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Abdou Sylla has finally found his niche.
After a tumultuous six-year ride that took him from his homeland in Senegal, Africa to France to Queens, where he never played but graduated from Cardozo, to DePaul University in Chicago and back to New York, he has finally fit in - as the starting forward for Hofstra University.
Sylla came to the United States as a teenager for a better education and stronger career prospects and opportunities. He had lost his father at only three months of age, left his mother behind overseas and went to live in Jamaica, Queens with his brother and sister-in-law and enrolled at Cardozo.
Unfortunately, the thin 6-foot-5 Sylla was turned away from doing one of the things he loved.
He was not allowed to play basketball for his high school.
Cardozo head boys' basketball coach Ron Naclerio said Sylla's strong academic prowess ironically kept him off the court.
Sylla, who entered Cardozo as a 16-year-old junior and graduated in 1996, had taken high school-level courses in seventh and eighth grade while in Senegal. Those two years of courses, according to Naclerio, counted toward not only Sylla's academic eligibility, but also toward his athletic eligibility.
The Public School Athletic League ruled Sylla ineligible to play, thereby causing what Naclerio called a "detrimental lost chance."
"He was unfairly penalized," Naclerio said. "Why should a kid who is as academically gifted as Abdou be penalized when you've got these kids playing ball in public schools who have been left back and pushed along and still playing at 19?
"That really hurt him, especially in the development of his game. It didn't allow him the chance to mature as a player."
During his time at Cardozo, Sylla maintained a strong grade point average and stayed focused on his academics. Naclerio, who did not want to see Sylla's size and talent on the court wasted, hooked him up with the AAU powerhouse Long Island Panthers coached by Gary Charles.
The Panthers is the same organization that former Christ the King standout and now Los Angeles Clippers forward Lamar Odom, along with Sylla's current teammate and CTK grad Craig "Speedy" Claxton, played on. Claxton is currently the nation's second-leading scorer in NCAA Division I.
Sylla impressed many Division I scouts and coaches with his skills and raw talent during his time with the Panthers and at summer basketball camps such as the elite Adidas ABCD Camp, meant for the top 250 high school basketball players in the nation.
Naclerio said Sylla was pushed by Charles to choose DePaul, a move that Naclerio said he disagreed with all along.
"I thought he should have stayed in New York," Naclerio said. "I didn't think it was a good idea for a kid who had already traveled halfway across the world to go another 1,200 miles away. He needed to stay near his family."
And Sylla had opportunities to stay local as he was heavily recruited by Seton Hall University, Providence College, Fordham University, Manhattan College, Iona College and Hofstra.
He was pushed toward the "big time" program at DePaul, but that move realized Naclerio's fears.
Sylla wound up transferring after only one year.
In the 1997-'98 season, he played in all 26 games (started 16 of them) for DePaul, averaging only 3.8 points per game on 44-of-131 shooting (33.6 percent).
He also chipped in 4.4 rebounds per game, but finished the season having only recorded three blocked shots.
After a season of frustration, fighting for playing time and missing his family, Sylla decided to come back home. He made Naclerio aware of his unhappiness and Naclerio in turn told Charles. Charles found out that Hofstra was still interested, and Sylla was on a plane back to the East Coast for good.
Sylla, who maintains junior status by NCAA-playing eligibility, graduated from Hofstra on Dec. 19, finishing his collegiate academic career in only 3 1/2 years. He attained his bachelor's degree in Business Computer Information Systems with just over a 3.0 average, and has already begun his graduate work toward his master's in business administration, French or international business at Hofstra.
Despite the fact that Sylla is averaging only 4.3 points per game along with 5.8 rebounds per game for the Flying Dutchmen, who are tied for first place in the America East Conference, Naclerio said he is most impressed that Sylla is "willing to do the little things."
"He understands his role," Naclerio said. "He is willing to set screens for [Hofstra's second-leading scorer Norman] Richardson and Claxton."
Despite the long road Sylla has taken to get here, he said he is focused now more than ever on success. He said his goal is to excel academically and help his team to a conference championship.
"I feel really confident," he said. "This is a great team with great players."
©2000 Community Newspaper Group
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