Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri knows a thing or two about putting a winning team on the court.
Since joining the organization in May, 2013, the team has made an appearance in the NBA postseason four times, including this year.
But every August, Ujiri spends his only downtime in the offseason guiding another winning team on the hardwood — the players at the Giants of Africa basketball camp he runs every summer for teens in his home country of Nigeria.
Ujiri has been returning to Africa for the past 13 years as a way to give back to the country and inspire its youth to be role models in their communities. It’s arguably a role he views as more important than his job with the Raptors.
“The truth is; I see myself in these kids,” Ujiri tells the Toronto Sun.
Before heading to the continent in 2015, Ujiri decided he wanted to capture one of his visits for a documentary film.
“I talked to MLSE about it and to one of the producers of Open Gym and I said, ‘I want to figure out a way to film this,’” he recalls. “At first, they wanted to do the story on me, which is normal. But the story wasn’t about me; it’s about the youth and their experiences. They bought into it.”
The finished product — Giants of Africa — opens in theatres on Friday. It follows Ujiri as he visits four countries — Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and Nigeria — in 2015.
Oscar-nominated, African-Canadian documentary filmmaker Hubert Davis directs.
“In 2016, we did six countries,” Ujiri says. “We still captured 2016, but we haven’t done anything with it yet. It’s something we’re going to continuously do and maybe release something later on.”
Along with a team of assistants, the Giants of Africa basketball camp uses basketball as a teaching tool.
“It’s a human story,” Ujiri adds. “There are many ways of reaching out to people all around the world, but one of the best ways is through sports. That’s the honest truth. You can teach them basketball fundamentals for five minutes and then you can talk about respecting women, being honest, being on time and health awareness. They listen a little bit more than if you lock them up in a room and start pounding them with information.
“We want kids to dream big — that’s one of the reasons I do this.”
A few of the camp’s attendees have gone on to the NBA, but more than 130 have gone on to college.
“I always tell them to be the best basketball player you can be and you’ll be found,” he says.
“It’s those kids that are maybe not as talented. What happens to them? This is where we have to use basketball as a teaching tool. Kids don’t know that there’s sports psychology, sports marketing, sports journalism … you can find a niche somehow. You can find a niche that’s connected to sports and that’s an amazing thing.”
Now that he has risen to become one of the NBA’s most revered executives, Ujiri views his work with the Giants of Africa as an obligation, but he concedes it didn’t start that way.
“At first I started doing it when I was a scout to try and discover the next Hakeem (Olajuwon) or the next Dikembe (Mutombo),” he says with a smile. “I was so anxious to find players. But as I started to rise in the NBA, the trips started to have more meaning to me. If 10 guys make it to college in the U.S., and another 10 go to college in Nigeria, what happens to the rest? How are we helping them? That’s when I started concentrating on life skills and some of the things you can do to help these kids to really focus on life.
“So I have to go and give back,” he continues. “I started this journey 13 years ago with one country. Where does it go from here? That’s what I think of each day.”
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