In 2007, Amadou Gallo Fall, a personnel director for the Dallas Mavericks, founded a boarding school in Senegal called SEEDS Academy, which provides Senegalese boys with a place to live, study, and train year-round in basketball. After ten months of instruction, students are placed at American prep schools, where they continue their education on and off the court.
First-time filmmaker Anne Buford's documentary Elevate, which was partly funded by ESPN Films and opens this week in Los Angeles and around the country in weeks to come, follows four young players — Assane, Aziz, Dethie, and Byago — as they travel far from home to chase their hoop dreams and the goal of earning a college education. Davy Rothbart spoke to Buford about her subjects' winding road from Senegalese blacktops to American arenas.
What inspired you to make this film?
My brother [RC Buford, general manager of the San Antonio Spurs] had taken guardianship of a young basketball player from Cameroon, and as I got to know him, I learned that there were many young African players coming over to the U.S. to play high school ball, with hopes of a college scholarship. My brother introduced me to Amadou Gallo Fall, who at the time had become the scouting director of the Dallas Mavericks. I was fascinated by the idea of his SEEDS program, and the notion of using sports as a tool to create opportunity. Two weeks later, I was on a plane to Africa with a film crew, not really knowing where the project would go or that the result would be a feature-length documentary.
How hard was it for these players when they first arrived?
The struggles that some of them went through were heartbreaking. We all know the loneliness of being someplace where you're far from those you share a history with. Even though their teachers, coaches, and teammates tried to look out for them, it's a real shock to suddenly land somewhere so alien. You feel shut out of conversation because everyone's speaking another language. No matter how smart you are, it can be hard to follow things in class if you're missing half of what the teacher is saying. The climate felt freezing to them; even if it was 60 degrees, they'd be rubbing their hands together. When winter set in, they were chilled to the bone. And also, life in Senegal is built around community; you're always surrounded by family and friends. In the U.S., kids at these boarding schools spend a lot of time alone in their rooms. If you're not used to that, it can be crushing.
At one point, Assane was having a really hard time, and I drove up to Connecticut to visit him. In a way, me and the film crew had become his closest friends, because we'd spent time with him in Senegal and he knew we had an understanding of the place he was from. I remember he told me that being in the U.S. was harder than anything he could've imagined. His coaches had become a little frustrated with him. He said, "It's so hard. Sometimes I just want to go home." But of course, he didn't really want to leave, and he knew there were a million kids that would've felt lucky to be in his place.
Part of it was that Assane was really uncomfortable about his height. At SEEDS Academy, he'd been surrounded by kids as tall as him, but when he came to American he'd get upset when people made remarks, even seemingly harmless stuff like, "How's the weather up there?" I would tell him, "Look, it's cool to be tall in America. People look at you like you've been given a gift."
How long did it take for the players to find a comfort zone?
A few months, at least. It was different for everyone. What really helped Dethie was going to [South Kent School], and having Assane — who'd already been through the hardest things on his own — as his guide. At least you have one friend who knows what home is like, and doesn't think that just because you're from Senegal you grew up in the bush surrounded by lions, tigers, and hippos. But what always moved me was the players' sense of empathy and compassion. It was truly staggering. Even if they were feeling really homesick and miserable, the first thing they'd say to me was, "How are you doing?" And I'd be like, "Oh, I'm fine," and they'd say, "No, really, how are you doing?" Their sincerity was amazing.
One thing that was striking was watching the kids return home for the first time. In Senegal, people aren't in much of a hurry to get places, and everything moves at a slower pace. The boys now seemed to straddle two worlds. They'd had culture shock when they arrived in the U.S., but then had another culture shock — which came as even more of a surprise to them — anytime they returned home.
What kind of reception did the players get from their American teammates?
One of the beauties of sports is that it's a great equalizer. You might not speak the same language, but you all want to win. Competing with your teammates creates bonds, and despite the differences in their backgrounds, I saw a lot of friendships spring up.
Is basketball played differently in Senegal than in the States?
In some ways, yes. The perception seems to be that American basketball has a higher emphasis on shooting. Most American players of a certain caliber are capable of occasionally shooting the lights out. In Senegal, there's more emphasis on defense and blocking shots. To some extent, it's a big man's game.
Did any part of you feel that these players were being exploited? What would've happened if a kid didn't seem to be living up to his potential on the court, or suffered an injury and couldn't play? Would he be sent home?
The coaches tend to stand by these guys. If you're the kind of coach who doesn't really care about the long-term well-being of your players, word gets around pretty quickly. If a player from Senegal has a bad experience at a school, they're not likely to get another player anytime soon. But if you treat the players with care and kindness, a lot of others are going to hear about it and want to come to your school.
The players came to the U.S. with the goal of earning scholarships to play college basketball. Did it work out for them?
All of them went on to continue their education and play at the college level. Assane is the starting center for the University of Virginia, and Aziz starts for the University of Washington. Dethie plays for Roanoke College, and Byago is the point guard at Carroll College. I've rarely met people who are so devoted to their schooling and their sport. I remember that Assane had only been in the States for three or four months when he took the SAT for the first time. He scored 1080.
What did they make of seeing themselves on the big screen? Was it fun for them to be part of a movie like this, or was it uncomfortable to see themselves going through so many ups and downs in such a public way?
It's been really amazing to see them look back on themselves and react to the film. At one festival screening, Dethie mentioned that he'd seen the movie 31 times. He said, "It's our story. It's our history. We want people to understand our experience." More than anything, the guys want people to know about SEEDS Academy so that other boys a few years younger than them can have a chance to follow in their footsteps and come over and earn basketball scholarships of their own. Whatever hardships the guys have been through, they know they're living the dream.
Davy Rothbart is the creator of Found magazine, editor of the Found books, author of the story collection The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, and a frequent contributor to public radio's This American Life. He's also the founder of an annual hiking trip for inner-city kids called Washington II Washington. In November, he's visiting 15 cities in the Midwest and East Coast on the Found vs. Found tour.
Previously from Davy Rothbart:
What's Your Deal? With Richard Jenkins
What's Your Deal? With Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko
What's Your Deal? With Joseph Gordon-Levitt
What's Your Deal? With Dominic Fredianelli
What's Your Deal? With Bismack Biyombo
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