Denver, Colorado (CNN) — Soccer may be the king of sports in Africa, but one man is on a mission to change that by uncovering the continent’s rising basketball stars.
Masai Ujiri is the general manager for the Denver Nuggets and the first African to take charge of an American major league sports team. The Nigerian, himself a former professional basketball player outside the NBA, took over at the Nuggets in 2010 but has been working to develop the game across Africa for just short of a decade.
“I don’t just want to be the first African GM in American sports — I want to win. I want to make an impact in Africa (and) grow the game,” he says.
Ujiri is a camp director with Basketball without Borders — a community outreach program run by the NBA which sees talented youngsters around the world receive coaching from professional players. He is also the founder of the Giants of Africa Foundation, a basketball camp that aims to give talented young African players a solid education and the skills to compete at an international sporting level.
“Kids come from Benin Republic or in the past we have had kids come from Ghana and Togo. I think it has been a great concept,” says Ujiri of his foundation. “My honest goal is to try to build facilities in Africa … so kids have [the] chance that I got, to get to where I am.”
Since opening its started in 2004, more than 80 camp attendees have moved on to high school or university in the United States, whilst around 20 now play professionally in Europe. Ujiri hopes to generate a level of interest that will result in more players making it to the very top of the sport in Africa and beyond.
He highlights Cameroon’s Luc Mbah a Moute — now in his fourth season at the Milwaukee Bucks and former Basketball Without Borders attendee — as the type of player he hopes to see more of in the professional game.
“It’s all up to us to find the talent,” says Ujiri. “Building facilities, helping coaching … helping to start leagues, all these things are going to enhance one person somewhere.”
But in Africa, basketball must compete for attention with already established sports, making it even more challenging to encourage young people to take up the game. Some of the world’s most identifiable soccer stars, such as Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien hail from Africa and are feted as heroes across the continent.
A host of European football clubs meanwhile have partnerships with their African counterparts.
“I think [with] basketball we are little bit behind,” admits Ujiri. “I said to my friends years ago, football is going to make some kind of impression because the talent is so great. Look at it now all over the world you can look at any big team and see so many impactful [African] soccer players.”
“Basketball will get there, I hope during my time, and I hope we can build facilities where kids can get a place to play and we can find more talent.”
Even with increased focus on promoting basketball opportunities in Africa, Ujiri is mindful to point out just how difficult it remains to be successful basketball pro. He cites his own circuitous journey to the peak of his profession as an example of the sacrifice, dedication and good fortune required to make it to the top.
After ending a professional playing career in 2002, which saw him grace a number of European leagues, Ujiri worked as a youth coach in Nigeria and an unpaid talent scout for the NBA’s Orlando Magic.
He secured his first paying NBA gig in 2003 as a scout for the Nuggets before moving to the Toronto Raptors to work as director of global scouting. In 2010 he returned to Denver to take over as GM.
“Not many make the NBA. It’s really tough and you try to explain that to a lot of African kids not many have made it that way, the Luc Mbah a Moute’s [way],” he says.
He is keen to impart this wisdom to the youngsters who attend his schools and training camps. But Ujiri remains confident that with the right encouragement and role models, Africa’s talented young players can become the NBA’s stars of tomorrow.
“I was once a basketball player like them,” he says. “I grew up in Nigeria playing basketball … there is always a way.
“Roads may be bumpy and [you] may have to take a longer path but Africa is a wonderful continent.”
By Vladimir Duthiers