Heads up! That big man on campus is Tacko Fall, the center on University of Central Florida’s Knights men’s basketball team. You’ll have to crank your neck skyward to see his face, but forget about seeing eye-to-eye with this 7 ft., 6 in. baller.
“You never really get used to it when he walks into the room, and I’ve played with a lot of tall players,” UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins tells PEOPLE. “Every time you see him, it’s like the first time you see him — he’s always bigger than you think he is.”
One of the tallest people on earth, Fall has helped the team clinch a spot in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the first time in more than a decade. Fall makes 75 percent of the shots he takes, leading all players in the NCAA. Fall can dunk the ball without jumping, and with his astounding 8 ft., 4 in. wingspan he’s formidable on defense.
“When he goes to the basket, it’s literally like a solar eclipse,” Dawkins says. “He blocks everything out when he comes over there. I’ve seen the looks on players’ faces when he moves over and gravitates toward that area where you are, all of a sudden there’s nothing you can see around him, above him — everything is gone.”
For the record, Fall is an inch taller in his size 22 basketball shoes, weighs 300 pounds, bends down to get through doorways, needs the exit row seat when he flies to away games so he won’t have a seat in front of him, and uses two full-size mattresses pushed together to make a bed long enough to comfortably sleep.
He also towers over the rest of the team. The next tallest player is 6 ft., 11 in. forward Collin Smith — and Smith looks small next to Fall.
Almost a foot and a half taller than his father, and more than a foot and a half taller than his mother, Fall sees his height as a gift.
“I’m blessed, because not that many people get the opportunity,” he tells PEOPLE.
Aside from easily reaching up to the basketball goal, his legions of fans make him feel like a role model. His height brings other advantages too.
“When I walk in the grocery store, I can see on top of all the shelves and I can reach over anything that I want to,” he says.
When Fall — whose full name is Elhadji Tacko Sereigne Diop Fall — came to the U.S. from Senegal at age 16, he had never played in a real basketball game. He lived in a Dakar studio apartment with his mother and brother, and he spoke two languages, French and Wolof. He had never been out of his home country, but he got excited when a recruiter talked to him about going to school in the U.S. and playing basketball.
Fall lived with a host family and attended high school just outside of Orlando, Florida. He was twice named player of the game, even though he was still learning the sport.
Now he’s 23, a college senior majoring in business and psychology, and perfectly fluent in both English — and basketball.
Fall’s mother still lives in Senegal, and traveled to Orlando two weeks ago to see Fall in person for the first time since he became a basketball star. The last time she saw her son, nearly seven years ago, he was a teenage soccer player, and much shorter.
She’s back in Senegal, but Fall says she’ll be watching highlights of his NCAA tournament match on Friday on YouTube.
Fall plans to graduate college in May, and if all goes well, get drafted to the NBA. “I feel like I have the talent, and the size, to be able to play at the next level,” he says. If he makes it, he will be the tallest player in the league by three inches.
To kids who aspire to be as tall as Fall, he advises, “Eat your vegetables. Eat a lot and work out, because you don’t want to get too big the wrong way.”