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How Mark Pope, Chris Burgess convinced Tanzanian prospect that BYU was the place for him

Athletic but raw, newest recruit is further proof BYU coach thinks outside the box when out on the recruiting trail

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BYU basketball coach Mark Pope directs traffic during game against Gonzaga. The second-year Cougars coach has proven an effective recruiter since arriving in Provo.

Jaren Wilkey

The 6-foot-11 Tanzanian Atiki Ally Atiki couldn’t have had a longer road to get to BYU, and it remains to be seen how this talented work-in-progress athlete will develop in Provo.

But those who know him and have invested tens of thousands of hours being part of his life believe Atiki has found his chance to succeed in life with Mark Pope.

For Pope and his staff, that is a huge compliment and endorsement. Their pitch paid off big time.

Atiki is just beginning his senior year at London Prep Academy near Toronto, Canada, where he is expected to be the top high school post player in that country.

BYU assistant Chris Burgess was the Cougars’ chief recruiter of Atiki. Burgess got on Atiki very early, reportedly with intensity and passion, and his press was constant. The down-to-earth approach by Burgess, the ability to look Atiki in the eye and discuss his development as a big man at BYU, struck a cord. So did the story of Nigerian Gideon George at BYU and tales of Purdue transfer Matt Haarms.

Atiki had offers from San Diego State and Oklahoma with others in pursuit. But Pope came in and closed the deal with an enthusiasm Atiki couldn’t resist, according to his friends.

Turn down the beaches around San Diego for winter cold hovering around Provo?

“I can’t say he’s loving it (the cold in Canada),” LPA coach Angelo Provenzano told Ben Criddle of ESPN 960 radio. “But, he knows it’s part of the deal, and it’s part of the sacrifice. Yeah, he gave up the beaches of the West Coast and one of his offers. You don’t say no to a guy like coach Pope. I mean, I can’t see anybody saying no to him.”

Atiki is continuing to develop in a game he hadn’t played formerly until he arrived in Canada. He would travel more than 40 miles from his village in Tanzania to a place that had a concrete pad and some hoops to just shoot. While in Canada, he lived with Provenzano and his family, and with a high-calorie, protein-loaded diet, began putting on muscles as he grew. With it grew interest from college recruiters.

The current London Academy prep star only spoke Swahili when he came to Canada in 2018.

Atiki has a 7-foot-2 wingspan and can outrun most players on a high school basketball court. There are clips of him taking two dribbles from just under half court, leaping and dunking the ball. It is those basic skills Burgess and Pope promised they’d help him develop in Provo, along with an offensive skill set to fit his body, reach and speed.

“His growth and development have just been unbelievable, especially when you think about it in the context of learning all of this while learning a whole new language and adapting to a whole different environment,” Juco Advocate’s Brandon Goble told ESPN 960.

Atiki is from Lake Victoria in western Tanzania, near the border of Rwanda. His country is home to vast African wonders, including the continent’s highest mountain Kilimanjaro and vast exotic animal reserves of the Serengeti.

“It’s funny, he’s a big goofy kid who is just an absolute joy, big smiles all the time. He just loves life and loves all these different new experiences, and really kind of pours himself into everything that’s new. He’s not shy, by any means. He was when we met him but he’s gotten over that,” said Goble.

“I think he’s gonna fit in really well in the BYU environment, especially within the context of this (BYU) team. You know, these kids are guys that just love each other.”

Goble said Atiki liked seeing how current Nigerian George had assimilated to campus life at BYU, highlighted in a “Deep Blue” profile on BYUtv that went worldwide on the internet.

“Tanzania and Nigeria are nowhere near each other but there’s a lot of shared experience there,” said Goble, who went to Tanzania as part of a group of coaches working on basketball camps for youth. 

“So, for him to see Gideon doing well and fitting into that environment, I’d probably be lying if I said it didn’t play some part in that. It is important to be able to show people that this is definitely a different environment that they’re coming into from where they come from, especially in northern Nigeria.

“The places that these kids are from, it’s different when they come here and then coming to Provo, Utah, it is different for them as well. Seeing somebody who thrives the way Gideon has, that he just loves it and he loves his teammates, he loves the community, he loves the school and everything about it, I have a feeling that that probably played a part, at least if nothing else.

“For coach Provenzano to see this as an environment that Atiki will thrive in because he’s  seeing some of the proof of what coach Burgess, Nick Robinson and Pope are saying, is big. He sees it reflected in how it is working (for George).”

Goble said he is impressed that Pope will look everywhere for a player, for talent.

“There’s no box that coach Pope operates in from a recruiting standpoint. He’s willing to look everywhere. And where he’s willing to look everywhere, he’s probably going to find some guys that maybe haven’t traditionally come to Provo in the past. He’s willing to go outside the box and find players who will fit what he tries to do on the court while fitting in the culture there.”

The judgment of Atiki is going to be a process. It helps that Pope doesn’t need him to come in and play a lot of minutes right away. He’ll take his time getting him prepared to compete at a Division I level. Nobody gets better without playing in actual games, competing during each possession.

Those experiences will likely come to Atiki in bits and pieces as his knowledge and feel catch up with his obvious elite physical abilities.

It will be a race to get Atiki to learn things kids in Utah have learned from playing hoops in driveways and bantam basketball early in life.

But by all accounts, he’s smart, hungry to learn and possesses attributes you don’t coach.

And for Pope and Burgess?

They’ve got new admirers in Ontario, Canada.

They’re sold.