Home cooking is tough to get when home is at least a seven-hour flight away. That's why getting to play in Madison Square Garden might only be the second most exciting thing for Senegal natives Baye Keita and Cheikh Mbodj when they are in New York. Let's just say the Big Apple offers a little more variety in Senegalese cuisine than their respective college towns of Syracuse and Cincinnati.
The only issue on their most recent visit to New York for the Big East tournament was that the Cincinnati players were on a much tighter schedule than the Syracuse players. It didn't give Mbodj time to make the trip from midtown to the Little Senegal neighborhood at West 116th Street for a nice sit-down meal.
But he still got to savor the flavors of home.
Keita took the subway, picked up the food, got back on the train and delivered it to Mbodj at Cincinnati's team hotel.
Despite their competition on the court, the pair developed a tight bond while developing their game at the SEEDS Academy in Senegal's capital of Dakar. The founder is Amadou Gallo Fall, a native of Senegal and former Dallas Mavericks executive who is now an NBA vice president of development based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He opened the academy, with a combined emphasis on books and basketball, in 2003 and in recent years it has gotten students placed in U.S. prep schools to give them a chance to earn a college scholarship.
The success of the program is becoming obvious. Six SEEDS alums were on teams that made it to the NCAA tournament. Three of them -- Keita, Mbodj and Louisville center Gorgui Dieng -- have made it to the Sweet Sixteen.
"We are very proud of all the guys making the best of opportunities for themselves and their schools, and having a bright outlook on what's really important, and that's earning their degree," Amadou says. "The most important thing is that they continue to inspire young people across the continent, not just at the academy, not just in Senegal. It's Nigeria and Cameroon and across Africa."
The story of SEEDS -- Sports for Education and Economic Development -- got a boost in the fall with the release of "Elevate," a documentary that followed four students from their time at the academy to their transition to the U.S. prep scene.
As you might imagine, the film's director, Anne Buford, is delighted to see so many SEEDS alums participating in March Madness. But she says the reason is less about her documentary and more about the opportunity to introduce SEEDS to a larger audience because it needs more funding to keep the program up and running.
"This is special," Buford says. "There wasn't some master plan to get as many of them on NCAA tournament teams. Amadou always tells the boys they have a responsibility to pick the right school for them."
Assane Sene, one of the players featured in "Elevate," chose Virginia, which hadn't been in the tournament since 2007. Moussa Gueye is at Alabama, which made its first appearance this year since 2006. Youssou Ndoye plays at St. Bonaventure, a school with six tournament appearances all time.
Another player from the film, Aziz N'Diaye, nearly made it to the tournament as well, but Washington was denied a bid despite winning the Pac-12 regular-season title. "The other guys were really disappointed," Buford says, "because Aziz is really the grand poobah for the guys in that age group."
While N'Diaye has an elder statesman quality because he was among the first to make the jump to the U.S., spending a year at Lake Forest Academy in suburban Chicago, Dieng has legendary status for a shot he hit during an international competition.
The first time Senegal was invited to play in the Nike Global Challenge, a summer tournament with the top high school players in the world, it was no surprise that the team struggled. But the next year, in 2008, Senegal won its first game in the event by beating one of the U.S. teams on a last-second shot from Dieng:
Dieng continues to have the highest profile as he plays more than 32 minutes a game, averaging 9.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks for the Cardinals. But it is the collective success that has increased the buzz for college basketball in Senegal, where soccer dominates and the NBA has only recently made some inroads, thanks to Amadou's work.
"It's just natural for communities to follow inspiring models," Amadou says. "We are proud to see them progressing, and the goal is to replicate this beyond the academy and unleash the potential of Africa. That's what I'm excited about. When people are given an opportunity on a level playing field, the sky's the limit. We want our kids to be humble and pre-disposed to giving back and never forget where they came from."
The six players on tournament qualifiers and N'Diaye are all 6-10 or taller.
The joke among those involved with SEEDS is that they will know the academy has really arrived when colleges start looking beyond its tall guys and go for some guards.
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