Senegalese teens shoot for NBA glory
It's hard not to notice Aziz N'Diaye. Standing at seven feet tall, the starting center for the University of Washington's basketball team is a dominant force in American college basketball.
His towering height and physical power, coupled with his impressive shot-blocking and rebounding skills, make the senior a serious prospect for a professional basketball career. But the imposing center's past is just as compelling as his promising future.
N'Diaye's long journey to college basketball started several years ago on the other side of the Atlantic.
"I'm originally from Dakar, which is the capital of Senegal," explains N'Diaye, whose introspective tone contrasts with his imposing stature. "I was going to a smaller high school over there ... for two years and I got offered to come to the States to finish my high-school career."
The place that jump-started N'Diaye's dream of playing in the NBA was the Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal (SEEDS) academy, a boarding school that gives eager young men from the West African country the opportunity to study and play basketball, with the possibility of being recruited to play on a bigger stage in the United States.
Located in Thies, western Senegal, SEEDS uses sports as a vehicle to empower and support youth in the country while offering them quality education and helping them to improve their athletic skills. The academy provides up to 30 youngsters a year with a place to live, study and train, sheltering their dreams for a better future in a country where less than 20% of children make it to high school.
"As Africans, we have a responsibility to build our community," says Amadou Gallo Fall, who started the SEEDS foundation in 1998, before opening the boarding school in 2003. "Those days are over where other people came, saw tremendous potential and resources that exist here and you know, exploited to their benefit or advantage. It's about empowering our youth, making them see that there's a pathway to success."
Fall, who also serves as the NBA's vice president for development in Africa, is one of basketball's most prominent figures in the continent.
His vision to start SEEDS and help his fellow countrymen stems from his own personal experience as one of the first Senegalese to earn an education through basketball in the United States.
Back in the late 1980s, Fall played for the University of the District of Columbia after his basketball talents were discovered by a member of the Peace Corps in Senegal.
"Everything started from there," says Fall, who also pursued an MBA from Georgetown University while in the United States.
After graduation, Fall worked for the Senegalese national team and later he accepted a position as international scout for the NBA's Dallas Mavericks. Along the way, his desire to enable youth in his country to follow in his footsteps and gain a quality education grew even bigger.
Fall realized that the power of sports to mobilize youth and give them a platform to fulfill their goals could be used for a bigger impact. The result was the establishment of SEEDS.
"To me, it was about how these young people could use their God-given talent to get an education, because that happened with me," he says.
"Most of them didn't realize that possibility existed. So really, my thing was, how do we help them identify that this opportunity exists? At some point I thought, in order to have a bigger impact, to reach more people, we wanted to really create something back in Senegal where it would be about, how do we use sports and the power of sports to contribute in the efforts of socio-economic developments in Senegal and Africa and beyond?"
SEEDS has so far sent more than 40 Senegalese youngsters to study in the United States, giving 25 of them the chance to play at American colleges.
For youngsters like N'Diaye, the lure of a quality education coupled with a chance to pursue his dream of one day playing in the NBA were enough to make him decide to go to SEEDS.
"It was a good academic school," he says. "It's like, people going there, having the opportunity, the chance of traveling with basketball and having the chance of going to some camps and have some coaches take a look at them and see where their skill is at.
"At the end of the day, I wanted to come to the States because here, sports and education, they combined it."