big part of my life. I still have a home there, I still live there. It’s still part of me, man. … It was a great part of my life, and a huge part of my progression, so I’ve always thought to give it the proper due and respect. Without Minneapolis, I don’t know where I would be. Real talk.”

The Next Chapter: Retired NBA player Mark Blount reinvented himself as a real estate investor From Auntie Anne’s to housing, the former center created a life after basketball


After spending 10 years in the NBA as one of the league’s most dependable centers, Mark Blount retired in 2010 and knew it was time to start making moves.

With Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, as his backdrop, Blount opted to spread his wings in two different endeavors: food franchises and real estate.

Blount found a block of property sorely in need of renovation and decided to invest. He participated in rehabbing 14 units, completing the process in about a year.

“I owned quite a bit of real estate in Palm Beach Gardens — seven buildings. I went in there with a friend of mine. We renovated them, all the units there, and brought them back up to, back then it was 2012 code: new bathrooms, new floors, new kitchens and all that stuff,” he said.

Blount then joined the soft-pretzel franchise Auntie Anne’s. He opened two stores in West Palm Beach and one in Jensen Beach, Florida. After building and operating the franchises for four years, he sold the stores to focus on real estate.

“The restaurant business was a learning curve for me, but the real estate is a passion for me,” Blount said.

Blount spends his days researching and meeting with sellers and agencies about new real estate investment opportunities. He lives in Fort Lauderdale and his philanthropic efforts are focused on Palm Beach Gardens, including donating turkeys to those in need throughout the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and contributing to local churches and Toys for Tots.

The Yonkers, New York, native grew up a Knicks fan and was inspired by players such as John Starks and Charles Smith. He played collegiate basketball at the University of Pittsburgh before being drafted 54th overall in 1997 by the Seattle SuperSonics. Blount spent three seasons in the minor leagues, including the International Basketball League, Continental Basketball Association and North American Premier Basketball. He signed with the Celtics as a free agent on Aug. 1, 2000. That season he led the team with 76 blocks, the most by a Celtics rookie since Kevin McHale in 1980–81.

He also played with the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Miami Heat. He used his toughness on the court to guide his way into the business world.

“That’s why we see a lot of retired guys have a hard time trying to find something that they’re passionate about to do because [they don’t have] the energy and the passion, the focus that needs to be displayed every night. So you’re like, ‘What do I do now?’ ”


How did you cultivate your toughness?

I just had an attitude about everything. And growing up in Yonkers, I had to be tough there. I just approached everything with a straight attitude. I just thought whoever I was going against, it was just a battle.

Mark Blount #15 of the Miami Heat dunks the ball against the New Orleans Hornets on January 11, 2008 at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Hornets defeated the Heat 114-88.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Was the NBA a dream of yours?

Yes. Yes, it was. Getting drafted in the second round and then not playing with Seattle, then spending a couple years in the not so minor league, then being able to make it onto summer league team and having Boston sign in to a one-year deal was [the culmination of] my dream, so I didn’t back down. I just kept fighting and kept trying to reach my dream. I spent, I think it was sum of three years in the minors before I made it.

What has been the hardest part of your journey?

Trying to get to the university and then trying to get to the NBA and then doing those things and then being able to do a couple of businesses, it’s always a fight, always a struggle. There’s always a learning curve. … I’m real patient about what I need to do and learning about it, and once I understand it then I’m able to pursue it.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I was in Boston … talking to a gentleman about the restaurant, and he’s like, ‘If you’re ever going to do a business, make sure you’re there to run it every day.’ I’ve taken that to heart over the last few years I’ve been in business.

How did you make that switch to franchise owner, and why did you choose Auntie Anne’s?

I was actually in bed with Auntie Anne’s and Cinnabon; I ran four restaurants at one time. Don’t ask me why, but I did. I was able to make connections with them and went through the process of learning their business and going through training and learning their sites and seeing if I was going to be a silent investor and have somebody run it for me, which wasn’t going to happen, or run it myself.

I ended up running it myself and was able to be pretty successful. [Of] the four locations that I had, the two of them I ended up closing, but they survived for about three or four years. Then two I sold.

What do you think about the Knicks now?

I’m crying inside. Especially now that Carmelo [Anthony] is gone and seeing, looks like another rebuilding process. So I’m just, I’m a New Yorker, I’m going to die a New Yorker, so that’s the way it goes. But I really hope they’re able to get some luck. They had some young guys step up and maybe a couple trays on the lottery draft, draft lottery picks. Hopefully it’ll happen.

What team should we start to watch after the All-Star Game?

Everybody’s just starting to mention Toronto. They started out on fire, so I knew they were going to be good early in the season. [Raptors head coach] Dwane Casey really understands what he’s doing there.

What advice would you give players who are transitioning from the court?

If you don’t have a passion for anything, maybe take a course, a quick course, in something. But if you don’t have a passion, there’s always different courses you can take, or there’s a lot of good things the NBA Players Association is doing. … Just talk to some of the older guys that played before. Talk to some of the guys who just retired and bounce things off instead of just running into any quick thing, business deals, with anybody.

A look back at Latrell Sprewell’s very angry ‘Sports Illustrated’ cover The image was after the P.J. Carlesimo incident and at the tightest possible intersection of sports and race — not in a good way

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Latrell Sprewell? His 35-point performance at Madison Square Garden with the New York Knicks facing elimination in the 1999 NBA Finals? Him dunking on Jaren Jackson in the third quarter of that game?

Maybe it was his return to the Garden for the first time in more than a decade, last year, as a “friend” of Knicks owner James Dolan, not a foe. Perhaps it’s this recent Priceline commercial, supposedly a display of Sprewell’s sense of humor — at his own expense.

Or is it a moment obscured from the public’s eyes: Sprewell choking then-Golden State Warriors head coach P.J. Carlesimo during a December 1997 practice, leaving the gym and returning, apparently to attack Carlesimo again?


Or is what you recall the aftermath, when the 24th pick in the 1992 NBA draft became a pariah? His name and likeness became synonymous with violence. The Warriors voided the then-three-time All-Star’s contract, and the NBA, a season removed from celebrating its 50th birthday, suspended him for a year after the episode escalated into an avalanche of bad press that the league did not need one month into the pivotal 1997-98 season. Several stars — Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and Scottie Pippen among them — were injured, Michael Jordan was all but certainly retiring, and a lockout was looming.

Then, in addition, the Milwaukee-born, Flint, Michigan-raised Sprewell, one of the NBA’s rising (albeit reluctant) stars, was labeled persona non grata. He’d admittedly committed an act of violence against his coach. It was an act that seemed to confirm every absurd fear about the rise of the overpaid, petulant, violent (and *gasp* black) athlete. It was the problem with sports, to let sportswriters and fans alike tell it. And although Sprewell acknowledged that his actions were inexcusable — “I don’t condone what I did,” he told The New York Times in 1998 — he took issue with how he was portrayed. This was epitomized by the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Dec. 15, 1997, issue.

“It’s always a picture of me looking mad or being aggressive,” he said during a news conference one week after the incident, for which he was initially suspended 10 games without pay. “I never saw pictures of myself where I had a smile on my face. It was always negative.”

The enigmatic Sprewell was easy to cast as the villain. The former University of Alabama and Three Rivers Community College standout was an aggressive slasher and defender. His appearance was menacing — to people who associated cornrows with criminal activity. And Spree had previously fought teammates. He absolutely considered himself a fighter, but only in self-defense.

“I don’t get upset unless somebody’s doing something to me or to my family, disrespecting me to where I just can’t tolerate it,” Sprewell told Time in 2000. That’s how he viewed the altercation with Carlesimo.

The choking itself, said to have happened in practice during an argument about Sprewell’s effort (“Put a little mustard on those passes,” Carlesimo reportedly told him), triggered revealing discourse, in the pre-social-media era, about the very often uncomfortable intersection of race and sports.


Sports Illustrated flew into the eye of the storm and made a valiant effort to unpack the situations. And while the story itself excellently contextualized the NBA’s head-on collision with race, the image — Sprewell, in mid-scream — chosen for the Dec. 15, 1997, issue’s cover was provocative for the wrong reasons. Sports Illustrated was the de facto bible of sports at the time, in an era before breaking news spread via Woj Bombs and trending topics. A time when writers discussed stories with editors via phone calls — not yet in Google Hangouts, or Slack.

Phil Taylor doesn’t remember exactly how he heard about what transpired between Sprewell and Carlesimo, but as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated at the time, he called his editors to discuss how they planned to cover it. “This was a huge story … right in my backyard, and as lead NBA writer, I knew I was going to be writing something lengthy,” said Taylor, now a contributing writer for The Athletic. “I’ve often thought that if it happened now, we would have obviously been able to put something out on Twitter and everyone would have just written stories immediately. But I remember thinking that [as a weekly publication] we were not going to be able to get an immediate story out there.”

“One of my first thoughts was, at least put P.J. on there looking angry too.”

The Sprewell-Carlesimo incident took place on a Monday — the worst-case scenario for the magazine, which was finalized for the mass printing on Sundays. Back then, hundreds of thousands of issues would be sent to subscribers and would be available on newsstands on the Wednesday/Thursday of the following week. Local outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle were already on top of the story. That extra time, though, did allow Sports Illustrated to fine-tune its coverage, and Taylor ended up writing two of the three stories: a look at who Sprewell was and an essay about race and the NBA.

“We knew that by the time the story came out, the story might have advanced beyond what we knew at the time we were writing,” Taylor said. “So we wanted to come up with something to better put this into context, and that’s where we started talking about the issue of race in the NBA and what the Sprewell incident had to do with that.”

In a break from covers that featured full-bleed photography, a particularly incisive excerpt from Taylor’s essay was featured — white type on a black background:

“Latrell Sprewell has been publicly castigated and vilified, and any player who gets a similar urge to manually alter his coach’s windpipe will surely remember Sprewell’s experience before he acts on that impulse. Problem solved. But the Sprewell incident raises other issues that could pose threats to the NBA’s future, issues of power and money and — most dangerous of all — race … ”

Placing that much text on the cover of a magazine was rare for SI. “The editors liked what I wrote, and I think it was our managing editor Bill Colson … thought it was so strong that we should put those words on the cover.”

Part of Taylor’s satisfaction came from his belief that the cover would differ from what had quickly become a typical characterization of Sprewell as angry. Until he saw it, that is.

“My words … but they added that picture of Sprewell, and that was disappointing to me,” said Taylor, who didn’t see the cover until the issue came out. “One of my first thoughts was, at least put P.J. on there looking angry too. But maybe that would have been inflammatory as well, because then you would have had a black man screaming at a white man. That sort of anger could be interpreted as racial, but … would have at least been more fair.”

It was unfair to Sprewell because although what he did was undeniably wrong, Carlesimo was far from … docile. He was notoriously hard on his players, and notoriously unpopular for it. “We’ve been face-to-face on many occasions,” Rod Strickland, who played for Carlesimo while with the Portland Trail Blazers, told the Baltimore Sun.

“I’ve often thought, that if it happened now, we would have … put something out on Twitter, and everyone would have just written stories immediately.”

“I played under him, so it doesn’t surprise me,” Tracy Murray, who began his career with Portland, added.

After the Warriors hired Carlesimo in 1997, he was the focal point of their “No More Mr. Nice Guy” campaign, appearing on billboards with his coaching staff dressed like a team of FBI agents. Carlesimo was depicted as an enforcer; he was celebrated for an approach that alienated players and, more importantly, never translated into success in the NBA.

“P.J. was a guy who stirred it up, and was as bellicose and belligerent as Sprewell was,” Taylor said. But Carlesimo had a vastly different relationship with the media, Taylor added. He was very cooperative and affable and would ask about the reporters’ well-being. He’d remember their first names. That charm likely played a factor in Carlesimo receiving more favorable coverage than Sprewell, who was tight-lipped with the press.

Imagery is as important to a story’s narrative as reporting or analysis. A March 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated featured Charles Barkley in shackles. It drew criticism from Sports Illustrated staffers, readers and Barkley’s friend and colleague Kenny Smith alike. Golfweek’s infamous Tiger Woods “noose” cover, from January 2008, got its editor and vice president fired. LeBron James’ historic moment as the first black man to grace the cover of Vogue that spring was sullied by the black man-as-savage beast stereotype it projected. According to Taylor, the media routinely overlooks the reverberations of such editorial decisions.

“The media in general has always, and definitely at that time, underestimated the power of the images of black athletes,” said Taylor. “I don’t think the implications of putting an angry Sprewell out there occurred to them. I’m not even sure the implications of putting Barkley in chains occurred to them — until the backlash came.”

Taylor noted that no black editors were involved with the Sprewell story. “I might have been the only black writer or editor at that time,” he added. The magazine could have placed an expressionless Sprewell on the cover, and it would’ve been just as captivating. That’s how great the treatment is, and how powerful Taylor’s words are. But the cover — and all of the more incendiary examples that preceded it, and will surely continue to follow — represent a more hazardous issue: a failure on the part of many media professionals to grasp the complexity of stereotypes and the way they’re bound to black identity, and how all of that affects the way black people are viewed and treated.

Still, though, Taylor gives Sports Illustrated’s editors credit for deciding to explore the NBA’s racial undercurrent. After discussing the atmosphere with them, he said, Colson asked if the magazine should write about it. Taylor was stunned, as that was “edgy” for Sports Illustrated — and really for any mainstream sports publication of that era.

“They were willing to take on a controversial issue, although they kind of regressed on it … by choosing the picture they chose,” he said. “I wish they hadn’t done that.”

Sprewell survived his figurative public stoning and continued his career with the Knicks and then Minnesota Timberwolves. The clothing and footwear company AND1 even branded him “The American Dream” upon his return to the NBA in 1999 — the last time the Knicks made the Finals. The events of December 1997 never impeded Sprewell’s career, but it ended abruptly in 2005 after he claimed he couldn’t feed his family on the three-year, $21 million deal the Timberwolves offered him. That Priceline commercial, where he pokes fun at his mistakes, is poignant considering the headlines that have emerged since his retirement.

Despite Sprewell’s success after the incident, he remains symbolic of poor decisions and explosive anger. Regardless of Sports Illustrated’s intentions, that’s all their cover screams about him too.

The NBA is the gift that keeps on giving ‘Merry Christmas, everybody!’

On Dec. 25, 1976, George McGinnis made a last-second jumper to lift his Philadelphia 76ers over the New York Knicks. Bill Campbell, the Sixers’ announcer, proclaimed a festive benediction, “Merry Christmas, everybody.”

This day, the 76ers and the Knicks will battle anew, in a noon tipoff, the first of five NBA games that will wrap around the holiday and put a bow on top. The Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles will play the NFL season’s last Monday Night Football game, too. But NBA basketball will dominate the holiday’s pro sports menu.

In the future cultural historians will divine how Christmas became a holiday festooned with NBA basketball.

After all, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which chronicle the birth of Jesus, make no obvious mention of basketball. And the season’s secular gospels — Clement Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol — don’t mention basketball, either, though both stories present people flying through the air, as many NBA players will do.

Nevertheless, NBA basketball will be as much of many families’ Christmas stories as watching holiday movie marathons will be in others.

Although NBA basketball is not rooted in the religious or secular Christmas gospels, the sport often reflects the spirit of the holiday.

When the Los Angeles Lakers’ Lonzo Ball struggled with his shooting, three kings, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, sought to shield the young guard from criticism. Later, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, old friends suffering through 25 years of estrangement, reconciled, just as old friends do in holiday movies, just as more real-life estranged friends and family members should this Christmas.

More important, the NBA melds player activism and league philanthropy, maintaining the spirit of Christmas giving all year.

Furthermore, basketball is an ecumenical sport, melding influences from the New York Rens of the 1920s to the Soviet National team of the 1970s. Or put another way, like jazz and hip-hop, at its best, NBA basketball influences the world and learns from the world, too.

Basketball is played in all 50 states and all around the world; it’s equally at home on the playground blacktop or on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Still, today’s NBA, like jazz and hip-hop communities, embraces being rooted in African-American style, rhythms and sensibilities, a charisma exemplified by Cab Calloway, who was born on Christmas Day, and James Brown who died on the holiday.

But when the great NBA teams come together, it’s as if all the players speak the same language: winning and entertaining.

There are some in our great country who seek to ignore the NBA’s lessons of inclusiveness: They seek to circumscribe how we mark the fall and winter holidays. They seek to make “Merry Christmas” the only magic words that open the door to a glittering holiday season.

But America is far too big and richly heterogeneous for that. This day, at Christmas, we’re in the midst of many happy holiday traditions: Hanukkah ended last week. Kwanzaa begins Tuesday.

Still, about 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas. But it’s the way the country accommodates (and seeks to benefit from) Christmas and fall and winter holidays, and the people who don’t celebrate them, that helps define America’s greatness.

This day, after the last NBA basketball game has been played between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Lakers, the nation will be stuffed with turkey and hoops.

We can wish one another glad tidings. The words will taste sweet and All-American in our mouths, like apple pie or flan or baklava or ginger ice cream or kugel.

Merry Christmas, everybody. And happy holidays, too.

Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng gives back to his native Senegal – and then some His foundation and partnership with Matter assists with hospital improvements and he also trains the Senegalese in farming

Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng will never forget seeing a pregnant woman helplessly lying on the floor waiting for medical attention in a severely antiquated hospital in his hometown of Kebeber, Senegal, about 3 1/2 years ago.

It was the same hospital Dieng was born in on Jan. 18, 1990. There was nothing electronic at this hospital. Most beds didn’t have mattresses and patients lay on springs. Babies were warmed in incubators by a light bulb. The odds of getting decent health care were slim.

“I was visiting someone at the hospital and the doctor that was there was the same doctor I saw when I was in Senegal,” Dieng said. “I went to the visiting room to say hi to him and there was a pregnant lady laying on the ground. I asked him what was going on. He said he was waiting for someone to leave a table so she could lay there. I looked at the room and there was only one table there. No beds.

“I asked him if I could take a tour and see what the hospital needs. The building was OK, but the equipment was the issue. I told the doctor to give me a note and tell me everything that he needs. I told him, ‘I’m not going to promise you anything, but I will do my best to help.’ ”

Dieng has done more than his best to help his hometown and Senegal.

The hospital is now updated. There is a new dialysis center with 200 beds. Farming tutoring is offered on his land. There is more on the horizon through his foundation.

Gorgui Dieng #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves controls the ball against the Denver Nuggets.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The NBA veteran is better known in Senegal for what he has done off the court in saving and improving lives than for what he has done on the court in North America. Dieng, 27, is averaging 6.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in his fifth season with the Timberwolves. He started playing basketball when he was 15 and played in college at Louisville.

“He is a celebrity in Senegal in large part because he’s been all over the media there with his foundation and all he is doing to help his people,” said Quenton Marty, president of Minneapolis-based non-profit Matter.

In March 2015, Dieng attended the Timberwolves’ FastBreak Foundation’s annual Taste of the Timberwolves fundraising event. Players and coaches from the team dine on local fare from some of the best restaurants in the Twin Cities at their annual fundraiser. Dieng was quietly trying to find help for his hospital back in Senegal while hanging out with the movers and shakers of Minneapolis.

Dieng received an important introduction to Marty during the event. Marty’s organization, Matter, has a mission to “expand access to health, next door and around the world” with a goal to bring access to health aid to 10 million by 2018. Matter has leveraged Minnesota’s renowned health care and agriculture to aid those in need since 2000 and has distributed more than $550 million in resources around the world.

Not long after the Wolves charity event, Marty and Dieng met for breakfast.

“Gorgui is a guy who came from humble beginnings and I got the sense that he wanted to work with people he could trust that weren’t going to just talk about doing stuff, but we are actually doing stuff,” Marty said. “The one thing I took away was this was a great young guy who wanted to do something to help his people and not just be in the NBA for his own benefit.”

A partnership was born during that breakfast meeting with Matter and Dieng’s budding charity foundation.

They initially began outlining a plan to aid Dieng’s hometown hospital. Matter next shipped medical supplies to Senegal. Through Dieng’s connections, the equipment sent overseas was able to get through customs relatively smoothly after a journey that took about a month. Matter sent beds, furniture and other hospital basics for treatment.

“After that meeting, I went back to the office, pushed pause on everything and said, ‘We’re going to help Gorgui send medical equipment back to this hospital where he was born,’ ” Marty said. “Within about two weeks, we had a 40-foot container on the water sent back to Senegal, where Gorgui was born and raised. That was the beginning of our relationship.”

Said Dieng: “I met with Matter and have been working with them ever since.”

Gorgui Dieng walks through the farm project that was built near the hospital.

Courtesy of Gorgui Dieng

Marty and a contingent from Matter joined Dieng for a site visit to Senegal. Marty has seen struggling hospitals all over the world, but he was shocked by what he saw in Dieng’s hometown, saying the hospital had equipment that was “about 50 years behind the times.” Marty immediately began thinking about what more Matter could do to help through Dieng’s foundation.

“Over the last 20 years, because of the work that I do, I’ve seen a lot of dilapidated hospitals,” Marty said. “This one was among the worst. It was pretty small. I just remember seeing a lot of moms with kids that were sick, but the hospital didn’t have the resources to take care of them. Just walking through with Gorgui was a somber experience knowing that this is where this guy playing in the NBA was born. It was still a place where people didn’t get the treatment they deserved.”

Today, the hospital in Dieng’s hometown is much improved, thanks to Matter and Dieng’s foundation. Another problem in Senegal was a lack of dialysis treatment centers in a country stricken with masses of people with kidney problems. A 200-bed dialysis center was opened in 2016 through Dieng’s foundation and the aid of Matter and other donors. There is also a new neonatal center to help babies. Marty said that there are also Wolves season-ticket holders and Minnesota businesses that are aiding Dieng’s foundation.

In July 2018, Matter will join Dieng again with a contingent of about 20 people going to Senegal to tour his projects.

“It’s a much well-oiled machine now that the Gorgui Dieng Foundation is established,” said Marty, who has made three trips to Senegal. “We now have a whole system of requests that Gorgui is getting to help people. It went from the first container helping one hospital to people all over the country requesting our assistance. Within a couple years, we have a program that will go well into the future to help the whole country.

“The hospitals have been upgraded significantly. Now they are able to serve people with dignity and give them the care they need and should have.”

Dieng said he owns more than 100 acres in Senegal that he uses for farming and it is not uncommon to see him on a tractor or tending to the animals. It also serves as a training ground for local and aspiring farmers.

Goats, lamb, chickens, cows and sheep are raised on Dieng’s land, with employees working the farm. It is difficult to grow fruits and vegetables because the farm has sandy soil on the edge of the Sahara desert. With the aid of Matter, Dieng’s foundation is teaching people how to farm more intelligently and successfully in Senegal. Matter provided the farmers with repurposed equipment from Minnesota farms in 2016. Dieng also has agricultural students working on his farm to gain experience while also aiding them with scholarships.

“Farming is very big in Africa, but people don’t do it the proper way,” Dieng said. “I love farming. Through my foundation, I can train people. I give up my own land so people can practice the proper way to farm. When they finish, they can help their own farm and my foundation can help them with pretty much anything they need. It helped them stabilize their community so people don’t have to go to the city to make money. You can farm where you are, the proper way, get great results and make a way of living.

Gorgui Dieng next to a well that was built to assist in sustainable farming.

Courtesy of Gorgui Dieng

“Things I’m doing right now isn’t just to make money. It’s to stabilize people and keep them in their community. They have the right to go make some money. When they leave the village, or leave the town, no money is going to be there. It will be a dead town. I want them to stay in their town by creating jobs for them.”

Dieng said he truly learned the impact he was making in Senegal when he met a young boy affected by a kidney problem at 12 years old named “Semi.”

Dieng said the young boy and his father decided to go by “faith” to travel to see him at his annual offseason basketball camp after seeing him on television and learning what he was doing medically. The father had previously sold his house and car to get the money needed to pay his son’s expensive medical bills. At the time, Semi could not walk either.

Dieng was able to get Semi enrolled for treatment in his hospital that aids with kidney dialysis, get him transportation for his appointments and food. Semi has improved dramatically since having surgery. The teenage boy can now walk.

“His dad said he never saw Semi do anything with the other kids,” Dieng said. “His son’s only complaint was, ‘Why can’t I go play with the kids?’ His dad was always depressed about it. He wanted to see Semi happy. And after he was doing his treatment, he had surgery at 12 years. After the surgery, he went back home normal. His dad said the first day he saw Semi playing with the kids, he couldn’t believe it. He called me that night praying and all that kind of good stuff.

“Stuff like that makes me happy. Only God can make stuff like that happen. But we helped Semi get into the right situation.”

Despite being Senegal’s most notable NBA player, Marty said, Dieng was not well-known in Senegal when he made his first visit there with him. But with everything Dieng has done, Marty says, he is now a household name.

The fact that NBA games are now easier to see in Senegal also will help his profile. Dieng hosts a four-day youth basketball camp and coaching clinic in Senegal every offseason, and kids can’t attend unless they have high grades. He also plays for Senegal’s national basketball team. It’s not easy for Dieng to walk around Senegal these days without being recognized, but he believes it is important for the children to be able to touch him.

“It’s tough to go outside and walk around. But I like going outside because the kids, they want to see you. I take pictures and talk to them. That can change a life. Why hide or get security? No,” Dieng said.

The court that was built in Dieng’s hometown.

Senegal showed its respect and belief in Dieng by asking him to be its ambassador of tourism last August.

Through a translated statement, Senegal director general of tourism Mouhamadou Bamba Mbow said “the ambition of the agency is to rely on the international notoriety of Senegalese personalities to amplify the radiation of the destination.” Dieng said he filmed a tourism promotional commercial for Senegal after touring “beautiful places in the country I had never seen before.” Senegal’s hope is that Dieng will inspire tourists and businesses to visit Senegal. Dieng was very humbled by the appointment.

“Gorgui doesn’t want to be known as just a basketball player,” said New York Knicks scout Makhtar N’Diaye, a Senegal native and former NBA player. “In my opinion, he’s becoming a brand in Senegal and is an inspiration to the youth. He’s working towards becoming an icon. It’s all about legacy for him.

“Many people have come before him and tried. He came and took it to the next level. The best is yet to come for him.”

Marty says that Matter has about 50 other projects going on as well. Even so, Marty plans on going to Senegal again next year and is excited to see the growth of their medical and farm projects for the fourth straight year. Why? It’s Dieng’s love for his people that keeps Marty making the annual trips.

“He is a really impressive guy,” Marty said. “The thing that stands out to me is he really wants to help his people. He loves basketball, but he sees it as the vehicle to help others. I don’t know where it came from. But he has a sincere desire to help other people. I just really admire that about him.”

Dieng is not satisfied with the medical and farming improvements he has made in Senegal. He plans to open a major hospital in his hometown. He also has grander plans of not just helping Senegal, but aiding Africa at large. With the continued aid of Matter and other donations, Dieng plans to make an impact on the continent from a medical, farming, basketball and educational standpoint.

“The reason God put you in a good situation is to help others,” Dieng said. “I strongly believe that good things happen to good people and things happen for a reason. There is a reason why I am in playing in the NBA and I’m in a good situation today, not just for me and my family. It is to help others, too. That is why I am doing what I am doing right now.

“I’m doing this just to help. I want to be that guy who played in the NBA, makes his money and is gone. I want to have an impact on the community wherever I am at. Whether it is in the States or in China, Senegal, whenever. If you leave somewhere and have an impact, it’s like having a statue in the streets. That’s the way I see things.”