By David Hein
As a young man growing up in Senegal, Mamadou Samb was a passionate fan of Barcelona soccer. That should make it no surprise that he hopes to play for Barcelona the rest of his life - albeit for the mega-club's basketball team.
Eight months ago, Samb was granted a Spanish passport after arriving in Tenerife from the Senegal capital Dakar in 2004 to study, and now he is representing Spain at the U20 European Championship.
"It's my first tournament and it's like crazy because I have never played in a tournament like this before," said Samb, who is Spain's fourth-leading scorer with 12.3 points per game, second-leading rebounder (7.8) and top shot-blocker (1.3).
"I know all the guys but this is the first time playing with them in a tournament."
Samb knows his Spanish teammates from playing the past couple seasons in Spain's youth system. He was signed by Barcelona in 2005 and played with their junior team the first season. He then spent the next two campaigns with different LEB clubs and this past season played for WTC Cornella while spending time with Barcelona as well.
That of course meant the world to Samb, the youngest of eight siblings including five brothers.
"When they said that Barcelona wanted to sign me, I said: ‘Yeah of course.'"
Samb however was faced with the always-difficult choice of going against his mother's wishes.
"All the time my mother asked me if I was going to Madrid. And I said no, I'm going to Barcelona," said the 2.07m center through a big smile.
Samb admits that he still has a huge passion for fútbol - especially Barcelona.
"Every time if I don't have practice, I go see the Barcelona football games," said Samb, who smiles when he says he plays striker when kicking around the other round ball.
"My favorite player is Ronaldo. And I don't mean Cristiano Ronaldo. I mean the old Ronaldo - the real Ronaldo. I used to watch him when he played in Barcelona."
Samb has also learned a thing or two about the Barcelona basketball club as well, as he trained with them during the 2008-09 season. He even played one game in the Euroleague - the final regular season game at home against Zalgiris.
"One day coach told me you are going to play today. And I said okay I am so happy. Then came the game and coach said, okay, let's go," recalled Samb the game in January 2009 in which he collected five points, two steals and two blocks in 11 minutes of action.
"The first time I made a block all the people were roaring for me. And then I made a basket and I was so happy. And later I had two free throws and the fans were chanting ‘Mamadou' and I missed both of them. I was so nervous. But it was okay. It was great to play."
Samb still has plenty to learn. But he has already advanced far enough to recognize just how much more organized basketball in Europe is compared the game back on Africa's west coast.
"In Senegal they don't really play in a system. They play one-on-one and American basketball. In Europe, it's different because you need to learn the system, and move all the time. It's very difficult," said the native of Thiaroye, a suburb of Dakar.
Samb has a big family to call upon for support. He lived for two years together in Spain with his brother Cheik Samb before he left for the United States and tried to make it in the NBA.
And even though he lives alone now in Barcelona, Samb still talks to his family on a regular basis and one of his brothers in France comes down to visit for months at a time.
Many of his friends back in Senegal say that Samb should ditch the red and white of Spain's national team to play in the green, yellow and red of Senegal
"But I say no, I want to play for Spain. It's my second home now. They say Mamadou and Cheik should play in the Senegal national team. But this is my home too."
His home is Barcelona and he looks forward to a long career with Barca - while following the football side as well.
"My dream is to play with Barcelona and do really well. I really want to play all my life in Barcelona. And then go back home. "