In Senegal, an academy develops the minds (and game) of promising players

Almost everything Amadou Gallo Fall has, he owes to basketball.

He was "discovered" playing on a club team in Tunisia by a Peace Corps worker, and he used the game as his ticket to America and a basketball scholarship to the University of the District of Columbia. He earned a degree in microbiology there and set his sights on medical school.

But Fall never let go of basketball, even if he didn't have NBA talent.

While he studied and worked in D.C.-area research labs, trying to scrape together tuition money, Fall, a native of Senegal, remained active with the Senegalese Basketball Federation. He put together teams that would go on to win the 1997 African Championships and play in the World Championships a year later.

The Dallas Mavericks were quick to recognize Fall's eye for talent and connections within the burgeoning African basketball community, and made him a scout. Today, he is the team's director of scouting and vice-president of international affairs. And while his career is to evaluate talent, his real job is to bring hope and opportunity to his countrymen. And he's going to do it with basketball.

"I want to see young men and women develop," Fall said. "It really goes beyond basketball."

A brief history of hoop

In Senegal, a country of about 12.5 million people on Africa's western coast, soccer is king. Basketball is certainly growing in popularity but unlike the U.S., where the first whisper of talent kick-starts the youth basketball machine of coaches and summer camps and traveling teams, Senegal can only offer a young player a few indoor gyms and limited instruction.

"Most of the kids there are picking the game up late," Fall said. "There really are no leagues for 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-year-olds. There isn't that opportunity."

But with an NBA player like DeSagana Diop captivating the attention of countless of Senegalese boys and girls, basketball seems to be slowly overcoming its structural shortcomings.

And even Diop preferred soccer at first.

"I didn't really like it," he said of his earliest experiences with basketball. "But I was so much bigger than everyone my age."

Diop, who the Mavericks traded to New Jersey as part of the Jason Kidd deal, is the first Senegalese player to really achieve any kind of lasting NBA success.

The 7-footer was 19 and had been playing basketball for all of four years when the Cleveland Cavaliers made him a lottery pick in 2001 -- a first for Senegal. Dallas signed him in 2005 and he played a defensive role during the Mavericks' Finals run the next year.

His emergence as a player on a highly successful and visible team resonated deeply back in Senegal.

"That summer, I did a camp in Dakar with [Dallas coach] Avery [Johnson] and like 400 kids showed up," Diop said. "Everyone had been watching me in the playoffs and the Finals."

But as much as Diop is seen as a pioneer, even he is following in the footsteps of his countrymen.

Makhtar N'diaye, who played on North Carolina's 1998 Final Four team with Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter, was the first player from Senegal to make the NBA. He was signed by the Vancouver Grizzlies as an undrafted free agent in the 1998-99 season, and his NBA career consisted of four games -- 27 total minutes -- and five points scored.

Two year later, Mamadou N'Diaye, who broke Charles Barkley's career blocks record at Auburn, became the first ever Senegalese-born player to be drafted when the Denver Nuggets made him the 26th pick in the 2001 draft.

It's not as if the floodgates have busted open, but the talent flowing out of Senegal has at least been consistent.

Houston drafted Malik Badiane 44th overall in 2003. Pape Sow was a second-round pick for the Heat the next year, and in 2006, two Senegalese, Mouhamed Sene and Cheikh Samb, were drafted. While Badiane and Sow are currently playing overseas, both Samb and Sene, whom the Sonics picked 10th overall, are in the NBDL.

Boniface N'Dong was not drafted, but played 23 games for the Clippers during the 2005-06 season.

"All of these guys are coming out of a place with one or two indoor gyms," Fall said. "There is next to nothing in terms of development."

Planting the seeds

The first step toward building a strong basketball infrastructure in Senegal was taken in 2003, with the establishment of the Sports For Education and Economic Development Foundation.

Behind the corporate backing of Nike, the NBA and a Senegalese communications company, SEEDS offers its students ten months of intense academic and athletic instruction that they never could have been exposed to before.

The goal is to link athletics and education, much like the U.S. high school model. There are tournaments with local and international teams, skills camps run by current NBA coaches and executives and former players, and the kind of rigorous academic standards that are meant to prevent the school from becoming a basketball factory.

"To me, basketball is really a secondary thing, but if we use it, we have a better chance of being heard," Fall said. "We are using basketball to engage the young men we are dealing with."

Mouhammad Faye, a 6-foot-10 center who played at Georgia Tech before transferring to Southern Methodist University early this season, is one of the academy's earliest success stories.

And while they aren't SEEDS products, players like Marquette power forward Ousmane Barro and Lee University shooting guard Paco Diaw -- Boris Diaw's half brother -- are further proof that basketball in Senegal is very much a growth industry.

"Every time I watch a college game, I see a guy from Senegal," Diop said. "It's getting better and better, and the kids are getting better at a younger age. If I started playing at the age of 8, I would be better than I am today."

The future

In the face of all this optimism, Fall is preaching caution and restraint. He's been an NBA scout for over a decade and knows all about the can't-miss kids who end up missing, the ones who bail on their education in the name of their jump shot.

"I just hope that it's not all of a sudden a rat race to find the next great guy," he said.

He doesn't want SEEDS to become a stopover for blue-chip prospects just biding their time until their first big payday.

"A big percentage of the kids who do this don't have a chance to play professionally, but that do have a chance to be successful in life," he said.

They can use basketball as a ticket to an education, a better life and a chance to become a positive force for change back in Senegal.

After all, it worked for Fall.

Joshua Hammann is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He can be reached at joshua.hammann@gmail.com.