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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A subway ride with Victor Wembanyama to Yankee Stadium

Wembanyama greeted fans as he arrived at Columbus Circle.

By Tania Ganguli

It was a rather unremarkable day at Central Park West and Columbus Circle. Vendors sold hot dogs, coffee and overpriced bottled water nearby. A light breeze rustled the sycamore branches hanging over a bicycle rental kiosk filled with neat rows of mint green helmets. Then, at 4:41 p.m., a black Mercedes van crept through the jam of buses, police vehicles and flower-adorned bicycle cabs.

Two teenagers watched as a lanky young man in dark sunglasses, black shorts and a white T-shirt unfolded himself out of the van and stood at more than 7 feet tall.

“Oh my God!” one of the teenagers said. “It’s Victor Wembanyama!”

Wembanyama was in town for today’s NBA draft at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where he will almost certainly be selected No. 1 overall by the San Antonio Spurs as one of the most anticipated prospects since LeBron James. He was on his way to Yankee Stadium to throw the ceremonial first pitch for Tuesday night’s game with Seattle. But before that, he wanted to try something he had never done: ride the New York City subway.

“Watch your head!” a police officer bellowed as Wembanyama walked through the station and ducked beneath a cream-painted pipe on the ceiling.

“I’m used to it,” said Wembanyama, who is at least 7-foot-4. In France, where he grew up and played professional basketball last season for Metropolitans 92, he has ridden the Paris metro plenty of times. By now, at 19 years old, he is generally accustomed to bobbing his head to keep it from hitting things.

He had flown to the New York area on Monday afternoon, when he was swarmed by fans at Newark Liberty International Airport. Now he had just visited the offices of the NBA players’ union on Sixth Avenue, about a block from Bryant Park. He needed to catch a Bronx-bound D train at Columbus Circle. A teammate from France, Bilal Coulibaly, who is also expected to be drafted today, Wembanyama’s agents and his communications manager had come along.

Wembanyama’s family met him at the subway station — his parents, brother and sister — as did police officers, NBA security personnel, in-house content producers for the NBA, and reporters and photographers from two French news media outlets and The New York Times. It was a formidably sized group for a Tuesday afternoon subway car.

Harry Cisse, 17, who was on the way to a friend’s graduation, sighed deeply as the group packed onto the train, leaving little space to move or breathe.

“WELCOME TO NEW YORK!” a woman’s voice boomed in the distance as the train began to roll. She added, as Wembanyama stood in the middle of the car with his head bent: “HOW TALL IS HE?”

Sebastian Cardona, 22, immediately texted and called some friends on FaceTime with his iPhone to let them know he was on the train with Wembanyama.

“Rookie of the year!” Cardona yelled before trying to get Wembanyama to turn around for a photo. Cardona, too, was on his way to see the Yankees. He said he knew Wembanyama was going to throw out the first pitch, but he never expected to see him on the subway.

A few feet away, a woman shouted in French for Wembanyama to turn. He obliged a couple of times and smiled for her photos. Aladji Sacko, 25, a Frenchman who now lives in New York, was standing next to the woman on his way home.

“I’ve only seen him on TV,” Sacko said as he grinned. A few minutes later he wove through the crowded car to sneak closer for a photo.

After the first stop, at 125th Street, Wembanyama found a seat. Two seats away, a woman’s headphones flashed colored lights. She closed her eyes and ignored the commotion around her.

Wembanyama smiled as he sat, then spent most of the ride like anyone might — checking his phone, chatting with his companions. He did a short interview with the NBA’s entertainment group, telling them he wished he had a chance to visit more of the city. After tonight, Wembanyama is expected to be whisked off to San Antonio.

It took four stops on the D train to go from Columbus Circle to Yankee Stadium. Wembanyama and his court left the train together, ascending a yellow-tiled stairwell into the Bronx. People driving and biking by Wembanyama yelled to get his attention. One person in a car shouted, “Go Spurs!” and Wembanyama smiled to acknowledge the cheer.

Fans waiting in line to enter Yankee Stadium grabbed their cellphones to record Wembanyama as he passed by, chattering excitedly about the NBA draft.

Inside the stadium, Wembanyama spent some time in the dugout with Yankees catcher Jose Trevino, perhaps getting some advice on his impending pitch. Wembanyama fiddled with a baseball that looked like a golf ball in his outsize hands. He left the dugout to sign autographs and pose for pictures with children.

He still had more than an hour before his pitch.

When it was finally time, he clapped as he approached the mound. The crowd, still filling in, cheered to welcome him. Wembanyama wound up and threw the pitch too far outside for Yankees pitcher Clarke Schmidt, stationed behind home plate, to catch it.

Wembanyama shrugged, and then he laughed.

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