A former great hope of French basketball who has turned physical trainer on the advice of his friend Evan Fournier, Pape Sambe is living a real dream at 29 years old. After years of hardship, the former resident and trainer of Insep is about to join the prestigious University of Oregon. This time in basketball for the one who also had the pleasure of discovering American football. The ex-player of Roanne returns for us on his journey.
Pope Sambe, you’ve just been drafted into the basketball section of the University of Oregon. What does this mean to you?
After all these years of efforts, a first job in the United States really, it’s crazy, it’s clear! Mostly full time. In addition to Oregon basketball, an incredible university. They said to me: “We want you! As an American, this is an incredible opportunity, so imagine for a French! Bill (Burgos, Orlando Magic fitness trainer) and Evan (Fournier, his close friend) were like crazy, by the way, because they know what I’ve been through. Bill told me I was going to be someone special in America. Coming from your friends, it’s normal, but coming from a guy implanted in the middle like that, wow! Making guys like that proud, who have always been there for me during my career, is extraordinary. I’m going to miss the start of the season, but the important thing is to be there for March Madness.
Do you have the feeling that you have finally been rewarded for your efforts, colossal at times?
yes, and that is worth everything for me precisely, because I know all the sacrifices that I made. I stopped basketball, I left France for the United States overnight without speaking English, I started over there. I don’t want to say yet that I have succeeded, but I have taken a big step. The day I was told that they wanted me and that I was released from the contract, I was really proud of myself, because it was not easy. But that’s just the start for me. I have such high goals… And when I see what I have been able to do, I want to eat it all. Especially when I see that the bosses are working on my programs or taking my exercises as an example. It is such recognition.
For the record, the University of Oregon, you already knew, but to have been an observer and advisor in the American football team. For you who have always breathed basketball, this may seem paradoxical …
It’s true, but Bill told me that it would be good for me to go and see how it is in American football and that for my CV, even for the NBA, it would be a real plus. I didn’t really know the rules, nor the sport itself, but through a French player, I managed to make contact. After opening it for me, the door was closed for me, but I’m a fighter, I didn’t let go and finally managed to get caught in Oregon, when I didn’t even really know what it was. represented and that a good school in Florida offered me something concrete at the time. I just knew it was on the other side of the United States (I was in Orlando at the time). It was while playing basketball with friends that I learned that it was very heavy. Besides, I didn’t even need to do any maintenance this time.
The change must have been startling?
Especially since I arrived in the middle of nowhere, in May, so there was no one in the school. All this without knowing football. From the first season, I was put in the perfume. I only provided voluntary advice but like the other assistants and the head strength coach (the head coach of physical preparation), we did the preparation program for the players. I died (sic), it was a sick program, but it went very well, the head physical trainer, who is the youngest all universities combined, really appreciated me, the football coach too. Again, I had to return to France and I learned that the Oregon basketball team this time was looking for an assistant preparation. And I just needed a concrete job with great responsibilities to be able to stay. Basketball called football, who told them to take me without hesitation. It is a crazy pride.
And a completely crazy trajectory knowing that originally, you had embraced a career as a basketball player, and not as a physical trainer …
Until the age of 26, I practically only played basketball all my life (he went through Orléans, Roanne, Evreux and Châlons-Reims in particular), even if I was already aware that it was necessary prepare for the aftermath, especially since I did not achieve the objectives I had set for myself. Subconsciously, I was not at ease. I knew the NBA was no longer relevant to me, as I thought when I was younger, so I wondered what could bring me the closest to the NBA by doing what I do. love. And me, what I like is sport.
“Evan (Fournier) opened my eyes”
But why this attraction for physical preparation to the point of making it your job?
When I was already a player, in Evreux or elsewhere, there were always other players who came to train with me because they knew that I was training well. At that time, I had not yet in mind to become a physical trainer, because I was still playing. But one summer, I was training with Evan (Fournier), like every summer since he arrived in the NBA, we talked seriously, he opened my eyes to the fact that I was going to have to work after the basketball anyway, and maybe it was better to do it now. The same day, I got started, I resumed my studies, passed my diplomas and I started working with some athletes.
And you swear to us that you still have as much your footing as on the floors?
Yes, that’s for sure (laughs). I have as much fun as when I was an athlete. When you started very young and only knew one sport, it’s hard to find something else that really makes you vibrate. But, on the contrary, I take so much pleasure. Physical preparation allows me to continue to live from my passion, which is basketball, and to transmit at the same time, it’s really great!
The trigger for you came from this meeting with the physical trainer of the Magic, when your friend Evan Fournier was still playing in Orlando (he now defends the colors of New York) …
That’s it. This famous challenge that Evan had set for me. In fact, every summer, I assisted him with his physical condition. One summer, he allowed me to get to know Bill Burgos. He felt that I was motivated, we stayed in constant contact and today, he is everything to me. I told him that I wanted to be one of the only French physical trainers in the NBA, and even the only one, why not. He advised me to only prepare for that, explained to me what training I had to do to be able to work in university, because there is a compulsory diploma, but you have to work alone before taking it.
Something to make you want to stop everything once again. Except that you are not one day to let yourself down …
I worked day and night on a block of seven hundred pages in English, it was madness, but I needed something concrete as an advisor so that I could start to network. Before that, I was working indoors and in the summer with the athletes and I only wanted to do individuality at first, but it forced me to wait for the players to be available and to travel, it was not stable, even if it was a very good experience because I worked with NBA players, players from the France team, pros. But it was for short periods.
“The Knicks are my dream! It’s like PSG in France ”
Then came your first real opportunity: Texas Tech…
Bill told me that one of his contacts at Texas Tech was going to call me and that it would be my turn to play. It’s as if someone had just told me that I was going to integrate Texas Tech as a player, it was huge! While I barely spoke English six months earlier, I got the interview of my life. In addition, fate made that one of the staff, a Swiss, I had known him during my stay in Poissy, it was incredible. I landed there without knowing where I was going. Unfortunately, I had to return to France, where I found myself stranded because of the Covid. I was scared and I was right because everyone left at the end of the season and I had to start from scratch.
We know the rest, there was this first experience in Oregon, in American football, then the second, this time in basketball. And today you are talking about even higher goals. Can you tell us more?
I want to test the NBA, because it’s something completely different from university, where you work with young people. The NBA, I know how it works, physical preparation doesn’t matter as much as it does in college, it’s more of the adjustment. Most players have their own fitness trainer, and if they tell you they don’t feel like working out, they don’t, period. But the NBA is still the NBA.
How long have you known with Evan Fournier?
We’ve known each other since we were thirteen-fourteen. We met for the first time at the interzone tournament, before returning to Insep. I had heard that a player was strong, I was one of the best too, so I was keen to meet him. We saw each other again during a detection for the France team, we became very close and we never left each other. Over time, it’s like with Axel, we formed a real friendship. Before I was in college, I was with him all the time in Orlando, which is what allowed me to discover the NBA and experience it on a daily basis.
You also helped Axel Toupane, another Frenchman who has passed through the league, to prepare for the NBA. Tell us…
Like Evan, Axel opened the door to the United States for me. He was coming back from injury, he immediately trusted me. He gave me my chance anyway, we spent two months together. Evan saw that I had done a good job because he was watching it out of the corner of his eye.
Your ultimate dream, it would be to be the physical trainer of Evan Fournier in New York?
Ah that, yes! Especially since I love New York and the Knicks. To be a physical trainer one day with the Knicks would be the ultimate dream for me. It’s like PSG, Liverpool or Manchester City in football in France. That or be number 1 at a big university like Oregon. Today, I’m number 2, but I dream of having my team, of training the guys.