Raptors GM Masai Ujiri gives heart and soul to his African homeland


By: Doug Smith Sports Reporter, Published on Tue Sep 23 2014

There is nothing Masai Ujiri is more passionate about than Africa, he works tirelessly to promote sports and improve living conditions there, to offer hope and support to people from his homeland.
Every August, the Nigerian-born president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors returns to his roots, working with the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program that combines athletics with life skills, working with his own Giants Of Africa Foundation to discover talented teenagers, nurture them as players and people.
It is the time of year when most NBA executives take a deep breath and relax and get ready for the coming season. It is a time when Ujiri goes about what he sees as a responsibility:
To make life better in every imaginable way on the continent of his birth.
“It’s every summer, it makes August very important,” the 44-year-old said. “You’re giving back and helping. We all want to do well in our daily jobs but we can never forget what got us here.”
Ujiri’s latest efforts is his work as the co-chair of a fund-raising dinner Thursday night in Toronto for Journalists for Human Rights and its new program to train journalists and journalism students in South Sudan.
The Night For Rights, co-chaired by CTV news anchor Lisa LaFlamme and Ujiri, will raise money to fund increased reporting and better training on human rights issues in the world’s newest country.
The two-year program will pair trainers from Journalists for Human Rights with South Sudanese students to strengthen their reporting skills.
Uniquely familiar with the need for first-rate reporting on rights issues from developing nations from his youth in Nigeria, Ujiri is anxious to see things improve.
“People telling true stories really makes a difference and they have to be allowed to,” he said. “I think it’s a very cool relationship with what I’ve been through, seeing how stories in the past have been covered over there.
“I like this kind of thing because it relates to the bigger community, to my background, my culture and what I went through and now about.
“Things like that and sports and inter-related and help the bigger society.”
Ujiri has just finished a typically busy, Africa-centric summer and the Thursday fundraiser, which will include a keynote speech by renowned Tanzania journalist Samuel Awami, will wrap up his work away from the NBA.
Ujiri spent nearly all of August on the continent of his birth, with work in Kenya and South Africa, a planned visit to Nigeria was cancelled at the last minute because of the Ebola outbreak.
It was his typical “off-season” foray.
“I took permission from all my bosses, my bosses here (with the Raptors) and my bosses at home (his wife and infant daughter) because it is very important to me,” he said.
Part of Ujiri’s summer was spent dealing with the fallout from some racially insensitive comments by Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, who said of South Sudan native Luol Deng “he has a little African in him” as Ferry was discussing the potential signing of Deng.
Ujiri, the first native of Africa to head a North American professional sports franchise, is a close friend of Deng’s and was stung by the characterization. Ujiri spoke with both Ferry and Deng and came away even more determined to continue the emergence of African athletes.
“It is a duty, it is something I will never stop,” he said.