Amar Sylla's family initially did not like the idea of him leaving Senegal to play basketball in Spain. But now that he's about to make his second appearance at the Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament Finals for mighty U18 Real Madrid, Sylla has become a role model for kids back home.
Sylla was one of the leaders for Madrid in winning the ANGT Munich qualifier, averaging 14.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks. He also used his defensive prowess to hold U18 Maccabi Teddy Tel Aviv star Deni Avdija to 18 points on 8-for-26 shooting in the first-place game.
That victory meant a return to the ANGT Finals for Sylla, who averaged 9.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in last season's tournament in Belgrade. Sylla and the team are focused on getting back to the ANGT Championship Game, which the club last reached in 2015 when it won its first and only U18 continental crown.
"We are ready to compete again and do our best. I hope it is enough to win the title."
"The team is so motivated and excited to reach the ANGT Finals," Sylla said. "It is too early to talk about titles. We are just looking forward to it and ready to do our best. For some of us, this will be the last opportunity to win the ANGT Finals since it is our last season as U18 players. That means a strong motivation which will hopefully help us reach our main goal."
The 2.06-meter center knows it will be a challenge for Madrid, which is drawn into Group B with U18 Valencia Basket, U18 Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade and defending champion U18 Rytas Vilnius in Vitoria-Gasteiz. An added motivation for Sylla and some of the Madrid players is last season's ANGT Finals in Belgrade, where Madrid lost to eventual champion U18 Rytas Vilnius in the group stage.
"We learned that we do not want to lose again," Sylla said. "We made some mistakes that we do not want to repeat. We learned we should have played in a cold-blood mood at certain moments, that we should have defended a little bit better. However, all that belongs to the past. We are ready to compete again and do our best. I hope it is enough to win the title."
An ANGT title would only make Sylla that much more of a role model back home in Senegal. The long, athletic player has made huge strides since his beginnings in basketball, which happened just three years ago. Sylla had only played for nine months before he joined Madrid from the Seed Academy. Sylla and his childhood friends use to flock to the academy and watched the players play.
"One day my mom told me that I should be there. Another day the guys from the academy realized I was quite tall and told me I should play basketball, just as my mom had done before," Sylla remembered. "It happened that they invited me to play with them and I tried it. Three months later I was playing and practicing at a good level."
In addition to being at the Seed Academy, Sylla also went to the camp of NBA player Gorgui Dieng.
"That was a fantastic experience. They gave me everything to let me improve and grow as a player and also as a person. An agent watched me while I was playing there and talked to my mom. After that conservation, I came straight to Madrid," he said.
The move from Senegal to Spain at age 15 did not necessarily go over well with Sylla's family.
"Let's say they were not very happy with the decision I made," said Sylla, who has a 14-year-old sister playing basketball in Senegal. "Even one of my coaches told me that the United States basketball model should be my sole objective. I thought that would be more complicated than going to Spain and I wanted to take advantage of my time. It was finally my mom who supported me in my decision to go to Spain. I feel I took the right option because nowadays I am very happy in Madrid."
"Whenever I go back to Senegal, people come to talk to me. Parents make me an example for their children."
Coming so late to basketball, Sylla actually was a bigger football fan growing up and Real Madrid had a special place in his heart.
"I loved Real Madrid, but the football team. I did not know so much about basketball yet," he said. "I played football. Everybody plays football in Senegal, and I was one of thousands who loved and dreamed about becoming a football player. I stopped when I came to Spain."
And joining the famous Los Blancos meant a lot to Sylla.
"I felt extremely proud. Now, whenever I go back to Senegal, people come to talk to me. Parents make me an example for their children," Sylla said. "They ask me about Real Madrid football players and about what the club is like. They would love to come here, but I always tell them that it is not an easy way. A major effort, sacrifice and skills are needed to play for Real Madrid. That is not easy at all, but I support them as much as I can."
Just like a good role model would.