PORTLAND, Maine — Over the summer, the city’s Expo building served as a makeshift shelter. From June through the middle of August, more than 400 asylum seekers — mostly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo — slept on folding cots lining the basketball court.
On Friday night, no sign of them remained, but an African man was still at the center of attention. More than 2,000 fans spent the night cheering for 7-foot-6 Senegalese basketball sensation Tacko Fall as he and the Maine Red Claws beat the Fort Wayne Mad Ants 103-100 in the home opener.
Though he did not start, and it was only his second NBA G League game, much of the crowd was clearly there to see Fall. A roar went up when he first stepped on the court to warm up.
A bigger blast came when he got into the game with 8:27 remaining in the first quarter. Fall relieved starting center Yante Maten, who jokingly waved to the crowd and smiled as if the hooting was for him. Fans went wild again when Fall scored his first field goal three minutes later. He finished the game with 16 points.
In the stands, a man held a T-shirt reading: “Wacko for Tacko.” A quartet of friends from Calais Elementary School wore matching taco (as in the food) outfits in honor of their new hero.
Near the end of the first half, Fall dunked in the face of an opponent, sending the sellout crowd into near hysterics.
“I’ve been here seven years, and I’ve never seen it like this,” Red Claws spokesman Evans Boston said.
Fall, whose full name is Elhadji Serigne Tacko Diop Fall, was a preseason phenomenon with the Boston Celtics, the parent club of the Red Claws. An imposing shot blocker with decent agility and an ability to score, fans were often chanting at Boston coach Brad Stevens to give him minutes.
Fall has a two-way contract. It’s a deal where NBA teams can sign a player to their G League team for just under $80,000 — but pay him a daily NBA rookie wage for up to 45 days where he is called up to the big club, which could work out to another $200,000 or more.
Though playing in Boston is a possibility, Fall, 23, is expected to spend most of this season in Portland.
All the hullabaloo surrounding Fall’s landing in Maine has been good news for the home team.
“Since the summer league, not a day has gone by when I didn’t get a phone call asking if Tacko was going to play here,” Boston said. “When they finally announced it — it was perfect timing for our ticket sales.”
Before the game, secondary market tickets were selling for upward of $150. Face value for center court tickets is $32.
Team jerseys with Fall’s number 99 and his name were also selling well at the souvenir stand. By halftime, they were out of size large. Each went for $69.99.
Judy Angston of Sidney was wearing one in the stands.
“You better believe it,” Angston said, adding it was her first live professional basketball game since the mid-1970s. “I’ve been following him since college, and now he’s here in my backyard.”
Andrew Comeau said he’s seen a lot of Red Claws games in the past five years, but he’s never witnessed the kind of reaction Fall gets.
“People love him because he’s so tall,” Comeau said. “He can dunk the ball without jumping, and that’s something special.”
Diana Grandoni, standing nearby, added that Fall is getting attention among the new Mainers she works with at the Boys and Girls Club, as well.
“There’s parallels between him and a lot of African immigrants in Portland,” Grandoni said. “It’s not gone unnoticed. This is a really big deal. He’s the most celebrated player we’ve ever had.”
Eduardo Bintabara, 19, watched the game at the far end of the court with some friends from the University of Southern Maine where he studies sports management. Bintabara was born in Angola and came to the United States five years ago. He said he admired Fall and his success.
“Half the people here have come just to watch him play. That’s an American dream. That’s crazy,” Bintabara said. “They think: If he can do it, they can, too.”
Sitting nearby was Nimo Ahmed, 19, a political science major at University of Southern Maine. Ahmed was born in Djibouti. She nodded her head in agreement with Bintabara.
“It’s inspiring,” she said.
After the game, reporters were led downstairs to the locker room for post-game interviews. Boston went in first to make sure everyone was dressed.
“I’m bringing the press in now,” he announced.
From beyond the door, an anonymous player shouted, “We didn’t have this before Tacko, dammit.”
The snarky remark was met with a chorus of laughter. Once inside, the press gathered round the celebrity player. Fall said he was overwhelmed with the fan reaction.
“It was crazy. I got here around 4:30, and it was already loud, and the game wasn’t until seven. It just shows you how much [the fans] love the Red Claws,” Fall said. “Their support is very much appreciated.”
Fall said he knew the Expo had been a shelter over the summer, but when told he was an inspiration to some of his African-born fans, he was at a loss for words.
“Wow. I don’t know what to say. It means a lot, especially coming from Africa,” Fall said. “There’s a lot of people who go through a lot of things to come here — and every time I go out there, I try to represent them to the best of my capabilities.”
The Red Claws next home game is Sunday, Nov. 17, at 1 p.m. against the Raptors 905.