CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Joanne Boyle offered a quick prayer before clicking the photo link of a days-old girl in a Senegalese orphanage. Maybe, after so many years of waiting, this would be the child the Virginia women’s basketball coach could bring home.
The fuzzy picture popped up on her laptop. Staring back at her from a world away was a close-up of little Ngoty, blanket around her.
“She had the biggest eyes in the world. Her eyes just stared at me,” Boyle said. “I caught my breath for a second and said, ‘Whatever I need to do to bring this child here, I’m going to do it.'”
Boyle had known for decades that she wanted to adopt a child, yet it would not be easy. She took 12 trips to Senegal over nearly three years, 14 in all. There were always obstacles: a lawyer who didn’t deliver, misplaced paperwork, bureaucratic barriers.
In December, almost at midseason, Boyle got the call. Time to go for Ngoty. At 51, Boyle was going to become a first-time, single mother.
She was advised to spend as much time as possible with her new daughter in the early months. But with recruiting and film study, meetings and practice, games at home and on the road, Boyle’s basketball life didn’t allow her to slow down.
The solution: Ngoty would be part of the team, too.
There are millions of working single moms, and there are 351 women’s basketball coaches in Division I. Few are both.
Boyle hardly considers her situation different from other mothers trying to do it all. Still, few of those moms work with their children in tow. For Boyle, taking time away to be with her 3-year-old isn’t an option.
“There are a lot of working single moms,” she said, simply.
Her schedule typically features two games a week, meetings with staff, players and recruits, a regular radio show. She might travel for a game and come home, only to turn around to go watch a top high school player.
“She has too much pride in what she does and who she is and now who she represents to allow for something to take her off track,” Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage said.
So Boyle has developed a unique arrangement. Ngoty spends much of her day with her grandmother, then often turns up in the gym near the end of practice. She is getting to know the arena — and her mother’s office — almost as well as her new house. A bookshelf in Boyle’s office displays coaching materials, along with the book “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” Minnie Mouse and pictures from Senegal.
After practice, Ngoty makes her way down a stairwell to reunite with mom, and scurries into the open arms of her favorite players.
Boyle takes a seat, and a moment to catch her breath. Ngoty still wakes up at night, and she has had separation anxiety. Boyle tries to fit in film study at night, too, and sleeps just four hours. She finds herself running on fumes.
At games, Ngoty regularly sits with her 79-year-old grandmother, Joan, who relocated to Virginia until Boyle hires a regular nanny. The toddler has figured out how to cheer, yelling “D-fense!” or “Go Hoos!” from the stands. She wears gear from a box that Nike sent to welcome her to America.
When the team travels, Ngoty often goes along, riding with the players and her mom. On one two-hour bus trip home from Virginia Tech, Ngoty sat on Boyle’s lap, watching “The Jungle Book” on an iPad as Boyle watched game film on her laptop. For the ACC tournament, Ngoty took one of her longest rides, driving with her mother and grandma behind the bus. They knew Ngoty might get a little wiggly, and wanted the flexibility to stop.
She was there Thursday rooting for the Cavaliers (17-13) as they lost to Miami in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Soon, Boyle hopes, Ngoty will go to a local language-immersion preschool and have a more regular schedule. For now, she is on a daily adventure.
“You’ve eaten at more restaurants than most 2-year-olds. You’ve been on more airplanes than most 2-year-olds. You’ve stayed in more hotels than most 2-year-olds,” Boyle explained to her in January.
She has a bigger family than most, too: An entire team ready for tickles or games of pat-a-cake and keep away, and an athletic staff who helped bring her to the United States.
Boyle had known for years — since she was 17 — that she wanted to adopt a child. Her yearning only grew in 2001, when she suffered a brain aneurysm after a run.
In May 2008, when she was the head coach at California, the team traveled to Senegal for international games and visited an orphanage. She left inspired.
Leads on children fell through. Boyle got sick on trips abroad. But she pressed ahead — especially after that day when she opened Ngoty’s picture.
She prayed, and relied on her deep faith.
Each trip to Senegal entailed an eight-hour flight to Dakar from Washington’s Dulles International Airport, then a rugged drive of nearly 300 miles that could take 8-9 hours, or longer on the trips when Boyle and her driver blew a tire or their car overheated in the 120-degree temperatures.
On each visit, Boyle spent anywhere from four days to two weeks with Ngoty before returning to her basketball duties at home.
“I knew I had to leave her for three months and I’d prepare myself,” she said. “That’s the good thing about throwing yourself into your work.”
From the beginning at Virginia, Boyle shared her commitment to adopt with Littlepage. In December, he sent a letter to the embassy when Boyle was stuck in Senegal trying to secure Ngoty’s visa because she didn’t have a birth certificate or formal paperwork.
His message: Virginia needed her home — with Ngoty.
“She is in that process of building that support network, that village,” he said. “We acknowledged early on that she wasn’t even going to try to do this alone.”
During her last months in Senegal, when she was waiting to come home, Ngoty stayed with friends, in a climate far cooler than what she was used to. Ngoty would sleep all the way under the covers with her head and body completely buried inside. She still does.
“I stay in here to make sure she’s breathing,” said Boyle, who goes by “Mama Joanne.”
Meals can be a challenge. At first, Boyle brought home simple white rice — different from the grain Ngoty ate in Senegal when she reached her tiny hand into a large communal bowl.
The American rice did not pass muster. “She threw it across the floor,” said Boyle, now able to laugh about it.
A dictionary of Wolof words is on the living room table, and Boyle speaks a mixture of Ngoty’s native language and English. So far, the girl can count and sing her ABCs, understand Mickey Mouse and other Disney Junior cartoons, play tea party and even sing along to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” — her favorite. Ngoty takes gymnastics, too.
But kisses are still “bisous.” And there are many of them.
“We are just like buddies,” Boyle said. “Her ability to adapt here has got to be somewhat of us spending time together.”
So many of Boyle’s friends, colleagues and players are pulling for her.
“She just has that will,” said Sarah Holsinger, Boyle’s close friend and an assistant athletic director for women’s basketball. “It was the thing she needed to complete her. It’ll be great when Ngoty’s a little older and we can tell her, ‘The way this woman fought for you…'”
When Ngoty turned 3, she celebrated with the team in the gym after a practice. There were cupcakes and pizza and candles. But amid it all, Ngoty seemed unaware of what was happening. All this for her?
Boyle quickly realized her daughter may not have ever celebrated a birthday. A telltale sign: She was scared of the candle.
Quickly, freshman guard Aliyah Huland El came to the rescue, and showed her how to blow it out. Then, they lit the candle again, to give her another try.
This time, Ngoty nailed it, with her new family — and team — watching proudly.
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