New documentary, ‘Elevate,’ depicts plight of African prospects

Jeff Eisenberg

Each time director Anne Buford heard someone say to one of the boys in her film that they were lucky to have received the chance to study and play basketball in the U.S., she admits she had to resist the urge to chuckle.

What Buford hopes her new documentary, "Elevate," shows is that the "lucky" African prospects who earn basketball scholarships in the U.S. face a far more difficult transition than many fans realize.

Through the eyes of four tall, wide-eyed teenagers, viewers are treated to a first-hand glimpse of how African prospects must learn to cope with the alienation that comes from being a 7-foot outsider forced to acclimate to a foreign culture. They must master English, survive chilly Northeast winters, and pass classes, standardized tests and even driver's ed in hopes of landing a college scholarship and perhaps one day earning a shot at the NBA.

Buford, the sister of San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, spent six years filming the journeys of Assane, Aziz, Dethie and Byago. She spoke with me recently about how she decided to do the project, what she learned during the course of filming and what changes she believes need to be made to protect African prospects who come to the U.S.

JE: You grew up going to your brother's basketball and football games and you've been around basketball your whole life because of him. Is that part of where your interest in basketball and in making this film came from?

AB: When my brother was 22, he became a graduate assistant to Larry Brown at Kansas and I lived in Wichita and then I went to Kansas in '86. I got to watch all these guys, and I was probably like a freshman pest. Alvin Gentry was an assistant, Ed Manning was an assistant, Bill Bayno was a graduate assistant. It was fascinating to watch, and I became more intimately aware of the way everyone came from such different backgrounds, yet basketball brought them together. They were all obsessed with basketball. It's what they think about all the time. I've never been around a career like that. I worked at Vogue Magazine for 10 years and I've worked at the Mayor's office in New York City for a while, but I've never seen a world like sports where your closest friends you work with them. So that's where I first discovered this fascinating world.{YSP:MORE}

JE: When your brother adopted a Cameroonian boy (Texas forward Alexis Wangmene) and you saw him cope with the transition to the U.S. firsthand, did that spark your interest in doing the film?

AB: When I met my African nephew Alexis in fall 2004, he went back to Cameroon and then he came back to the States and joined my family in Wichita for Christmas Eve. At that point, I was looking for a film idea. I wanted to do something on coaches. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I remember watching my nephew, who only spoke french, who had traveled 36 hours to get there and who called it Wi-CHEET-Ta, deal with the transition with such dignity and elegance. I'm sure he was overwhelmed, but you couldn't tell. At that point I started asking my brother about where he came from, and R.C. said I want you to meet Amadou Gallo Fall He's the scouting director for the Mavericks and he's doing something in Senegal. So I met Amadou at a game in April 2005 and three weeks later I was on a plane with 15 NBA scouts to SEEDS Academy for a camp they were doing in Senegal.

JE: How did the film go from being a short documentary to a six-year project detailing the struggles of Assane, Aziz, Dethie and Byago?

AB: I originally planned to do a short documentary on SEEDS Academy to show people what's going in basketball outside America. At the end of August in 2005, I went to Basketball without Borders to get a larger picture of what Amadou and everything was all about. It just became clear which kids had the most fascinating stories. Assane was 6-11, 177 pounds. He was on the court going up against stronger, older African players and he had this band-aid on his shoulder. I asked an interpreter what it was for, and he said he dislocated his shoulder. Like the band-aid was going to help anything. It wasn't a bandage. It was a band-aid.  Then I met Aziz on the first trip, and he had a little bit of mystery about him. He didn't have the body he had now, but there was a dignity to him. Dethie, academically he was so gifted. And Byago was the kid that would win MVP everywhere. He'd win it over the big guys. All the coaches would talk about how rare it was for an African guard to have those ball handling skills and a nice shot.

JE: There are numerous examples in the film of how difficult it is for the boys moving to a new country and adapting to an unfamiliar culture. What's one that stands out to you in particular?

AB: When they go to the embassy to get visas, you just see how when they related to the people they get treated a certain way. Americans speak up if they don't like what they're seeing, but the boys are so dignified and polite. Assane had his Visa delayed for three months. I asked the lady if she'd explain what she said to him, and she told me that his name is a very common Muslim name, homeland security flagged it and he'd hear in 80 or 90 days when everything was OK. Well, Assane heard it as, 'there's a man in Washington with my name.' The lady was very nice in telling me that. She didn't have to do that. When a similar situation happened with Byago, they just said no you don't have it. And when a person in the room asked if they could ask a question, they just said no.

JE: In my conversations with African players, I've often heard that the most difficult part of the transition is the cold rather than the language. Would you agree?

AB: Yes, definitely. When we were in Senegal, a couple days it was only 65 degrees and in the morning the boys would come out in stocking caps and scarves complaining that it was so cold. We would just be cackling because it was 20 degrees in New York City and we were so happy to be in these so-called 'freezing' 65 degree temperatures in Senegal. But then when the boys came over to the United States, it was really tough for them. And none of them ever come over to a warm place. One of the coaches at Aziz's school always laughed that he was running all over campus so he wouldn't be late anywhere. I asked him, 'Do you really think it's that or do you think it's because it's cold?' I ruined the poor coach's view of Aziz.

JE: One part of the film that I found memorable was Americans' lack of knowledge about Africa. Was that something you definitely wanted to show?

AB: I wanted the film to show that we have a lot of misconceptions about what Africa is like, and it really bothered the boys. As different boys came over, that was always the reoccurring talk among them. Americans don't know about Africa and they don't know about Senegal. People asked Assane, 'Do you live in the jungle? Do you live with lions?' I always laugh when I hear that, but all the boys talk about it and they're always amazed Americans don't know more about Africa.

JE: What can prep schools do to make the transition easier for African basketball prospects who come to the United States to play and to get an education?

AB: What has been learned is that the earlier these kids come over in high school, the better it is for them. First of all they can learn English, which makes everything easier for them. For example, Dethie didn't realize how important the SAT was. People said, 'well, I told him this,' but telling him is much different from understanding. The other thing I learned was the more international the school is, the easier it is to help the students. The head of students at Lake Forest Academy is from South Africa and comes from an international experience, so they were very good with Aziz. Aziz went through a year of English as a second language before he ever started the school parts.

JE: What message would you like viewers to take from the film?

AB: One of the things I hope the film shows is a different perspective. One of the things that I remember people saying is that the boys were lucky to be here and there were a million kids who would kill for that chance. Well, fine, but nobody realizes how difficult it is for these kids to leave home at a young age and come to a country they've never imagined. Maybe they didn't even speak the language. I wish people would be more understanding that they are kids. Sometimes I found myself asking whether this was worth it for them? But they would say that even though it's really hard sometimes, it is.