Director: Anne Buford
As basketball has spread across the world, so too has the view of it as a unique opportunity, and a tool for upward social mobility. While sports — and in particular boxing, baseball and soccer — have long offered a potential path out of the proverbial ghetto for socioeconomically disadvantaged kids, hoops entered this phase of its public trajectory only fairly recently. As a global phenomenon, the National Basketball Association now attracts interest from Europe, Asia and beyond. Anne Buford’s engaging documentary “Elevate” takes a look at the professional aspirations of a handful of West African kids.
At the center of the movie is Amadou Gallo Fall, a former scout for the Dallas Mavericks and a current member of management who founded the private SEEDS Academy (Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal) to help house, train and school 25 youngsters per year from his native country, preparing them for possible scholarships and enrollment at American prep schools, where the goal is to attract collegiate grant-in-aids and then, possibly, move on to careers in the NBA. With his steady gaze and no-nonsense but uplifting rhetoric about them representing their country, and opening doors for not only themselves but their families but others, Fall comes across as a genuine, progressive-minded benefactor.
Mostly, though, “Elevate” focuses on the kids — raw, athletic seven-footers like Assane and Aziz (NCAA amateurism concerns frown upon the use of their full names, even though most are already now matriculating, including at Division I schools like the University of Virginia and the University of Washington) who in most cases have only been playing organized basketball for two or maybe three years. Some find a home at private prep schools in Connecticut and Illinois, while others find dreams waylaid or delayed by visa problems and other concerns.
Implicit in the movie is the fact that this outreach is as much a business consideration as it is an act of moral benevolence, or some starry-eyed mission about cultural connection via athletics. NBA teams (particularly in smaller markets) are under tremendous pressure to field competitive and winning squads with less resources at their disposal, and part of that means locating, signing and developing talent that doesn’t necessarily come with all of the outsized senses of entitlement too often found on the Stateside AAU circuit, where kids are coddled and from a young age told that they are the best thing since the latest iPhone. The feeding ground for this professional demand — competitive basketball universities and, below them, private prep schools — also have a vested interest in attracting talent that is hungry, and willing to work.
Buford would do better to underscore these points a little more. It’s borderline awkward and unsettling when a headmaster talks to a Senegalese kid about it being “a bottom-line world,” and starts pushing Princeton, like it’s his alma mater or something. This offers a glimpse of the ulterior motives bubbling just underneath the surface with so many of the coaches and handlers close to these kids, alongside completely sincere feelings of connection. (To be fair, the same headmaster chokes up when later presenting a diploma to one of the SEEDS kids, though it should also be noted it’s the one moving on to a major four-year university, not a feeder community college.) Then again, there’s plenty of natural human intrigue to the coming-of-age stories on display in “Elevate,” so it perhaps makes sense not to delve too deep into the points-of-view of those charged Stateside with molding the character and basketball skills of these young men.
It’s just that at times “Elevate,” which is a perfectly appealing postcard of a most unique coming-of-age scenario, seems a little frustratingly incurious. When one high school coach quits mid-season, after an eight-game losing streak, to take a job at Nike… well, it feels a bit opportunistic, and distasteful. And the movie gives one of his players a chance to ruminate on his feelings about the matter. What about other potential feelings of exploitation, though? Maybe that’s not something these kids can quite rise to the level of seeing yet; they’re still teenagers in most cases, after all. Buford, on the hand, doesn’t have the same excuse.
Written by: Brent Simon