She first came to the United States three years ago at 16 lured by a promise of earning a college education from playing basketball, gaining a ticket to a better life, leaving behind the third-world conditions back home at Senegal.
Pima College freshman guard Fama Thiam says learning how to speak English “has been the hardest part” of her transition to living in this country after leaving her biological family behind at Theis, Senegal, located at the upper western part of Africa.
Her most trying experience in the states was two years ago when the non-profit club team that lured her to Phoenix from Senegal — Elite 1 Academy — disbanded under scrutiny of having its athletes living in poor conditions amid other issues, including accusations of human trafficking.
Thiam comes from a family of 10 children. Her parents and siblings still live in Senegal. When she was 10, she became fascinated with basketball despite soccer being the sport of choice of most youths in her country.
“I just played for fun and fell in love with it,” she said of basketball.
The foster family that took Thiam in when she arrived from Senegal continued to take care of her after the Elite 1 Academy shut down its operation. She played at the varsity level at Highland High School in Gilbert in 2017-18 and 2018-19, playing mostly as a reserve.
A player coming off the bench is usually not the caliber of talent college coaches recruit.
Pima College assistant Pete Fajardo, formerly the girls basketball head coach at Salpointe and Catalina Foothills, went beyond who was on the starting lineup and he disregarded the stat sheet when it came to landing Thiam. Her scoring average as a senior last season was only 4.8 points a game.
When Highland played against Mesa Dobson two years ago, Fajardo sought input from Dobson coach Henry Bribiescas — father of former Pima standout Shauna Bribiescas — about Thiam because he noticed she had good length at 5-foot-11 and her athleticism stood out.
Fajardo looked further into the possibility of recruiting Thiam, and it dawned on him that Thiam actually played against Pima when she was with Elite 1 Academy. An exhibition game was played on Nov. 18, 2016, at the West Campus Gym. Pima won in a 90-36 rout.
“I didn’t put two and two together at first but then I remembered she played against us,” Fajardo said. “I just remember watching her play and was like, ‘Wow, she’s pretty good.'”
Fajardo, in his sixth season as an assistant at Pima under Todd Holthaus, made signing Thiam a priority even though many colleges did not look her way.
“I just went after her, and luckily for us, she remembered us and remembered how we played,” he said. “So there was already some familiarity about us. And she also did a little bit of background checking on us, Todd and the success we’ve had. That made the process easier.”
Last Saturday, in an 86-66 loss to Eastern Arizona College, Thiam was Pima’s top player, scoring 14 points. She is averaging 7.8 points and 4.3 rebounds a game. She has started in all 18 games.
From a reserve through her high school career to a full-time starter in college — that just does not happen.
“I think it’s easy to recruit 20-point scorers,” Holthaus said. “We really try to find pieces that will fit what we’d like to do and the good kids who bring a different perspective in life.
“Yeah, it’s fun to win games, but we always talk about the memories more than we do the wins and losses. If you can have a great experience, that’s awesome in terms of what they get in life.”
Although she left her foster family in Phoenix to come to Pima, Thiam still visits them often. Her biological family remains in Senegal. She has not seen them since leaving there in 2016.
Her parents there wanted her to stay in Senegal and focus on school and become a doctor, nurse or engineer, but she wanted to chase her basketball dreams in America.
“For me, coming to Tucson would be another opportunity for me because I haven’t had a lot of them,” she said of the recruiting process with Pima.
Thiam was one of the recipients last year of the Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation’s Post-Secondary Scholarship Program, which helps with her tuition and living costs along with the basketball scholarship at Pima.
Coming from modest means in Senegal, Thiam is oblivious to the pomp and circumstance that comes with today’s recruitment of high school players. When she signed her letter of intent with Pima, a press conference was not arranged. She did not make it a show revealing her choice.
“The night she signed her letter of intent it was in the parking lot of Highland High School. It was me, her and her mom,” Fajardo said, referring to her foster parent Aubrey Laird, a mental health counselor based in Mesa. “Fama didn’t want the big fanfare. She didn’t want to show up anybody else on the team. She wanted it low-key so she signed it right there in the parking lot.”
When Highland caught wind of the signing, the school had a ceremony for her.
The long stretch of recruiting Thiam, finding the time after practice to drive to Phoenix to watch nearly all of her games with Highland, paid off for Fajardo. He saw promise in Thiam and was able to make an impression over a growing number of other colleges that came into the picture too late.
Fajardo drives all over the state and travels to neighboring states, mostly by himself, in pursuit of recruits. Landing Thiam is one of his most fulfilling recruiting efforts. His recruiting ability along with fellow assistant Nalani Hernandez, and the X’s and O’s knowledge of all of them, most notably longtime Arizona assistant Jim Rosborough, makes Holthaus’ operation one of the best at any level.
“It’s just me getting in my car after practice and driving to games every day,” Fajardo said of his recruiting assignments. “Last night, for example, after practice, I got in my car and drove to … let’s see, where did I drive? … Oh yeah, I drove to Queen Creek to watch a player. I drive around five days out of the week.”
Holthaus added, “Pete goes out and does all the legwork and goes to these obscure gyms and into the tournaments and Fama caught his eye immediately. She signed with us early, so we got on her kind of before people knew about her.”
Holthaus talks with a sense of pride about his program when discussing Thiam’s decision to play for the Aztecs.
“She’s a foster kid, so she needed to be in an environment where it was family-oriented. We take a lot of pride in providing that for the kids,” he said. “Every team says, ‘We’re family,’ but we really are a family here. The best part of having Fama with her story, I like to bring in kids who can give us different perspectives in life.
“When you get a kid who’s gone through everything that she’s gone through, it makes basketball games seem pretty tolerable. considering what you’ve come from.”
Thiam is majoring in social work at Pima with the goal of helping youth in the future similar to how she has been provided assistance since growing up in Senegal.
“I want to be a social worker because I’m a foster kid,” Thiam said. “I had amazing social workers, so I just wanted to give back from the experience I had.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.