Senegal basketball school -- NBA dreams
with a dose of reality
by Makiko Kitamura
Sun Dec 10, 6:55 PM ET
THIES, Senegal (AFP) - Until two months ago, Moussa Seck,
a soft-spoken, 7ft 4in (2m 23cm) giant, was a cosmetics street
vendor but his exceptional height could be his ticket to a
career in US pro basketball.
All changed when Seck was "discovered" by a scout in August
on the dusty streets of Kaolack, a city 150 kilometers (93
miles) east of the capital Dakar. He is now being groomed
to follow in the footsteps of compatriot Mouhamed Saer Sene,
who was drafted by the National Basketball Association (NBA)
in June as the No. 10 pick for the Seattle Supersonics.
With no serious basketball experience, 18-year-old Seck has
joined 19 other promising teenage players at Seed Academy,
a free basketball boarding school where Sene himself learned
the sport from scratch.
"You aren't born with talent, it comes through training,"
Seck said in hesitant French, sitting in the sandy courtyard
of the school.
Graduates of Seed, in the town of Thies 70 kilometres east
of Dakar, are now playing for professional teams in Spain
and Belgium, while five others are attending US secondary
schools and universities on scholarship, said Assane Badji,
the school's operations director.
The lucky few chosen to attend Seed are mindful they may
be one step closer to reaching the so-called "El Dorado" of
wealthier Western countries, which tens of thousands of impoverished
Senegalese and other Africans have illegally attempted in
often hazardous boat trips in recent years.
Founded in 2003 by Amadou Gallo Fall, scouting director for
the Dallas Mavericks, an NBA team in Texas, Seed's motto is
"sports for education and economic development".
Its mission is to "give young people the possibility to succeed
in life through sports and education and later to help their
families," Badji said.
While studying at a university in Tunisia, Senegal native
Fall met a US Peace Corps volunteer who recognized his basketball
talent and helped him win a scholarship to the University
of the District of Columbia in Washington D.C. in 1989
A wrist injury put an end to his athletic career, but he
finished his degree in biology and worked at a lab in Washington
for five years.
"But something was always pulling me back to basketball,"
Fall said in a phone interview from Dallas.
Serendipity led him to the Mavericks' president of basketball
operations, Donnie Nelson, who at the time helped spearhead
the NBA's move to open up to foreign talent, Fall said.
In 1997 Fall, or "Gallo" as he is known, joined the Mavericks
where he has remained ever since. His decision to found Seed
Academy "is all about giving back," he said.
While basketball clubs in Dakar have also sent talented players
abroad, Seed is "the most structured" institution in a country
that has only "at least two" indoor basketball courts, according
to Senegal's Basketball Federation.
Full-time schooling, coaching, room, board and medical care
-- which costs from four to five million CFA francs (8,000
to 10,000 dollars, 6,000 to 7,500 euros) per student annually
-- are offered for free. The government pays the teachers'
salaries, but all other expenses are privately financed through
support from NBA players and sportswear giant Nike, Badji
Africa already has a strong track record of producing top-level
players, starting with Nigerian Hakeem "the Dream" Olajuwon
who was drafted by the Texas-based Houston Rockets in 1984.
But Seed is seen as a unique training ground in terms of
mission and financing. Badji said he receives e-mails from
young players in Mali, Cameroon, and even South Africa, but
so far only one outsider from Burkina Faso has been accepted
to the academy.
Despite its reputation for excellence, the school training
gymnasium is a dilapidated stretch of thin green rubber-like
floor covers that are scratched, warped and and torn around
During one afternoon practice session, the gymnasium was
lit only by sunlight poking through narrow windows thanks
to a blackout, a frequent occurrence in Senegal.
Ale Ndiaye, director of studies, said the scholastic part
of the school faces difficult challenges.
In principle, Seed accepts only students already enrolled
in school and who pass an entrance exam, but there are exceptions
like Seck, an elementary school drop-out who was admitted
thanks to his unusual height.
The school takes its mission seriously and morning training
hours have been reduced to improve on last year's "mediocre"
test results, Ndiaye said.
"They cannot all become professional basketball players,"
Badji said. "But we hope to have doctors, we hope to have
engineers, we hope to have one day a president of the republic.
"We can't expect everything from Europe and the US. We must
organize ourselves here in our country first," added head
coast Idrissa Cissoko.
As for Seck, he's just happy to have discovered basketball
in a soccer-loving nation, saying he always felt too tall
to play soccer with his friends.