Imagine having nothing.
No belongings, no money, no home and no sense of security, all of it whisked away by merciless floods and ruinous winds. Everything that was once known, a way of life, gone.
For Ismael Sanogo, there’s no need to conceive such a nightmare. The Seton Hall basketball player, like so many others in Louisiana, lived this reality when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005.
Eleven years later and Sanogo still doesn’t talk much about the storm that ravaged the Gulf state, or how it stole everything he and his family had. Katrina left an estimated $135 billion worth of damages in its wake, reminders of which still remain. Nearly 1,000 lost their lives. Many who survived were robbed of all their worldly possessions, as well as any innocence they had left. They had to start from scratch.
Sanogo, along with his parents, Yacouba and Assetou, and brother, Osmane, were among those people.
Immigrants of Africa’s Ivory Coast, the family had been living in New Orleans for five years when Katrina struck. Sanogo was 9 years old when the city’s levees breached, allowing the floods to sweep through his neighborhood.
“We were homeless,” he said of the aftermath.
Yacouba was an African art and jewelry vendor at the time. He remembers everything – his merchandise, his family’s property, their livelihood – being drowned in Katrina’s torrents.
“The beginning – we don’t have nowhere to go,” the father said. “Everything was gone one day. Everything.”
That included Sanogo’s childhood. He said his parents tried to baby him, but Sanogo knew he needed to grow up as swiftly as the deluges had crashed through the city he called home.
“I was really young so I was real immature before the hurricane hit. As soon as it hit I grew up right away. I’m pretty sure the other victims that were my age can probably say the same thing,” Sanogo said. “My parents, they still tried to shelter me. They still tried to treat me like a kid, like a little kid. Even though I was, I basically told them, ‘I know what’s going on. You don’t have to treat me like this anymore.’”
Soon, the family found refuge at a shelter in Houston, Texas. With hurricane victims constantly flowing in though, the space quickly grew crowded. Eventually, the four made their way to Chicago, hoping they could start over there.
It was around this time that Sanogo realized he needed to look after his brother, who was only 5 when Katrina uprooted the family.
“I knew my parents were struggling with finding money, so I had to be the one taking care of him,” Sanogo said. “They never told me I had to do this. Me being the person I am, I just took it upon myself to do all that.”
For everything that Katrina had seized, it provided Sanogo with a sense of responsibility. Yacouba said the elder child never complained about the hand the hurricane had dealt them – until winter came around, that is. Sanogo, however, was not the only one in the family put off by Illinois’ gelid conditions.
“[Being] from Africa, we thought a little too much snow. There’s no snow in Africa,” the father said, laughing. “It’s very cold in Chicago. I know now that’s why they say Chicago is The Windy City. My wife would complain. Ismael would complain. His brother said, ‘Dad it’s too cold here.’”
After two winter’s worth of Chicago frost, the family found themselves on the move once again. This time, though, it was by choice. They had friends in New Jersey, and so they settled in Newark. They have lived there since Sanogo was in the sixth grade.
By the time he was at East Side High School, Sanogo had emerged as an athlete. His father would drop him off at football practice day after day growing up until a teacher asked to speak with the dad. The educator advised that Sanogo, taller than most kids – even back then – should take up basketball.
The talk would change Sanogo’s life once again, but the transition from gridiron to hardwood was not an easy one. Bryant Garvin, Sanogo’s high school coach, said he tried to “put him in the fire early,” but he was too “raw” as a freshman. There were times when Sanogo wanted to quit.
“He really didn’t know how to play at all,” Garvin said. “There were moments in time when he wanted to give up. Basically, I told him, ‘Shut the hell up and get back in [the gym]. This is the way you learn on the fly. We’re not expecting you to be so dominant right away. You’re 14 son, relax.’”
It was towards the end of Sanogo’s sophomore year that everything started to click. With the addition of AAU basketball to his schedule, Sanogo bettered his work ethic. Garvin said it was then that Sanogo realized he could have a future in basketball.
At 17, he committed to play at Seton Hall, the first recruit of the Pirates’ highly-touted junior class to lock in. Roughly 15 minutes from Newark, he was tired of moving around.
“It was close to home,” Sanogo said. “I just felt like it was the right fit with all the coaches. I just wanted to get the whole process over with and I felt this would be a good decision.”
The “fit,” was not apparent Sanogo’s freshman year. While fellow rookies Isaiah Whitehead, Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez dominated the Pirates’ rotation, Sanogo could hardly sniff the court.
He averaged 5.3 minutes of action over the course of 18 games – relatively nothing in terms of playing time. More often than not, he only played during garbage time.
Garvin remembers that season taking its toll.
“I know he was frustrated,” said Garvin, who added that he still talks to Sanogo in a WhatsApp group chat he has with his former players.
Much like his freshman year of high school, Sanogo found himself useless as a collegiate newcomer.
“It’s hard to play as a freshman,” head coach Kevin Willard said. “He wasn’t prepared to play as a freshman, physically, mentally, his game wasn’t. But he understood that.”
“Mr. Willard,” as Yacouba calls him, had plans for Sanogo, though. The coach and player met at the end of the 2014-15 season, with Willard revealing he saw a “monster” season ahead.
The coach was onto something.
Sanogo transformed into an all-around asset for Seton Hall last season, averaging 27.9 minutes, 7.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks per game as a starter. His numbers rarely jumped out of the box score, but the late bloomer provided the Pirates with a spark as they won their first Big East Championship in 23 years.
“He’s an energy guy. He brings a lot of stuff to the team,” Delgado said. “He really don’t care about offense. He just cares about block shots, getting rebounds and playing defense.”
Sanogo’s defense is indeed the pride of his play. Listed at 6-feet, 8-inches and 215 pounds, the forward has the build to protect the paint, the reach to defend an outside shot and the quickness to keep up with a guard. As a stopper, there is little he cannot do.
“He’s the best defender in the country in my eyes that I’ve seen. He plays positions one through five defensively,” sophomore forward Myles Carter said. “I think Ish Sanogo should be Defensive Player of the Year for college basketball.”
Carter offered high praise for Sanogo, who is also looking to improve his offensive game after averaging five points per contest last season. He said his post play and mid-range shot have gotten better. He even expects to be a downtown threat after taking one three-pointer – a miss – all of last year.
It is the work ethic Sanogo crafted in high school that has led to his defensive prowess and upgraded offensive skills. His days voluntarily start at 7 a.m. No more than 45 minutes later and he is already in the gym, perfecting his shot and ball-handling. After that he will grab a quick breakfast and head to the weight room before an afternoon of classes. Once those wrap up, he goes back to the gym to shoot around some more. Finally, he tapes himself up before the Pirates’ actual practice gets underway. It is then that he will focus on his defense.
It is no wonder Willard has spent the last two years calling Sanogo his hardest worker.
Others are picking up on it, too.
“His work ethic is incredible,” Carter said. “He’s in the gym every single morning. Every. Single. Morning.”
Delgado added that there is no joking around with Sanogo on the court. He takes practice too seriously to have his chops busted.
“I always tell him, ‘You can’t guard me,’” Delgado explained. “I’m not saying, ‘You suck,’ I say ‘you gotta play better,’ and he’s the type of guy that he takes it personally. He’s like, ‘Okay, we’ll see in practice today.’ That’s how he is. He’s a hard worker.”
Being a Division I athlete and a student – Sanogo is a social and behavioral sciences major – takes up enough of his time as it is. Yet, the junior still finds himself trekking home to Newark to help his parents around the house. He does “petty stuff,” like washing dishes, taking out the trash, cleaning and picking up groceries.
“I just feel so bad that they lost everything,” Sanogo said. “I just want to be able to repay them before they pass, repay them for everything they’ve lost and everything they’ve done for me.”
Sanogo does not deny that his childhood experiences have had a lasting impact on him. He’s never gone back to New Orleans – he still has an uncle and cousins there – but he does think about it all every day. He wonders what his life would be like if Katrina had never devastated Louisiana.
He uses it as motivation. Now, as he preps for another season, he will continue to do so as he tries to up his game.
“His story’s amazing,” Willard said. “His journey to get where he is – anything he does doesn’t surprise me.”
Sanogo, driven in part by one the worst natural disasters in history, is – in a way – grateful for Katrina.
“I’m not saying the hurricane was a good thing, but without it I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t be the person who I am.”
Editor’s Note: Statistics regarding Hurricane Katrina’s impact come from DataCenterResearch.org.
Gary Phillips can be reached at gary,firstname.lastname@example.org.