He was only 15, long and lanky, when he took his 17,000-mile leap of faith out of Africa.
Those greeting him at San Francisco International Airport in the autumn of 2013 found his backpack to be just as lean. It contained nothing more than two T-shirts, a pair of sweatpants, and tennis shoes that they figured were “four sizes too small.”
He also arrived with only enough English to form two short sentences:
“Hello, I am Amadou Sow … I am from Ségou, Mali.”
“I knew how to introduce myself and let people know where I was from,” Sow recalled this week, “and that was about it.”
Sow’s logged a lot more mileage in the eight years that followed. His averages of 18.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game this basketball season have him on track to become the first UC Santa Barbara Gaucho to make the All-Big West Conference first or second teams for four straight seasons.
His college coach marvels more, however, at a much different league award that Sow won last year.
“English is Amadou’s third language, and yet he was named as UCSB’s Big West Scholar-Athlete of the Year,” head coach Joe Pasternack said. “He’s scored a GPA of over 3.0 for three straight years, and that’s pretty special for someone who’s had to learn our language.”
Sow plans to put his Global Studies degree to good use once he completes his dream of playing professional basketball.
“My biggest goal is to help people,” he told Noozhawk. “The best way to do that is create a nonprofit and help those who need it most in the world.”
Rising from the Dust
That dream began when Sow was just 13. His cousin, Moussa Santere, coaxed him out to the dusty basketball courts of Ségou, a city of 130,000 on the banks of the Niger River in south central Mali.
“He was a lot older than me — about 8 years older — and he played competitive basketball,” Sow pointed out. “He knew what kind of opportunities could come out of it. I didn’t know that, but he wanted to show me.
“I started playing at a small club. Only a few people would come. My coach and my cousin would help me with my shot and dribbling skills and stuff like that since I was only a beginner. I’m forever grateful for that … It really changed my life.”
Sow grew to 6-foot-6 in the next two years. He was invited to a basketball camp where his raw athleticism drew the attention of American scouts. Prolific Prep, a brand-new basketball academy affiliated with Napa Christian High School, offered him a full academic scholarship.
His parents, Madani and Kadiatou, told him to jump at the opportunity of an American education.
“They always made sure that me and my brothers and sister took school seriously,” said Sow, the third of their six children. “Growing up, I’d say I had everything I needed. My parents did everything they could for me so that I wouldn’t starve, and they allowed me to focus on school.
“It’s the only thing they asked of me.”
Sow had never traveled far from home, but their excitement about the offer girded him for the long journey.
“I wasn’t really nervous about going to America because my parents reassured me that my uncle had done the same thing when he was 16,” he recalled.
Almamy Thiero, the brother of Sow’s mother, had made a good life in America. He’d been recruited to a high school in Durham, North Carolina, and then played basketball at the University of Memphis. He even earned a graduate degree after playing his final season of 2006-2007 at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Thiero’s son, now a senior at Quaker Valley High in suburban Pittsburgh, was named after Sow. He’s mulling over a scholarship that UCSB offered last spring after he averaged 22.4 points to earn Class 4A All-State honors as a junior guard.
“We’re close,” Thiero said of Sow. “We talk every now and then. I check in with him to see how he’s doing in college, and he lets me know what I can do to improve my game.”
Fast-Forwarding at UCSB
Sow tells his cousin to savor every moment of his experience. His own time at UCSB has flown by quickly, he says.
“Man, I can’t even put it into words,” he said. “I remember my first day on campus like it was yesterday.”
Sow also has a vivid memory of the homesickness that wrenched his gut after he left Mali four years earlier. It would be almost eight years before he saw his hometown again last summer.
“I didn’t even know what homesick was back then,” he said. “Now that I think about it. It’s hard to wrap my head around it.”
Sow, who grew up speaking both French and Mali’s native language of Bambara, immersed himself in English during his freshman year of high school. It didn’t take long, however, for him to become an honors student at Napa Christian.
“I think it’s just from being curious and asking questions, putting in the effort and the time,” he said. “I remember my sophomore year in high school when I started taking a full load of classes. I’d stay up until midnight at times, even until 1 in the morning, just trying to figure out my homework, trying to do things.
“I could’ve easily given up and gone to sleep every night. I didn’t do that. It was just sticking to that and putting in the effort and time, knowing that one day there would be light at the end of the tunnel.”
That light came with the brilliance of his senior season at Prolific Prep. Sow averaged 15.3 points and 9.8 rebounds against a schedule that included some of the top high school teams in the country. As a junior, he played four times against DeAndre Ayton, a 6-11 center who is now in his fourth season of stardom with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
“I spoke with DeAndre after we played them,” said Prolific Prep coach William McKnight, brother of Westmont College women’s coach Kirsten Moore. “He said Amadou played him as tough as anybody.”
Sow received scholarship offers from as far away as Virginia, Illinois and Wichita State. He was also courted by much of the Pac-12, with Cal, Oregon State, Utah and Colorado extending offers. UCLA even called to inquire about his plans.
He told them he was going to play for UCSB.
“It was about the opportunity of playing for a coach who wanted me to play as a freshman,” Sow said. “It’s hard to go to a college program and play right away. The one thing I was looking for was showcasing my game, and the only way I could do that was by playing.
“I was able to establish myself right away and learn the game from what I would say is one of the best people around.”
Rewriting UCSB’s Record Book
Sow broke four of the Gauchos’ freshman records, including scoring (391 points for a per-game average of 12.2) and field-goal percentage (56.4%). He also had the school’s second-highest freshman mark for rebounds (210, 6.6 per game).
“Having competition night in and night out really helped me become the player I wanted to be,” the 6-foot-9 forward said.
His averages improved to 14.1 points and 7.0 rebounds during his sophomore year. He did have to overcome an early slump, reaching double-figure scoring only once in five games, after learning that his father had been hospitalized with a severe lung ailment.
Sow emerged from his funk, scoring 23 points against Southern University, after he’d finally gotten to speak to his father by phone.
Madani Sow died four days later, on Christmas morning 2019.
Sow never appreciated his college choice more than after that dreadful day.
“My teammates were with me every step of the way,” he said. “I appreciate them for that, being there for me as I was going through a rough couple of weeks in my life.”
That season was halted abruptly by the COVID-19 pandemic just hours before the Gauchos were to tip off for their Big West Tournament opener in Anaheim.
Sow and the Gauchos regrouped, however, to win last year’s Big West regular season and tournament championships and advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade. His averages of 13.6 points on 57.3% shooting and 7.6 rebounds placed him on the all-league first team.
UCSB dodged the coronavirus, having not one case cancel a game, by making the same vow of allegiance that Sow had committed to in 2013.
“Guys sacrificed being with their families during the pandemic to come play basketball,” he said. “Guys made a sacrifice and the sacrifice paid off with a championship.
“That was our goal every day … I’m super-proud of every one of them for that.”
Back to the Future
The three leaders of that team — starting guards JaQuori McLaughlin, Devearl Ramsey and Brandon Cyrus — all graduated. This year’s team, 5-3 after Saturday’s loss at Saint Mary’s, is still trying to find itself.
Sow is certain that will happen.
“We have a special group of guys in the locker room right now,” he said. “We just have to stick to our process and take things day-by-day and get better.
“We’re going through a slump but we’ll figure it out, for sure. The chemistry is there. You can see that in our practices and in the locker room. It’s the same type of energy we had last year with JaQuori and Devearl and Brandon.”
A strong finish will put Sow near the top of several of UCSB’s all-time lists. His 1,331 points have him at No. 16, just 16 points behind former teammate Max Heidegger. Orlando Johnson set the Gauchos’ career scoring record of 1,825 in 2012.
Sow is also fourth all-time in field-goal percentage (57.0%), seventh in rebounds (680) and ninth in blocked shots (79).
He rejuvenated himself this summer with a two-week homecoming in Mali. His town had changed mightily in eight years.
“They’ve built a lot of roads since I left and transportation is a lot different,” Sow said. “There’s a lot more people there, too.”
His mother was amazed by how eight years in America had changed her once long and lanky son.
“I’d gained a few pounds and gotten a little taller,” Sow said. “My hair is longer than it used to be and I grew a beard. But she was just happy to see me become the man that I am. She was very happy.
“It was all very emotional. Tears everywhere.”
A few more beads of sweat also were spilled on the dusty courts of Ségou.
“I got to play with my cousin on his team,” Sow said. “It was a very random five-on-five, and we did great. We were undefeated.
“We held onto the court all day.”
Amadou Sow had come full circle, from one end of the world to the other.
— Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.