Words: Bobbito Garcia, Bounce Magazine
SEEDS Academy scrimmage on my last day in Senegal. This was one of many woop-woops I witnessed!
On Jan. 13, I left NYC for an unforgettable journey to the motherland. The SEEDS Foundation invited me to coach clinics in four Senegalese cities over a three-day weekend as part of its GROW THE GAME program to not only help kids learn how to play ball but more importantly to inspire them to choose education as a route to self-empowerment. The academic achievement of the youth there is staggering; something to the tune of 20% go to high school, 5% go to college, and as a result, 40% of the adult population is illiterate. Factor in malnutrition of children under 5, lack of gross national product to export (i.e.: no oil or diamond trade), and you basically have one of the least developed countries in the world. It’s not as poor as Zimbabwe or Somalia, but in comparison, I’ve been to the most down-trodden favelas of Brazil and would definitely say that Senegal was on another level of poverty. About a third of the population lives on less than $1.25 US dollars a day.
In 2003, SEEDS founder Amadou Gallo Fall (currently VP of NBA Africa and a former scout for the Dallas Mavs) took his own money and created the SEEDS Academy, a non-profit center where teenagers with b-ball promise could receive a better education, as well as a chance at life. Its best-known graduate to date has been Mouhamed Sene, who played in the NBA, but the bigger success story is the number of kids who have finished at the school with standardized test scores over the Senegalese national average, having gone on to colleges in the United States, some even on scholarship, both academic and athletic.
Indeed, Senegal’s greatest natural resource is its people.
I can share that for a country of only 12 million people, it has produced seven NBA players. Brazil’s population is 190 million, and China’s is 1.3 billion; yet, they both have about the same number of countrymen each who have run in the greatest league in the world. Senegal also has roughly 40 more high-jumping cats playing pro overseas throughout Europe and the Middle East. I would guesstimate that NYC, the Mecca for b-ball, probably has about the same number of guys over the water cashing checks.
So how does Senegal do it? Soccer is the #1 sport, and there are only three indoor basketball courts . . . in the entire country. (One has a wood floor, the other has tile, and the third is concrete.)
Like I said, Senegal’s greatest natural resource . . . is its people. One could surmise that the key to the country’s successful export of ballplayers is the plentiful number of big men who populate the land, but the real key is the SEEDS staff of coaches and administrators. They are as dedicated as you’ll find. They could be elsewhere with fat contracts making paper, but they help their countrymen due to pride and to being grounded. SEEDS head coach Cheikh Sarr is a triple threat, for example. He is also the assistant on the Men’s National Team, as well as the man on the sideline for the local Thiés club squad where the school is located. Now that’s commitment!
Amadou Gallo Fall himself was the recipient of a DII scholarship in the late ’80s after Peace Corps member Kevin Lineberger saw him playing in Tunisia. Fall made the most of out of the opportunity, and has used the model to come back and help others. I thought for a second before I arrived that hmmm, here’s a scout in the NBA, of course he’s gonna want to develop 6’10″ to 7′ players from Senegal so that he could sign them and look good, but wow was I ever wrong. Within five seconds of meeting “Gallo,” as everyone calls him, I realized this dude had a heart of pure altruism. I even felt embarrassed for even questioning his intentions. He had me meet with people from the Peace Corps and the US State Department. The way they revered him made it obvious that homeboy is doing everything he can to develop education and economic empowerment for his homeland. He doesn’t forget where he’s come from. So much so, Lineberger was invited to coach the GROW THE GAME clinics all weekend as well, 20 years after they had met.
Visiting Senegal was my first trip to West Africa. I can write hours about the experience and what it meant to me, especially going to Goree Island, the port where the “Door of No Return” still stands as a historical landmark. Some 20 million slaves passed through it on their way to Brazil, the Carribean Islands, and the US over a 300-year period. A guide showed me the tiny quarters where shackled women, children and men would be held for months before leaving. He estimated some six million died before even getting on the boats. It was a heavy afternoon, but a necessary one and the only way I would’ve wanted to have been introduced to the country.
The rest of the trip was pure basketball in the towns of Linguére, San Louis, Louga and Thiés, and soaking in amazing views while spending hours upon hours on the bumpy roads between villages. Here are some photos of the journey in chronological order:
After the Linguére GROW THE GAME clinic where we came across an athletic 6’10″ 16-year-old, I took this photo of the old-school horse carriage. Although we were in a rural area, you’ll see these even in the capital city of Dakar. Notice the road is not paved but rather sanded. I also noticed not one traffic light in any town our four days there.
I saw kids playing soccer everywhere! If they ever take interest in playing pickup basketball in the various outdoor courts around, the sport would really take off. Right now, most of the games played are under organized coaching. You know how I feel about that though–getting a run in the playground is complete freedom where a player can explore being creative because there are no set plays or anyone to sub you out if you mess up. You have to figure out on your own how to win. Watch any NBA game, and the guys who really excel are those who can play within a designed offense but also take control by themselves if they need to (think Kobe, LeBron, Wade, Anthony, Durant, etc.) All of these players have experience playing on the asphalt that they value immensely. It can be a key factor to the future of Senegalese ball.
SEEDS Director Brian Benjamin asked me to kick off the camps, so I did just like my Anytime, Anyday work-outs here in Harlem. I stretched them out, and then put them to work! They were screaming on this chair drill to build the thighs and jumping ability. I yelled out, “Do you love basketball? Isn’t this fun?!!!” Ha ha ha! They had a great attitude though and were super- willing to learn. Photo by Brian Benjamin.
After taking the campers through my dribbling drills, I was fiending to put some shots up. One of the young girls who had been watching the whole time challenged me to a one-on-one! I gladly obliged! Notice she does not have on sneakers. Throughout the week, I saw some kids play barefoot, some with sandals, others with out soles so worn out that it looked like the shoe was about to literally fall apart. This is a reality. I saw not one sneaker shop the whole trip, not that many could afford it anyhow. Patrick Ekelbrecht, a SEEDS contributing coach and former South African Nat’l Team member, told me a lot of organizations provide donated sneakers to the kids, and they will wear them for years, then pass them on to a young’in when they’ve outgrown them.
I brought 10 sneakers with me to donate throughout the sites. In Linguére and San Louis, I didn’t pick the recipients by virtue of best handle or effort, I just walked around and tried to find the kid with the most busted pair in need of a new one. Little man had a mean crossover though!
When I was in Brazil last week, LUB Founder/President Dom Filo blessed me with these shorts because I had mailed his program a box of sneakers, too. I only felt it was right to spread the love and donate them, too. Homegirl deserved a hot-pair of shorts; all the females worked just as hard as the boys throughout the drills. Oh, average height I’d guess was about 5’10″ to 6’2″ (these are teenagers mind you). WNBA, take notice!
This was the GROW THE GAME clinic in Louga. The court was in the center of the town. Man, put a sound system with music in there, some lights, and they could have the illest outdoor tournament! There were 100 heads in there just to watch us do drills and stations. Imagine if they had an entertaining game to peep with cats getting crossed up and dunked on. Ahhh! Photo by Brian Benjamin.
40 Cal, I repped your Lower Manhattan Classic jersey all the way out in Africa! I figured you’d get a kick out of that. After I gave these goodies out, a young kid walked up to me and pointed at his shoes. Think of the most dogged pair you’ve ever owned and multiply that by 100. His face broke my heart, I’m not even gonna front. He asked if he could have my Nikes, and word to my mother I unlaced them right there and passed them to him. Then another kid showed me his socks with a huge “hello” hole on the big toe, and I said bet, gave him the socks off my feet too and stood there barefooted. For a second, my New York instinct kicked in and I wondered if I had gotten hustled cuz I felt like it was 1980 and I had been robbed for my joints on the train station, but nah, that wasn’t it. I wish I could help every kid in Louga who needed it, but it’s impossible. Thirty boys and girls followed me back to the bus after that, all expecting me to give them something, too. This wasn’t “Hook me up,” though, this was real deal we can use some gear. I wish I could help everyone one of them. Perhaps one day, Inshallah.
On the last day, we brought our clinic to the SEEDS Academy practice in Thiés, then watched the players scrimmage afterwards. The average height of the squad was 6’7″, 6’8″! Imagine! This is a high school team! They got trees, man, trees! This haha got a nice rise out of the crowd.
There were about 100 heads who came down to simply watch the practice. Some dream of one day attending here as well, others are just fascinated by the sport. This is just the beginning. Senegal basketball will blow up in popularity there in a couple of years. I sense it.
This is the amazing human being named Cheikh Sarr, head coach of SEEDS and assistant national men’s team coach. I donated a full run of every issue of Bounce to the SEEDS library. I’m hoping the students will read and become more interested in the playground game. I invited Cheikh to one day bring his squad to NYC so I could try to set up some games for him at Dyckman, Hoops in the Sun, Watson, Kingdome, etc. The New York summerball community needs to see what’s going on in the motherland!