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From Africa to "Elevate"

10/31/2011

Elevate documentary Courtesy: Variance Films/Sharp 7

Assane Sene's journey from Senegal to Connecticut's South Kent School is a major storyline.

In an opening scene of the documentary "Elevate," in the simple SEEDS Academy schoolhouse in Senegal, 25 of West Africa's finest teenaged basketball players are getting a lecture from the driving force behind the academy, former Mavericks and current NBA executive Amadou Fall:

I'm not someone who likes to waste his time, because I don't have a lot of it.

I want to make sure that our objectives are without ambiguity.

You are here to educate yourselves in all capacities. Sports is a tool. We don't accept excuses here. I don't want to hear that you are tired.

As Africans, the rest of the world views us as lazy, without ambition and waiting for handouts.

Understand that you have to be our ambassadors.

Honoring that assignment is the major theme of the hour-and-a-half of Anne Buford's (sister of Spurs GM R.C.) film, which follows four of the 25 as they move to America to play high school basketball.

Anyone who has ever been homesick will relate to the inherent tension of Assane Sene's first days at Connecticut's South Kent School. It's a dream come true, in many ways. This is a route to a college education. This is a way to make a better life for his family, and to test his basketball skills against the best in the world, with a shot at the NBA.

Had his visa been revoked he would have likely balled up on the floor in tears, as one of his friends back home in Senegal did.

But getting what you want is not the same as getting it easy. Sene's first words upon stepping outside of JFK Airport in the middle of winter are: "so cold." Buford's cameras had captured Sene as a riot of warm smiles among his friends at home. In the Northeast, it's all winter. Putting a single crisp white sheet on his boarding school is about all there is in the way of making things "homey."

There he is filing out of chapel. He's not just the new kid at school, all alone. He's also a foot taller and far less white than everyone else, speaking English as a second language, wearing a tie for the first time, and a practicing Muslim at a Christian private school to boot.

A significant anxiety of the film is the various players' worries about what might contain pork. Eventually the word gets out that sweet things on the menu almost never do, so they order sweet things.

Once he lands in the U.S. Sene's happiest on-camera moment comes grasping his own face, on the brink of both laughing and crying, watching a video made for him by his friends at home. "Don't forget you left some girls behind, you know what I mean?" one chides. "Don't forget to take a shower once in a while," shouts another. They close with a message straight from the SEEDS brochure: "One, two, three, KEEP WORKING HARD!"

Eventually, of course, Sene settles in, somewhat. (Now he has become the starting center at the University of Virginia.) Before long he's showing another SEEDS student the ropes at South Kent: "Sometimes you'll get to the cafeteria before me. If you have any doubts about the meat, ask the chef," he explains. "Chapel, that's the church. Even if you're Muslim you have to go. It's a nice gesture to just go and sit down. If I see you struggling with the same problems I had, then I'll help you deal with them."

Gone are a lot of the smiles, and his coach -- who quits in mid-season to take a job at Nike. Throughout the movie, there's a tenuous reality: Those players are at those fine schools to bolster the basketball team. When NBA prospect Aziz N'Diaye, now starting for the University of Washington goes down with a knee injury early in his high-school season, quickly I found myself stressed on his behalf: If that knee doesn't get better, will this school keep educating him? Thankfully he heals, and blossoms as a player, and the film never has to dig into that cold issue.

A lot of the warmth lost from the film's opening scenes in Africa never returns. But it is replaced by the real opportunities borne of globalization. Is that more valuable? That's just one of the important questions this nicely told tale inspires.