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Ismael Sanogo: ‘No matter how tough things get, you can’t stop fighting’

In his occasional series on the Long Island Nets (whose season is over rather than suspended), Chris Milhollen talks to Ismael Sanogo.

Canton Charge v Long Island Nets Photo by Michelle Farsi/NBAE via Getty Images

Ismael Sanogo, the Long Island Nets stretch 4, is like the rest of us, at home doing what he can to stay safe, stay ready.

“For the most part, just doing my best to stay in shape,” Sanogo said. “It’s the holy month of Ramadan so I’ve been fasting besides that, a lot of jump roping and a lot of conditioning.”

As tough as it is, the pandemic is just the latest hurdle for the 23-year-old. More than most, he knows tough times and knows as well that’s always fought for what he achieved. So far, he’ll tell you, so good. Ismael Sanogo knows how to rebound...

Sanogo, who immigrated from the Ivory Coast in West Africa at the age of 4, hasn’t walked a smooth path. Instead, it’s been filled with murder, Hurricane Katrina, violence on the streets of Chicago and Newark, but like so many players, basketball and the hope it brings has gotten him through the worst of it.

Sanogo explained the difficult challenges he faced particularly in the early years of his life and how with resolve and putting up the good fight, he was able to overcome the obstacles he faced.

“I keep everything to myself and I think I finally got over it and share this with people now,” Sanogo said. “First of all, I was not born in the United States. I came here at the age of four with my grandmother. When I came, she was killed and I lost all my papers. My passport, green card, all that stuff was stolen from her when she was killed.

“So I was in America nameless, paperless, and was basically a nobody with no name at the age of four. All that got resolved.”

Sanogo ultimately found his way to New Orleans, not long before another disaster struck.

“I moved to New Orleans, straight from Africa, and stayed there for about five years. So I was about nine and Hurricane Katrina hit and everything was thrown out of whack. I remember vividly, we weren’t going to leave because hurricanes were so natural and we’ve seen them before but our neighbors told us to get out so hopefully we left the day before but the aftermath was crazy.

“We lost everything: family, money, everything. Friends were gone and it was like getting up and starting all over. I was then homeless for a while in Texas before my family was relocated to Chicago, where I stayed for two years. Dealt with a lot of gun violence in Chicago and after that, my parents couldn’t do that anymore. We moved to Newark, New Jersey, which is not the best city in the world but helped mold me into the person I am today.”

Sanogo enrolled at Newark East Side and became one of the state and country’s top scholastic players. He was rated No. 44 overall and No. 6 recruit from New Jersey in the 2014 class by ESPN. He played for the New Jersey Road Runners, Kyrie Irving’s AAU alma mater. After sorting through a ton of college offers, he decided to stay close to home, becoming a top recruit for Seton Hall’s Pirates.

“Overall, the message is no matter how tough things get, you can’t stop fighting,” said Sanogo. “We can not stop fighting. My parents did not stop fighting and gave me an opportunity to play basketball. No matter what happens, keep fighting. Whatever you want, you can achieve.”

After helping lead Seton Hall to their first Big East title since 1993 and spending all four years as a Pirate, he went undrafted in 2018. Instead, he tried out for the Long Island Nets at one of their local player tryouts and became only player added to the roster, impressing former coach Will Weaver with his athleticism, physicality and his calling card since high school, defense.

Then, after Long Island came within a win of the G League championship, the Ivory Coast native was waived. So, he looked at other opportunities, even trying out for the NBA’s new Africa league in early December. On December 12, though, Long Island came calling again, once again justifying Sanogo’s optimism, becoming the only player to return from the 2018-19 roster. He finished the shortened season posting averages 17.3 minutes, 5.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 0.7 steals in 24 games.

With Sanogo’s sophomore season as a pro concluded, he has a plan for the future. His end goal is to play for Long Island’s parent club.

“I have a plan,” Sanogo said. “I want to obviously play in the NBA for the Brooklyn Nets. I want to work to increase my skill level and athleticism. Just make my game better overall. I gave myself the time limit to do that and work my tail off. That is the only plan I have honestly and see where that takes me.”

Sanogo, who traditionally played at forward, wants to become more of an attacking wing then a spot up shooter outside the arc.

“Right now, I am considered a 3-and-D guy,” Sanogo said. “I want to keep those two parts of my game strong so I am putting up my shots everyday and working on my body to become a better defender. Now, I feel like I need to add and become more of an attacking wing. Do a lot of ball handling, a lot of working off pick-and-rolls, a lot of catch and shoot, and stuff like that.”

And considering what he’s done already, who’s to say he won’t succeed.