by Abe Schwadron / @abe_squad
Game recognize game. Even in the farthest corners of the globe, basketball transcends race, language, age. That’s the beauty of ball.
And perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in Dakar, Senegal, where two dozen hoops hopefuls make up the SEEDS Academy. There, West Africa’s best young basketball players train on patchwork courts and in donated sneakers, hoping to play well enough to one day land a permanent trip to the United States and a prep school scholarship. The best have the potential to play college hoops, and, just maybe, pro ball. But until a willing coach takes notice, and proper paperwork allows, most are stuck wishing, waiting, wondering.
ELEVATE—which opens today in New York and Los Angeles—chronicles the stories of four young men who all, one way or another, make it. What started as a one-year story for Director Anne Buford (brother RC is current GM of the San Antonio Spurs) became a six-year passion project, bringing the incredible journeys of Senegal’s next generation of basketball imports to the big screen in heart-warming fashion.
The film is at once uplifting, gut-wrenching and enlightening. Its characters are real, as are their struggles and successes, all of which play out with cameras rolling. Buford’s film is an 81-minute blend of outrageous fun (like watching one boy learn to drive) and harsh reality (watching another sob after having his visa denied), with amazing raw on-court footage to boot.
Set to a smooth soundtrack of Africa-inspired hip-hop, ELEVATE opens with a jarring juxtaposition of basketball universes, setting the cracked concrete courts of Senegal against the glory of the NBA.
But it doesn’t take long to see why it’s not a crazy comparison. Assane, a 7-foot tall prospect with a powerful build and a soft touch, puts things in perspective quickly: “The first day, I did a layup. The second day, I did a dunk. My coach said, ‘That’s good.’”
Then again, it took some convincing for others. Byago, a point guard, recalls a coach suggesting he ought to play hoops. “What’s this bouncing ball? It’s so lady-like. It’s not for men, there’s no tackling.”
Yet learning the game of basketball proves to be the easiest of the boys’ challenges. Assane, like the others, earns a scholarship to an American prep school (in his case, South Kent in Connecticut, which boasts Andray Blatche and Dorrell Wright as alums), where he stands out in a sea of suburban rich kids.
Culture shock doesn’t begin to describe the transition. Assane and the others have to get up to speed in the classroom, perform to expectations on the court and fight off every misconceived stereotype of Africa ever dreamed up, all after leaving behind their families a continent away. Dethie, who winds up at South Kent, too, told Buford: “In America, people like to work. In Senegal, people like to hang out.” And, despite the assumptions of classmates, Aziz, a 7-footer who lands a spot at Lake Forest Academy in Illinois, insists the first lion he ever laid eyes on was caged in an American zoo.
An average human spirit would quit, given the torturous road the boys of ELEVATE follow en route to carving out a roster spot and a life in America. Rather than give up, they take on every obstacle with a grin, a salute to their carefree roots and a vibrant reminder of their youth.
After a career that started when a Peace Corps member saw him hooping in his homeland of Senegal, former Dallas Mavericks scout Amadou Gallo Fall founded the SEEDS Academy (Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal) to give kids like him a shot at an American education through basketball. He created SEEDS to teach kids life skills to complement their natural hoops potential. And the talent is real—SEEDS products have landed at college programs as big as Syracuse, Cincinnati, Virginia and Washington.
Buford says Amadou’s relentless pursuit of a better outlook for his young countrymen was a driving force in the film. “It’s not about anything but hope and opportunity,” she says. “Amadou took me by the collar and said, this is not about pity, it’s about hope and opportunity. And I got the message.”
In all, ELEVATE is an incredible story of hard work, sacrifice and brotherhood. Most importantly, it’s real. As Buford notes, “There is no classic story, no Cinderella story.” Because for Senegal’s next wave of ballers, nothing comes easy. Except a smile.
To see more clips, learn more about ELEVATE, or to find showtimes, visit the film’s official website.