Planting Seeds With Boris

By: Lorne Chan

Hundreds of kids surrounded Cynthia Cooper-Dyke on a blistering summer day in West Africa ten years ago. She was coaching in a Basketball Without Borders camp in 2005, a WNBA legend running through drills with some of Africa’s best young basketball players. One Senegalese teen caught Cooper’s attention, but it wasn’t one of the players in the drill. Those were all boys.

This was the girl on the sidelines.

“I’ll never forget seeing that girl,” Cooper said. “Girls weren’t participating in that camp, but even as she stood there watching, you could tell she was special. “

The girl on the sidelines was 6-foot-5 Aminata Dieye. A year later, she was attending Prairie View A&M University outside of Houston.

Coming from Senegal, where the literacy rate is 40 percent among women and six percent of the population goes to college, Dieye received the rare opportunity to attend an American university on a basketball scholarship.

Her college coach: Cynthia Cooper-Dyke.

“This is dream material for kids in Senegal,” said Cooper-Dyke, a four-time WNBA champion who is now the women’s basketball coach at the University of Southern California. “There are many more Aminatas wishing for that dream, and for a long time, the girls stayed on the sidelines.”

Enter SEED Academy and Boris Diaw.

Diaw is the title partner of SEED Academy’s girls school, the first of its kind in Senegal.

Twenty girls between the ages of 13 and 19 attend the school which opened last year, where they receive daily basketball training, academic instruction from a group of full-time tutors, English and leadership classes.

There’s a pronounced gender gap in Senegal, where the adult literacy rate among women is 40.4 percent according to the United Nations. The literacy rate for adult men is 66.3 percent.

While six percent of students in Senegal attend a four-year college or university, SEED Academy sends more than 10 times that number, 75 percent of its students, to college.

“We knew we wanted to help girls in Senegal, and we saw an academy in SEED that uses basketball and really pays attention to education,” Diaw said. “We’re doing what we can through sport.”

SEED has had a successful boys academy since 2002, sending more than 60 students to American colleges including Minnesota center Gorgui Dieng, Diaw’s half-brother Paco Diaw, and Austin Spurs center Mouhamed Sene. The school also was the subject of the 2011 documentary “Elevate,” directed by Anne Buford, the sister of R.C. Buford.

But the academy had been neglecting half the population by being a boys-only school.

“We’ve been looking to add a girls academy for years, but it had never really gotten off the ground,” said Amadou Gallo Fall, SEED founder and the NBA Vice President for Development in Africa. “Boris’ support makes this a reality.”

Diaw’s basketball roots go through his mother, Elisabeth Riffiod, who gained recognition in France as the country’s first woman to shoot a jump shot. Long before Boris won an NBA title, Elisabeth won six club championships in France.

Diaw’s father, Issa Diaw, lives in Dakar, Senegal, about 50 miles from the SEED campus in Thies.

When Boris established his own non-profit organization, Babac’ards, in 2005, he began leading basketball camps in Senegal almost every summer. Diaw’s foundation has helped orphanages, hospitals and camps for kids in Senegal. He also took notice of the success of the SEED Project, which stands for Sports For Education and Economic Development.

On every visit to Senegal, Diaw looked for ways to make a long-term impact. It started with bringing in Lucien LeGrand, who was the coach of Diaw and Tony Parker when they attended a basketball academy in their home nation of France. While Diaw would lead clinics with kids, he had LeGrand lead seminars, giving coaches in Senegal tools to teach for years to come.

But Diaw wanted to do more. And that was when it struck him that all of the Senegalese players earning college scholarships were boys.

“For me, this isn’t about sending girls to the WNBA or finding a great women’s basketball player,” Diaw said. “It’s about giving girls an education, so they can give back some day and continue to help Senegal. It’s our way to help.”

Diaw is the main sponsor of the girls’ academy, which has access to all the tutoring and coaching resources that the boys academy has.

SEED’s students attend the academy for free thanks to funding that comes entirely from private donations, mostly from America, at a cost of about $2,500 per student each year.

In March, Diaw ran an online fundraiser for the SEED Project where he matched any monetary donation to the girls academy.

SEED has found many candidates for the girls’ academy, as Senegal has a strong women’s basketball tradition. While soccer is more popular than basketball for boys in Senegal, basketball is the nation’s most popular sport among girls. Senegal has won 10 African women’s basketball championships, while no other country has won more than three.

SEED Executive Director Noah Levine said the girls academy has the potential to grow as large as the boys’ academy in the next few years.

There’s still a long way to go in Senegal. Girls face even more challenges than boys from societal expectations, as many haven’t even considered going to college. Most of the girls currently in the academy, Levine said, will be the first women in their families to graduate high school.

But with Diaw’s help, girls such as Aminata are no longer just spectators.

“Boris really showed a desire to have more of a lasting impact,” Levine said. ”With his mom being who she is, combined with the efforts he’s already been making in Senegal, it just came together perfectly. He’s already made a huge impact, and hopefully this academy will make a difference for generations.”