Even though Olympiacos Piraeus center Moustapha Fall did not pick up basketball until late in his teenage years, he has developed into a European force.
Moustapha Fall, Olympiacos: 'It was a perfect timing for me'
Like most of the Olympiacos roster, Fall will compete at his first Final Four as the Reds return to the main stage for the first time since 2017. However, perhaps more than most, Fall is determined to enjoy every minute there.
"I am lucky enough to be part of the team that just qualified for the Final Four,", Fall said. "I am 30 years old, I know the time it took to get here. So I am going to enjoy this one."
Fall has been in basketball heaven the past couple of years, during which he first made his long-awaited EuroLeague debut and then won a silver medal with France at the 2021 Summer Olympics, before being an instrumental part in Olympiacos reaching the Final Four.
"It is really exciting. This does not happen to everybody," he commented.
But don't expect the down-to-Earth center to get carried away, despite all the excitement. Because it took a lot of patience to get to this point.
His basketball journey started at age 17 when a friend took him along to a practice at a local club in Fall's hometown of Paris. About 2.02 meters at the time, the coach told him he should stay. A little over a year later, he was playing for Poitiers Basket's youth teams and he made his pro debut in the top level of the French Basketball couple of months after turning 20.
"My second year in Poitiers, I remember I started playing in the preseason with the pros", Fall said. "And I was feeling pretty comfortable, way better than a year before. So, I was practicing a lot with them and I started to feel confident."
He bounced between the French second division, where he also played for AS Monaco – the team he helped beat in the best-of-five EuroLeague Playoffs series earlier this month - and the top flight where he also played for Antibes and Chalon.
Fall grew into a 2.18-meter frame, using his frame to become one of the top rebounders and shot-blockers in France. At the age of 25, he decided to seek opportunities abroad. It turned into a journey longer than he expected.
He started at Turkish side Sakarya, where Fall had a pretty good season, but was injured late. The next season he joined Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar and made his 7DAYS EuroCup debut, but was sidelined part of the year with a hernia. Finally, a great campaign at Turk Telekom Ankara during the COVID-19 shortened 2019-20 season allowed him to take another step up and finally be able to join a EuroLeague team, LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne.
"I had to come back to France to prove myself again and show I belong to EuroLeague," Fall explained.
He proved it quickly, posting 9.8 points on 70.1% shooting, with 5.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.2 blocks. It earned him a spot on the French national team at the Olympic Games and a gig with Olympiacos. The long journey finally paid dividends. And it is that journey that Fall said he thinks helped him take in stride everything that playing at a EuroLeague level threw at him.
"I think the fact that I came to the EuroLeague at this age is more easier, because I have more maturity. I don't have too many problems in my mind, thinking about some problems young guys can think of every time. So I am mature enough to understand the situation," Fall said.
"And I think I came to a good team. Last year they were not so good, did not make the playoffs. I grew up at the same time with the team. Now, there are good expectations. We are going to the Final Four. There is a lot of motivation. I think it was perfect timing for me."
So perfect that he already signed a three-year contract extension in February, which will keep him in Piraeus until 2025.
"My family feels good here, so that is important", Fall explained. "Before I was by myself, so I did not care to move alone. I just found a good team. I never played for a such big team. Now you have a big team that is really satisfied with what you do. We are winning, it is a nice city, you have a nice contract. I feel comfortable here, I like it, there was no reason to wait."
Fall has recorded 8.4 points on 70.2% shooting, 5.1 rebounds and 1.0 block per game this season. Just like in his debut campaign, Fall did not waste much, if any, time for adjusting. Over two seasons, he has come off the bench in just three of his 66 career appearances in the competition, averaging just below 23 minutes per game so far.
Fall said his year at ASVEL helped a great deal: "It gave me experience. It was my first year in the EuroLeague, I needed to adjust to understand how it works. And to just show and prove myself and feel comfortable to play against big names. In EuroLeague, you have the big names, guys here 10 years, guys who made the Final Four six or seven times. You need to see if you can compete with those guys. And when you see you can, you feel more comfortable."
He came such a long way that even Monaco coach Sasa Obradovic ahead of the deciding Game 5 of their playoff series stressed his team's need to solve the problem of Moustapha Fall.
"It always feels good when you see the respect of other coaches, especially Obradovic," Fall said. "I played for him when I was in Russia so I know him really well. He knows my ability, he knows what I can do obviously. That's really a good feeling to have some big coaches like him say you are a problem for him. That means a lot to me."
Fall scored 4 points in that playoff series decider, but found a way to impact the game with 4 assists and now he heads with Olympiacos to Belgrade to compete for the EuroLeague crown.
"I still want to win the EuroLeague, so I don't consider it an accomplishment yet," he said.
However, don't mistake his ambition to do more with awareness of where he is and what he is done. The big man takes nothing for granted.
"I know nothing is guaranteed. You can have an injury, you need some luck, too. You just need one coach to trust you to reach this level... For me to be playing with one of the top four teams in Europe, it is a big thing knowing where I am from and the journey I had. That is a big accomplishment for me."
In Belgrade, there is one thing he expects.
"Crazy atmosphere, we know we are going to have a lot of fans", Fall said. "We got nothing to lose. Obviously, we want to win but with what people were thinking at the beginning of the season, we already overachieved. We don't need to put extra pressure. We just have to go and play as good as we can. We showed we compete with anybody all season long."
Olympiacos faces Anadolu Efes Istanbul in the first semifinals, before FC Barcelona and Real Madrid square off in the second semi.
"Efes is the reigning champion, Barcelona and Real Madrid might have the biggest budgets. We need to compete with big teams, but we have our chance. We will compete and we will see."