The Toronto Star: Raptors’ Ujiri helps keep the memory of Mandela alive


In the complicated process of putting together an NBA schedule, with travel considerations to take care of and arena availability to complicate matters, and with a desire to cut down on the glut of back-to-back games, the league allows each team to pick out two dates that are virtual “musts” for them to host games.

The Toronto Raptors have only one — to be playing at home on Dec. 5. The date is sacrosanct for team president Masai Ujiri, and so dear to his heart that the league dare not honour his request.

For the third straight year, Toronto hosted a game Dec. 5, allowing Ujiri once again honour Nelson Mandela, who the Raptors boss calls the “father of Africa.”

“We have to honour him and keep his memory alive every year,” Ujiri has said. “Nelson Mandela knew that sport has the power to inspire and unite people in a way that little else does.”

Monday’s event included an afternoon reception at the Art Gallery of Ontario to benefit Sick Kids Hospital, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Ujiri’s own Giants of Africa foundation.

Multiple Olympian Clara Hughes was the keynote speaker. Mandela’s grandson, Kweku Mandela, was there in his role as the president of the Out of Africa children’s foundation, along with Amadou Gallo Fall, the executive director of NBA Africa.

The franchise was to honour the legacy of Mandela during its game against the Cleveland Cavaliers with special shirts for the players to wear in the pre-game shoot-around, commemorative lapel pins for the coaching staffs, video tributes and the national anthems performed by the Mandela Children’s Choir.

The passion that Ujiri feels for furthering the causes of Mandela, who died Dec. 5, 2013, at 95 years old, is deep and will never end.

The Raptors president lionizes the great leader and civil rights activist who spent nearly three decades in a South African jail.

“Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, once said. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

That sentiment drives Ujiri, who understands what the power of games can do to advance society in Africa. He saw it firsthand growing up in Nigeria and he experiences it now with frequent visits to the continent.

It resonates with the Toronto executive in a way few things do. Ujiri has been long involved with the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program and he runs his own camps across the continent each summer. The documentary film eponymous with Ujiri’s Giants of Africa foundation had its public debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, further advancing a cause so dear to Ujiri’s heart.

Ujiri’s ties with Mandela coalesced when they met for the first time at a Basketball Without Borders event the Raptors president attended with Dikembe Mutombo in the early 2000s. Then just a scout with the Denver Nuggets, Ujiri came away touched by Mandela’s selflessness and simple presence.

“I knew I had to do work for my community and my continent,” he said. “This is one way to continue that.”