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On sports, inspiration and challenge: An interview with Sitapha Savané

Former basket legend and CB Gran Canaria president talked with us about the story of his life and the crossover between real sports and video games during Arucas Gaming Fest.

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Within the framework of the Arucas Gaming Fest we had the pleasure to sit down with Liga ACB basket league legendary center and CB Gran Canaria president Sitapha Savané at the team's stadium. In the interview we talked about sports and inspiration mostly, including Savané's own and very special life story, the better use of tech and video games, or how real world players can learn from digital games and simulators.

[Mr. Savané was kind enough to attend Gamereactor on the eve of one of Granca's biggest encounters this season]

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GR: So, first of all, how do you feel about tomorrow's match? I have to ask you that first and foremost, because I can feel the tension...

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Savané: There's tension, but you know, we're very confident. We play at home. We're going to have our crowd here. They're going to be pushing us. We're a very strong team at home, but at the same time, we have tons of respect for our opponents of tomorrow, the Lenovo-Tenerife team.

They're our regional rivals, so those games are extremely special for the crowd, for the players. So, we just want to have a big basketball party to celebrate two great teams and two great clubs that are doing a good job representing the Canary Islands worldwide.

★ We're going to talk about sports and young people, but to inspire them and for those who might not know about your story -and I know we could be talking about your story for hours, right?- But tell us a little bit about your experience going from Senegal to being educated in the U.S. and then coming to Spain and playing for the ACB.

Well, I used to always say I was very fortunate, and my mom would always say, "you're not fortunate. You had opportunities, and then you work hard to make the most of it."

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I was born and raised in Senegal in a middle-class family, but I had the special part that my father and my mother were politicians and U.N. officials. So, I was lucky enough to have those great opportunities being young, one of them being later to go on to live abroad for some time.

I lived in Geneva, then I moved to New York with my mom that was there with the United Nations. This was around the time when I started becoming serious about basketball. So, going to the U.S. gave me a great opportunity to be in the best country, we can say, for basketball at the time, develop a lot, went on to the university over there, played in the NCAA, the collegiate tournaments over there.

"I used to say I was fortunate, and my mom would always say, 'you're not. You had opportunities, and then you worked hard to make the most of them'"

And once that finished, I had the opportunity to go pro. It didn't work out with the NBA, but I had a chance to come into the Spanish League. I started out in second division here in a team in Menorca, a small team. Came in, unknown guy, and we had a really very good season, and I was one of the standout players.

And from there, basically, it was one step after the next. And what initially I thought would be a short career of two, three years playing in Europe, having fun, hanging out in Spain and the Mediterranean, knowing girls and a new life, turned out to be an 18-year career over here in Spain.

★ And with that story under your belt, you can inspire young students and people, men and women who are starting with sports and basketball. So, how important do you think is sports education for young people, and then for them to grow up to adults, no matter the profession?

To me, it's huge. And, you know, a club like ours, for example, has a big youth program. We have close to a thousand kids that are involved with the club. And I always tell them sports, and especially team sports, teaches so many values to young kids. And it teaches you while you play, which is, to me, the best way to learn. Because you really think you're playing, but at the same time, you're taking tons of values from teamwork, being resilient, learning how to lose, and stand back up and work harder to get better.

And those are all qualities that later, me as a team president of a club, that's what I look for in all my workers. Being hardworking, having the discipline to really practice to get better, and always have this willingness to improve.


★ Now that we're talking about sports, let's talk about sports and the digital version of that. I know you're acquainted with NBA 2K, and here for the Arucas Gaming Fest we're having a tournament where players can play both the digital version and then the real sport, and then we decide a [combined] champion. So what do you think about how video games can help users understand basket and become closer to basket? And the other way around, people who perhaps are only into sports, but now can compete and participate in digital events.

I think your event has a great concept, because really mixing the two, to me, is the key part. I mean, obviously before, it was just basketball out in the streets, you know, on the courts. Now you have the digital side, the whole gaming side. Putting both together makes it real complementary.

"Even in my son's playing [basket] in the real world, I've noticed improvements, which I link to him playing 2K"

I always think of the example of my own son, who's big into gaming. And he loves, FIFA, which he told me now is not going to be called FIFA anymore. So I'm already aware of that. And 2K. And he plays basketball in one of our youth teams. And as a parent for me, it's strange, because, you know, I'm an ex-player. I don't want to be the dad that's there teaching him more than the coach, obsessed. But also I want him to learn about the game and know about the game.

I'm old school, so I want him to know the Magic Johnsons, the Michael Jordans and everything. And he learned all that with 2K, before I even got to it. And, for example, he has, with Michael Jordan, where you can do his whole career. And he's learned about "The Flu Game" and all those different moments from Michael. I'm a huge Michael Jordan fan. So I almost had a tear in my eye the day I realized that he's learned all this. And I didn't even have to come and teach him that. And even in his playing in the real world, I've noticed improvements, which I link to him playing 2K.

Because as far as like the tactical side, you like so many things that, while you're playing, you're seeing it. And he's also playing in the real world. So he catches on to it. And I've seen a certain improvement in his game. And I've asked him, like, "how did you learn this at practice?" He's like, "well, some of these things, yes. But when I play 2K and I see this and it sticks in my head, then I try it at practice". And to me, that's the best, you know, because sometimes people think, just playing the gaming, it's bad for the kids. They're sitting down playing. I'm like, "no, you can mix the two. And one side teaches to the other". His love for basketball, playing it led him to 2K. And him playing 2K, he's now helping him improve and get more knowledge on the basketball part.

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★ Do you also get a tear in your eye when he beats you?

That's the part. [Laughs] It's a different tear. It's a tough moment for a dad. You're like, "my son is 10. How is a 10-year-old kid beating me at anything?" So, I'm super competitive. And, you know, it's always like, my wife catches me sometimes when the kid's gone to school. I'm like, "hon, I'm going to go a little later to the office today. I got to put an hour in right now to improve". I'm on YouTube looking up tutorials to improve so I can beat him [Laughs].

And it's also created a special bond between us even as a father and son. You know, we have our special thing. He has so many special bonds with his mom. So, now I also have my special bonds with him on basketball, on the court, and also, when we play 2K.

★ And you mentioned how video games can be perceived by people, by parents. And here at this event, we're also taking a little bit of care in terms of good use for both technologies or best practices, both technology and video games. So, what do you think about that, about, teaching parents and perhaps teachers as well for them to convey these to kids?

I think it's huge. And, you know, with change, many times comes fear. And something new initially... I mean, now we have AI, and we don't know where it's going to go. And we have a lot of debates on, it can be great or it can be extremely dangerous.

"[Like AI, like splitting the atom] gaming can be like wine: the key are best practises and to have them spread out"

I'm like, splitting the atom, it is something that could destroy, with weapons, or that can give energy and electricity. I see it the same way here where there's huge potential in gaming. And that's something that definitely has to be pushed forward. But the key is what you mentioned, best practices. And those have to be really spread out. So, parents, teachers, us as a society know how to make the best use of this.

Like the example I was using with my son. So, it's a positive effect because we also know just like so many things in this world. It can be, you know, I like wine. And a person that likes wine, it can be great tasting wine and drinking wine. But if you take it on too far, obviously, it's dangerous. So, it's the same thing for everything. I think it's great that your event is really putting the focus on that and giving the tools to parents, teachers, and society as a whole to get the best out of gaming.

★ That's a really nice comparison you draw there. It's my first time in Gran Canaria. So, from your experience, what can you tell us? What can you recommend people visit and learn from Gran Canaria in terms of the cultural and sports offering that you have here?

Well, I consider myself extremely lucky as I said before, because I was born in a great country, Senegal. I was able to live in different countries in Europe. I was in the United States where I studied and lived. And I always managed to take the best out of every place where I lived. And after having been in all those places, I chose to make my residence Gran Canaria.

So, that has to tell you something. If you said, forget New York, forget Dakar, forget Paris. I think it's a wonderful place. People always first see the weather. It's something obvious. But the weather has a huge effect in your mood, if you may at least, and your life in general.

The people are extremely open. There's places nowadays where, me as a black man from Africa, you may go to a place and feel certain reactions or not. Here I've had extremely positive experiences.

On the sports side, like I said, the weather allows it. But there's a general liking towards sports. You have the availability to practice tons of different sports. There's a great cultural offering. There's a reason why it's one of the biggest touristy places in the world. I think, you come here and it's not just having the beach, but you can have tons of different options. Like right now, tomorrow if it's a cloudy day, you have a huge basketball game of two teams from the Canary Islands. One has been champions of the BCL in Europe. We've been champions of the Euro Cup. We have the soccer team now, UD Las Palmas, that's the first division in Spanish LaLiga. Like I said, at the cultural level, we have the theaters, we have the auditorium.

It's really a wonderful place. And there's a reason why I've called it my second home.

★ That sounds absolutely fantastic. So thank you so much for your time and good luck with the match tomorrow.

Appreciate it and best of luck with the rest of the event.

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