Senegal native Lena Niang said she burst into tears at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The then-15-year-old, traveling solo, had missed her transfer flight. Knowing only basic English, she was unsure how she’d get to her final destination in Birmingham, Ala.
“It was hard, it was really hard,” Niang said. “I was crying like a baby.”
But then, as the Riverdale Baptist School basketball player has done so many times over the past two years, she adapted. The French-speaking Niang found an airport employee who helped her board a connecting flight and get to her host family in Birmingham. She lived there 10 months and attended Central Park Christian before moving to Maryland and joining the 2014 national champion Crusaders in Upper Marlboro.
Niang, a rising senior, has attended two schools, lived in three homes and learned a second language since leaving Senegal in 2012. But the 6-foot-2 point-forward — now residing in Bowie with Crusaders coach Sam Caldwell — has adjusted to life in the United States. Last season she started at forward, averaging 10 points, seven rebounds and three assists while maintaining a 3.50 grade-point average. Less than two years ago, she was carrying around a French-English dictionary.
“She’s a lot more outspoken. You really start to see her personality now. She’s not as reserved and shy as she used to be,” Caldwell said. “She’s really a fun, loving person and she has a good spirit about herself.”
Niang’s journey to Upper Marlboro, by way of Alabama, began in May 2012, when she participated in a basketball showcase in Senegal, she said. Showcase director Ibrahima N’Diaye connected Niang with his brother Mamadou N’Diaye — an assistant men’s coach at Georgia Tech and former NBA player — who helped convince the talented teenager to finish high school in the United States, Niang said. With her parent’s permission, Niang made the trip.
It didn’t take her long to adjust; she averaged 20-plus points per game for Central Park and became fluent in English after one year at the Birmingham school.
Looking for a better basketball opportunity, Niang said, she transferred to Riverdale Baptist last summer and moved in with teammate Alysha Berry’s family. Though her scoring declined, Niang became a better all-around player with the 29-3 Crusaders.
“I can’t pinpoint one thing. She does everything much well,” Berry said. “She has a great inside game and a great outside game. I don’t know, I just can’t wait to see what the future holds with Lena.”
The Crusaders graduated four seniors, including Chloe Jackson (North Carolina State), Khaila Prather (Miami), Chania Ray (Florida State) and Berry (Hagerstown Community College).
Caldwell said he expects Niang to expand her role this upcoming season, spending more time in the backcourt after playing forward last season. Niang said she has received interest from several Division I schools, including North Carolina State, Temple, Georgia Tech, Kansas and Miami.
“Coming here from Senegal, this was a life-changing experience for her,” Caldwell said. “She is certainly seizing that opportunity to get a good education in high school and use that in college.”