Sports

UNC grad premieres documentary about the state of basketball in Africa

Taylor Sharp’s first documentary features an impressive array of voices, ranging from past and present NBA stars to a promising Zimbabwean teenager with hoop dreams. But one voice is absent — his own.

There’s a reason for that.

Sharp, a 2016 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, said he didn’t want to play interpreter. Rather, he wanted his subjects to tell their own stories. He shared these stories with family, friends and others Sept. 26 during his film’s Chapel Hill premiere at the Varsity Theatre.

“Hoops Africa: Ubuntu Matters” — which premiered to a limited global audience last December on NBA TV — traces multiple stories of basketball and Africa. It starts with that of Hoops 4 Hope, an American nonprofit organization that teaches basketball and life skills to African boys and girls.

Hoops 4 Hope was founded by Mark Crandall, who Sharp worked closely with while making the film. The two first met about five years ago, when Sharp spent the summer after his freshman year of college volunteering for the organization in Zimbabwe.

“Fortunately, I was seated next to a cinematographer on my 17-hour flight home, and he and I two years later were able to link back to make this film,” Sharp said.

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UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham (left) poses with UNC graduate and film director Taylor Sharp. Shako Oteka

That cinematographer was Dan Hedges, now Sharp’s filmmaking partner. Once Sharp graduated, he and Hedges decided to fully pursue the project.

Sharp, 24, of Morganton earned his degree with a major that he designed himself. The university calls it an interdisciplinary studies major, and the one Sharp devised dealt in the philosophy and business of sports, or as he put it, “looking at the way sports interact with society.”

The documentary’s stories follow two common themes, hinted at in the title — the unifying nature of sports, and community through ubuntu, a philosophy of Southern African descent.

Ubuntu most closely translates to “you are who you are because of others.” According to the film, it’s the belief in the “universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.” It’s present at the Hoops 4 Hope facilities. It was also the rallying cry in the huddles of the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, whom the film shows en route to an NBA title.

Sharp says coming back to Chapel Hill to share his debut as a filmmaker with professors and loved ones made him feel a deep sense of ubuntu.

“The people in the room and the conversations we had was kind of, for me, a coalescing of what the film was all about,” Sharp said. “Tonight was very much a community event and, for me, it screamed ubuntu.”

The film features interviews with prominent NBA personalities, including past and present stars like Dikembe Mutombo and Chris Paul, as well as the league’s commissioner Adam Silver.

For a young filmmaker like Sharp, setting up these interviews was no easy feat. He was confident, though, that if he approached the project appropriately, things would work themselves out.

“I feel like projects and people with good intentions attract what they need to make it happen,” Sharp said. “This is purely a celebratory look at the state of basketball in Africa and all the major players involved and growing the game. I think everyone … saw themselves in this story and wanted their part of the story to be told. And very fortunately, they wanted me to do it.”

Sharp said it did take a lot of persistence, though.

“There was a whole lot of knocking on doors that I wasn’t supposed to knock on; there’s a whole lot of conversations with people who probably didn’t expect to have a conversation with me,” Shape said. “But ultimately, after I found a way to get to them, and after I told them what I was doing, almost at every turn, someone was graciously letting me in the door rather than closing the door on me.”

Crandall was excited to see some of the men who volunteer for his organization in Zimbabwe with a platform to share their wisdom.

“To see our staff, who work in some of the poorest communities in Zimbabwe day in and day out, … and to see them impart the amazing knowledge they usually give to the African kids, here in North Carolina, was pretty cool,” Crandall said.

The crowd that showed up to support Sharp included some familiar faces within the UNC basketball community, such as one of Sharp’s best friends and former roommate, 2016 All-American center, Brice Johnson.

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Former UNC basketball star Brice Johnson is interviewed about best friend Taylor Sharp’s documentary film “Hoops Africa: Ubuntu Matters”. Shako Oteka

Johnson was overjoyed to see his friend’s hard work come to fruition.

“From hearing about Taylor’s ideas of this film to now seeing it on the big screen is something that I will always remember, and I couldn’t be prouder of him for it,” Johnson said in a text message.

How to see it

“Hoops Africa: Ubuntu Matters” is available for rent and purchase on Amazon Video and iTunes. It’s also available on the movie’s website at hoopsafricafilm.com.

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