Saturday, October 18, 2003

Sato quietly becoming XU leader

Hardship, adversity a way of life for All-America hope

By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Life does not revolve around basketball for Romain Sato. Then again, it does.

Easily the most worldly of Xavier University basketball players, Sato speaks six languages and is a devout Christian and an All-America candidate who is well on his way to a professional basketball career. He doesn't need basketball, but it is what got him here, out of the war-torn Central African Republic and into an American university where he enjoys attending class and talking to professors.

As Xavier begins practice today, the team's chances for Atlantic 10 and postseason success start with Sato, a senior who is so modest he barely acknowledges his talents even though preseason magazines already have tabbed him an All-America candidate.

"He has grown up in a different culture with different priorities than kids in the United States," said Tom Thompson who, along with his wife, Tiffany, is Sato's legal guardian in Dayton. "He is a loyal friend and looks at more than himself and his basketball career when he looks at the big picture."

Sato will not tell you how great he is, but he will get upset when he or the team underperforms.

No Xavier player looked more disgusted than Sato in March, standing in a quiet locker room following a second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Maryland. In his soft-spoken voice, he addressed a small group of reporters near his locker.

"The same thing every year," Sato said, referring to his team's early exit from the NCAA Tournament - the third time in his career Xavier failed to reach the second weekend of games.

That Sato even had the energy to care about that game was somewhat remarkable considering the circumstances of his family life. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the Central African Republic was embroiled in a civil war, and Sato frantically tried to reach his family in the capital city of Bangui for days, unable to get through.

"When you call, nobody can answer the phone because the phone lines are all cut," Sato said. "You just have to call and call. I was worried about them, but I knew if something happened, it would be God's plan. Then nothing happened, but after that I prayed for them, because it's tough. Things are hard. People don't work, it's hard to get money. It's just hard to see them live in that situation."

Sato finally heard his family's voices over the phone, and an overwhelming sense of relief set in.

"You knew it was on his mind," said Xavier coach Thad Matta. "Every free second he had, he was calling home. Romain is the type of kid that when you ask him how everything is, he just says, 'OK, coach.' When you finally knew that he knew they were OK, you just saw the relief on his face."

Peace has come to the Central African Republic, easing Sato's worries about his family for the time being. He still hasn't seen them in more than five years. Perhaps this summer, Sato says, when his basketball schedule is less strict, he can see his parents and three siblings.

"His situation is so unique," Matta said. "I tell him, 'I can't imagine what you go through when you go back to the dorm.' I miss my family when I don't see them for a month. I think it has matured him and given him a different perspective on life."

Sato shares that perspective with Xavier freshman Boubacar Coly,a native of Senegal, who knew Sato through a mutual friend before arriving at Xavier. Sato immediately welcomed Coly and hopes having another African on the team makes Coly's first year more comfortable.

Such a gesture reflects Sato's compassion, an asset that does not serve him well on the court. Six feet 5 inches and 205 pounds of raw athleticism, Sato rarely used his talent to its full potential on the court the last three seasons, pulling up for outside jumpers when he could have penetrated the lane for an easy basket or a foul. Still, he averaged 18.1 points a game last season and led the team in 3-point field goals made. But Sato admits that this season he needs to become more aggressive.

Sato attempted 162 free throws last season - just more than five a game. But he made 80.9 percent of those attempts. That's why Xavier coaches want to see him at the line more often.

"The only way I would change my game is do the same thing I do, but try to get to the basket more and get to the free throw line more," Sato said. "That's what I worked on all summer."

NBA scouts for two years have spoken highly of Sato's athletic exploits, and more than a few have suggested that with an extraordinary senior season, Sato could be drafted higher than Xavier grad David West, last year's national player of the year who went to New Orleans with the No. 18 pick. Sato is keenly aware of his professional potential. In fact, the Thompsons inquired about his draft stock following last season. When asked, Sato quickly dismisses any discussion of pro basketball and says he has placed those aspirations behind him as the season is set to begin.

"If that happens, it's God's plan," Sato said. "I don't think about playing professional. I think about graduating."


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