Masai Ujiri knows all too well the challenges facing basketball development in his Nigerian homeland, from a dearth of facilities to a lack of good instruction, and it pains him to know so many talented athletes are losing out on athletic and educational opportunities.

So the director of global scouting for the Raptors was back home last week, holding his fifth annual Giants of Africa big-man camp in Lagos, continuing to build a foundation on which the sport can grow in the years to come.

“These kids have the raw talent, unbelievable physical talent, but fundamentally, they are just not that sound,” Ujiri said in a recent interview. “They are just so raw.”

There were 50 kids at the camp, chosen from the thousands of big men trying to learn the game. Enrolment is limited to players 6-foot-8 and over, precisely the kind of untapped teenagers who might not otherwise benefit from the coaching they got on the weekend.

“I just wanted to do something the big kids in Nigeria could look forward to,” said Ujiri. “Everywhere you play, guards always dominate the ball; this is to let the big men get all the attention for a change.”

But it is not just teaching the players how to play that is Ujiri’s goal.

He takes between eight and 10 coaches from the United States to the camp as well, allowing them to teach “coaches how to coach” as well as running clinics for the campers, who range from 16 to 18 years old.

“What’s the use of doing a couple of clinics for three days if you don’t help the coaches,” he said. “Part of what we do has to stay behind when we leave. The kids have to have all the opportunities they can get.”

The opportunities, however, are not like they are over here. A paucity of gynasiums makes it difficult for players to work out often enough and the outdoor courts where they might get a chance to run are often in a state of disrepair.

Ujiri remembers one camper a couple of years ago, a 6-foot-9 teen with some promise, being reluctant to dunk during drills and scrimmages because the rims at the outdoor court where he played were so tattered his coaches forbade dunking.

“One camp, I had all the kids and coaches waiting outside for an hour for the gym co-ordinator who didn’t see the use of getting to work early,” he said. “Because there is a frequent lack of electricity, we have to rely on the generator system and this involves providing fuel for the generators. … This is sometimes tough, especially if there is a fuel scarcity in the country.

“We understand this and will fix it with time.”

Ujiri, who joined the Raptor front office staff a year ago, models his camps after the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, of which he is a director. Not only do the campers get on-court instruction, there are lifestyle and educational seminars built into the weekend as well.

“We have to use this as an educational tool, too,” he said. “We have to let them use their talents to get almost a free education, to use basketball as a tool.”

Ujiri said there are about 25 or 30 Nigerians playing high-level high school basketball in States now who’ve been through the camps and another handful at major colleges. One of his goals is for this year’s group to want to emulate others who’ve taken part. His other hope is that former campers return to their homeland to teach what they’ve learned.

Sports Reporter, Published on Mon May 19 2008