The Xavier Musketeers had just returned to campus, exhausted and
disappointed after losing to Oklahoma in the second round of the
2002 NCAA tournament, when assistant coach John Groce heard a
familiar voice call out, "Coach, what time are we working out
tomorrow?" It was swingman Romain Sato, to whom Groce had
promised an off-season workout program.
Over the next six months Sato, a 6'5" junior, worked tirelessly
in drills designed to improve ball handling, shooting, creating
shots off the dribble, low-post moves and reading screens. The
results this season are impressive. In only his fourth year of
organized ball in the U.S., and with opponents now keying on him,
the Central African Republic native was averaging 12.6 points and
7.5 rebounds through Saturday for the 6--2 Musketeers. "Teams are
now gearing up to stop him first," says Xavier senior power
forward and two-time Atlantic 10 player of the year David West.
"They're paying him a compliment for how hard he's worked."
The 21-year-old Sato grew up in Banqui, the capital of his
poverty-stricken homeland. Living in a tin-roofed house the size
of a one-car garage, Romain and his three siblings stayed home
from school for months at a time whenever political unrest made
journeying outside of their neighborhood unsafe. It was during
one of those periods that Romain, then 14, first picked up a
basketball, on a dirt court behind the town's open-air market.
Soon he was transfixed by the game. He would shoot for hours at
night when no one was around and scour Banqui's black market for
bootleg Michael Jordan highlight videos. After joining a club
team called Red Star at 16, he developed into one of the
country's best basketball prospects. In January 1999 the head of
the national basketball federation, Eugene Pehoua, used his U.S.
connections to secure a place for Sato at Dayton (Ohio) Christian
While Sato took to the U.S. game immediately, the adjustment in
the classroom was difficult. He didn't speak a word of English
when he arrived, and he was placed in the home of Tiffany and Tom
Thompson. (Tom graduated from the high school and helped coach
the team.) With the Thompsons' help, Sato, who's fluent in French
and four African dialects, earned a 3.2 GPA in his last semester
and did well enough on the ACT and SAT to qualify for an athletic
scholarship to Xavier.
Sato still struggles with English and recently switched his major
from international business to French. Says Sato's French culture
and civilization professor, Margaret McDiarmid, "To be able to
survive at a university like Xavier really says something about
his work ethic."
His coaches know all about Sato's work habits. For example, in
the summer of 2001 he told coach Thad Matta that he was going to
shoot 20,000 three-pointers the following week. A skeptical Matta
checked up on Sato, who indeed appeared at the school's arena
seven straight days until his mission was accomplished. Coming to
the game so late, Sato avoided many of the bad habits that
American youths often develop on the playground. His jumper could
have come straight from a textbook. It doesn't hurt, either, that
he runs a five-minute mile, has a 40-inch vertical leap and a
chiseled frame with the wingspan of a much taller player.
"What he needs to work on is his overall understanding of the
game," says Matta. "That's only going to come from playing." As a
freshman, when he averaged 10.7 points, Sato often shot while
standing still, and most times when he got a rebound he
immediately dished the ball to the point guard. Last year, after
he started dribbling toward the basket before pulling up or
spinning in the lane, his average jumped to 16.1, and he earned
second-team All--Atlantic 10 honors. This season he's taking the
ball hard to the rim and, when he has the opportunity, leading
the break after grabbing a defensive rebound.
Matta says that Sato, a Wooden Award finalist, still has plenty
of untapped basketball potential. "The fact that he hasn't been
brought up with everyone telling him how good he is may be his
greatest asset," the coach says. NBA teams are scouting Sato and
West, but Sato is reserved when discussing his future. "I pray,
and I know that God has a plan for me," he says. But then he
concedes, "I do love basketball."
COLOR PHOTO: BRETT HANSBAUER/BRSP HARD DRIVING Workaholic Sato earned second-team All--Atlantic 10 honors in '01--02 and is a Wooden Award candidate this year.
Over the last 10 years Xavier has produced eight NBA players.
Here are the four who are still active.
PLAYER, TEAM YEAR DRAFTED, PICK
Brian Grant, Heat 1994, 8th
PF playing center this season; has averaged 7.9 rebounds as a pro.
Tyrone Hill, Cavaliers 1990, 11th
Has averaged at least nine boards per game in seven of 12 seasons.
James Posey, Rockets 1999, 18th
Has struggled to make adjustment from PF in college to playing
Aaron Williams, Nets Undrafted
Journeyman has become a key reserve forward for New Jersey.