As a native of Nigeria, Masai Ujiri is familiar with the basketball landscape in many parts of Africa.
Across the continent, there is undiscovered talent playing on dusty floors with battered hoops and tattered nets.
“Here in the U.S., you go to every high school and there’s a gym and a nice floor,” Ujiri said. “You go over to Africa and the rims are bent. There’s about 8,000 people who use the gym for 10,000 other things outside basketball. You wish these kids had somewhere to go play basketball every day and just be themselves.”
In his continuing effort to promote the game and cultivate young talent in Africa, Ujiri is taking part in the Sprite Slam camp Friday and Saturday in Nairobi, Kenya. Former NBA players Glen Rice and Marty Conlon also traveled to Nairobi for the camp, which features 40 under-19 players selected by the Kenya Basketball Federation.
Though Ujiri holds the official title of Denver Nuggets executive vice president of basketball operations, he will spend the weekend as a basketball ambassador trying to provide inspiration and opportunity.
“I have that responsibility,” he said. “I’m in a position where you have to help in Africa because it is a great game and a great sport. The way it’s going global now, I want my continent to be affected. It’s a joy for me to see the players grow and the game grow.”
The Sprite camp, conducted through a partnership between Coca-Cola Central, East and West Africa and the NBA, also includes coaching clinics to help give coaches in Africa a foundation to teach the game on their own.
“We want to make sure it’s not a one- or two-day thing,” said Ujiri, who has participated in Sprite camps in Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Now in its third year, the Sprite Slam campaign began its 2011 tour last weekend in the Democratic Republic of Congo capital of Kinshasa, birthplace of former Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo. After Nairobi, another camp is scheduled Aug. 19-20 in Kampala, Uganda. Select players from the camps will take part in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders elite development camp in Johannesburg from Sept. 1-4.
“We were able to see passion for basketball among the youth at the Sprite Slam held in the DRC last weekend,” said Amadou Gallo Fall, vice president of development for NBA Africa. “I have no doubt that the young players in Nairobi will be just as excited to make the most of the opportunity in demonstrating Africa’s appetite for the sport of basketball.”
Ujiri’s appetite for promoting basketball and unearthing talent in Africa dates to his days as a teenager learning the game in Nigeria. He was a member of the first Nigerian national team to qualify for the FIBA World Championship in 1988, and he later was a coach for three championship-winning junior national teams.
Since 2002, Ujiri has served as director of the highly successful Basketball Without Borders program. He also is the founder of the Giants of Africa Foundation, which launched the Top 50 and Big Man camps in Africa.
“Basketball in Africa is a part of me,” Ujiri said. “When I go to Africa, I do everything I can to help. It reminds me of when I was a coach for the junior national team and you sleep in a dorm with mattresses on the floor. It’s something that you always remember because there’s camaraderie and you see how much these young players believe in you and want to grow. Now you see where they are in basketball and how they’ve grown as people. It makes you proud.”
By Aaron J. Lopez