Just before he was introduced to Kansas fans — and moments before he received the loudest ovation during Friday’s Late Night in the Phog — Silvio De Sousa dropped his head while standing in the northwest tunnel of Allen Fieldhouse.
“I kind of cried a little bit,” De Sousa said Wednesday. “I’m pretty sure you guys didn’t see it, but I shed tears.”
De Sousa, for good reason, was overwhelmed. He’d previously sat out his entire sophomore year for an NCAA suspension “because his guardian received payment from a university booster and agent and agreed to receive additional funds from the same person.”
The 6-foot-9 forward from Angola was able to focus on a better future Friday after winning an offseason appeal that made him eligible this season.
“I missed a lot. And right now I’m just like, ‘Wow, I get to get back on the court and play the game I love,’” De Sousa said during the team’s media day. “So I’m just super-motivated and doing whatever I can do.”
Life will change for De Sousa. Because his name is linked to the Notice of Allegations that KU received last month from the NCAA, he’ll likely be a target for opposing fans in the months to come.
De Sousa vows to handle that extra attention well. He says he’s not on social media as much as he used to be, while also claiming his entire attention in games would remain on the court.
“I’m just focusing right now on how to pull my teammates together,” De Sousa said, “and (on) how to grow up as a team and make this year special.”
De Sousa will be a big part of KU’s early plans. Coach Bill Self envisions the team starting off with a primary two-big lineup, which would likely put De Sousa as a starter next to Udoka Azubuike in the frontcourt.
He’ll have to continue to improve to make it work. Self wants to see better energy from De Sousa and also improvement from him on the defensive end, where he’ll likely have to shadow more opponents on the perimeter.
“He’s doing fine,” Self said, “but he’s just not used to guarding out there.”
De Sousa, whatever his role, will remain a fan favorite. That stems from last season, when De Sousa repeatedly smiled and encouraged teammates from the bench, even when he was unable to play.
“I think a lot of people were happy to see me freed,” De Sousa said.
That included his mother, Janina, who was one of the first to learn that Silvio was cleared in May thanks to a video call from her son.
“The excitement of her eyes, it was just like something different,” De Sousa said. “Like the way she was speaking to me was just like ... I felt like I was free from from something.
“Seeing her happy makes me happy. That’s really all that matters.”
De Sousa said there was a simple reason he chose to stay at KU through the process: “I knew I hadn’t done anything.” Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola testified in federal court that he offered De Sousa’s legal guardian Fenny Falmagne $20,000 but never paid it, saying he did give him $2,500 so De Sousa could take online classes.
KU has been consistent in claiming that De Sousa himself had no knowledge of anything that might have taken place.
“I didn’t want to leave without having a full season in a Kansas jersey,” De Sousa said. “So that’s really why I kept myself here.”
De Sousa, who joined KU during the second semester two seasons ago, had one of his best games in the 2018 Elite Eight, pulling down 10 rebounds in 26 minutes during KU’s 85-81 overtime victory over Duke.
He believes fans will see a better player now. During his off year, De Sousa says he’s worked on his jumpshot, ball-handling and also has expanded his offensive game away from the basket.
“Coach just really told me to continue and do what you have to do, which is play hard. ‘I recruited you because you’re a guy that can play hard and can do a lot for the team,’” De Sousa said. “If that’s what you want me to do it, then I’m ready for it.”
De Sousa, in particular, is ready for KU’s first home game in a few weeks. The KU fan support was what helped him through his toughest times, and now, he believes some of the squad’s off-court realities will bring a more galvanized roster.
“Right now, I just think we are so motivated. Like I said the other day, I have been a part of so many teams, and I have never seen something like this,” De Sousa said. “I think my teammates are great. I grow every day, learning new stuff from them. And it’s just ridiculous. I’m just excited for the season.”