‘We want Tacko!?!’ – Boston’s fall from unanimous challenger status makes it a good landing spot for the biggest player in the NBA

‘We want Tacko!?!’ – Boston’s fall from unanimous challenger status makes it a good landing spot for the biggest player in the NBA

“I knew some of it would happen, but not like that,” gargantuan basketball prodigy Edlhadji Sereigne Diop Fall told reporters after a Vegas Summer League appearance in July. During the game, directly-invested Boston Celtics and a swath of curious Los Angeles Lakers fans put historical differences aside to form a courtside choir and chant their support for the Senegalese center.

Of course, this was the fans’ opportunity to flex their creative muscle with a familiar song derived from a popular food-based, in-arena incentive, in which on-court milestones earn tacos for everybody in the building.

 

On this occasion, folded tortilla wasn’t what the crowd wanted a taste of; Celtics fans were especially craving increased playing time for the undrafted 23-year-old. This was far from a standalone gesture though, as Tacko-mania had taken over the annual competition and was showing no signs of stopping.

Following a period of uncertainty regarding Fall’s future with the Celtics, fans were delighted when an announcement was made, confirming his signing. However, the proverbial bonfire was promptly pissed on, as further reports revealed he was only offered an Exhibit 10 contract, which had already been agreed. He wasn’t necessarily on the official roster for the 2019-2020 season, merely available for training camp and armed with a fighting chance. The team have the rights to convert the contract to a two-way if they desire, or waive him.

Recently, Marcus Smart shone a bright light onto the intensity of Celtics’ social media fandom and now with the loss of beloved French nearly man Guerschon Yabusele, the impassioned Weird Celtics Twitter clan have a new roster-fringe darling to root for, but is there a clear reason why?

NBA blogger, podcaster, Celtics’ fan and one-time irate-troll-baiter James Holas is transported back to a simpler time by the appearance of Tacko, whose physical frame is enough to draw mass attention wherever he goes.

“Remember playing old NBA Live games? One of the things we used to do, me and my buddies, we would create players,” Holas recalls. “We would put ourselves in the games, of course, but we would also go to extremes, creating the shortest and tallest players possible, boosting their sliders as high as possible, then wreaking havoc on the digital leagues we had created.”

“Tacko Fall, like Boban Marjanovic before him, seemed to step out of Live 2005, larger than life and twice as fun. To watch the 7’7″ Fall lower his head and hustle down court, watch him widen his impossibly long legs and unfurl his absurd 8’4″ wingspan as he crouches in a defensive stance is an experience like few others. No disrespect to Tacko’s actual basketball skill, of which there is a good bit, but him being a positive productivity-wise is a bonus, his sheer existence on the court makes him worth the price of admission.”

Let’s take a quick detour. During the New York Knicks and Washington Wizards’ visit to the UK for NBA London earlier this year, I had the honour of meeting the league’s tallest-ever player, Gheorghe Mureșan. Strangely, I encountered the Romanian at a tailor’s in Central London, for what was some kind of procedural partnership event. As he pulled up in a mini-bus – seats down in front of him for maximum leg-room – I saw the elaborate adjustments made around him, to ensure his comfort.

He ducked a high doorframe, entered the room and immediately attracted the complete attention of the room without saying a word. When he was eventually fitted for a game-day suit, Mureșan stood completely still while what looked like The Borrowers’ tailor used an aid to reach his shoulders. It was inarguably humorous to those watching; likely tiresome to the man himself.

I think back to that day whenever I see a player who possesses a similarly remarkable amount of size. Tacko is close to the same height as Mureșan and I think the everyday challenges that he faces as a literal giant help shape the basketball world’s desperation to see him achieve. If a guy has to massively contort his body just to sip from a tap, can we let him have the basketball thing, at least?

If Tacko’s magnitude is not the sole reason for his ever-escalating popularity, what else is there to consider? With Boston fans in particular, it could just be a case of right place, right time for the University of Central Florida graduate. Celtics Wire writer, and recent Double Clutch free-agency signing, Justin Quinn believes the delirium is indicative of the team’s need for a partial culture reset, following an unintelligibly frustrating campaign last year.

“Over the last few years, Boston Celtics fans have seen more than their fare share of missed opportunities and wasted potential,” Quinn said regretfully. “From watching Isaiah Thomas’ career peak then collapse with the gravity of a black hole, to the airless arena after Gordon Hayward’s fall all the way to bickering and a lack of commitment robbing Boston of what really could have been a literal banner year, fans are ready to see success again. So many beloved or at least respected players with so much god-given talent, and all of yet to deliver or gone.

“So, to see one of the world’s tallest human beings fall through the cracks, only to be snapped up as an undrafted prospect who turns heads with what might just be his last, best shot at making it has touched a nerve – a nerve that’s been rubbed raw with let-downs and bad luck. It’s touched a nerve that wants to see people who want to be in Boston, and want to put in the work. In Fall, Celtics fans see their franchise, a giant among men ready to do the work many others let slide, an underdog despite all those gifts and history.”

A shared sentiment it seems; Holas also surmises that the Tacko momentum aligns perfectly with the team’s wish to wash out the bitter taste of disappointment.

“On paper, the Celtics had everything, but they were missing a key component that most good teams share: there was no joy. Now, fun and joy in professional basketball don’t always take priority, but look at the best teams in the league and you can see: it matters. Last year’s Celtics were a glum, joyless bunch. The pressures of expectations, the disappointment of bad losses, and the overarching cloud of Kyrie Irving’s pending free agency all serve to blot out the sun for the underachieving Celts.

“The sting of losing Kyrie Irving and Al Horford for nothing is already starting to fade. The Celtics have no choice but to pick up the pieces and move forward. Signing Kemba Walker helps soothe some of the burn, the potential of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are silver linings, and potentially precocious rookies Carsen Edwards and Grant Williams give Celtic fans something else to look forward to

“Adding the ridiculously long Tacko Fall, seeing him dunk with his toes still on the ground, watching him extend one telescopic arm up to snag a seemingly orbit-bound pass and without missing a beat, softly dropping the ball in while defenders flail below helplessly, this is just pure fun.

“Basketball, distilled down to its purest, is by and large a game for really tall men. The Celtics now have one of the tallest men to ever play in the NBA. Will Tacko Fall play any meaningful minutes for the Celtics this year? Will his incredible length save a game by snuffing out an opponent at the rim? Will we get to witness 5’11” Tremont Waters and 7’7″ Fall exchanging fist-bumps as they walk off the court during a real game? No one knows for sure how his first season will play out, but we do know one thing: this is going to be really fun again.”

The glaring unknown at this juncture is the role Fall will play in all of the aformentioned fun. With Danny Ainge picking up polarising big Enes Kanter and sizeable Frenchman Vincent Poirier, as well as retaining Daniel Theis and Robert Williams, the road to significant playing time is congested. The frontcourt roster gap left by Horford, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes’ departure will galvanize some friendly competition; it’s not going to be easy for Tacko to make a mark right away. He may even spend some time in the G-League with the Red Claws.

The dampening reality is that Brad Stevens may not give the people what they want. With the team’s interests in mind, Tacko will likely have to impress in garbage time, in order to carve out his niche. So, how does he go about doing that? Well, if Stevens requires late-game interior defence, a recipient of a last-second lob or a chance to expose undersized small-ball defences, he’s the guy.

The potential pitfalls? Well, there are a few, unfortunately. In the modern NBA, the abilities to move laterally on the defensive side of the floor and defend the perimeter are invaluable and those are not exactly his specialities. The concerns about the long-term health of extremely big men have been somewhat diluted in recent years, but remain valid worries nonetheless, especially considering his historical shoulder problems.

Only a fool would rule Tacko out altogether, physical attributes and appetite for hard work considered. A large chunk of his summer thus far has involved high-intensity workouts with Drew Hanlen and none other than Joel Embiid.

The 23-year-old used Zion Williamson’s spotlight to attract his own attention during the second round of March Madness 2019, putting on a well-rounded performance and losing to Duke by a meagre point. Williamson was deservedly selected with the first pick of this year’s draft, yet his near-conqueror’s name wasn’t called and thus two extremely different NBA rookie stories were underway.

Tacko’s signing is no sideshow; it’s a low risk, high reward move for the wound-licking Celtics and as he works to prove his worth to them, his weird, rabid fan-base will be watching, every humongous step of the way.

 

Feature photo –  AP Photo / Phelan M. Ebenhack / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington