Holly MacKenzie – Raptors.com
Thursday, June 19th marked the 24th anniversary of Nelson Mandela first coming to Toronto to bring his message of change. Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri did not let the day pass without paying tribute to his hero.
In the afternoon, Ujiri, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, Amir Johnson and former NBA great Dikembe Mutombo visited Nelson Mandela Park Public School to spread Mandela’s message.
Johnson — who was pleased to inform reporters he did not need offseason surgery on his ankle— shared a story about Mutombo blocking one of his shots as a rookie and delivering his classic finger wag. He was also touched by the reception from the children as the group entered the gymnasium.
“It was very inspirational,” Johnson said. “Very inspiring to hear Masai, Mutombo speak.
“I’m still kind of overwhelmed myself at how many people look up to me, when the kids are screaming. It’s a very big ordeal.”
Later in the evening, each attended Ujiri’s ‘Madiba: An Evening Honouring Nelson Mandela’ benefit. The event, hosted in Toronto’s Distillery District, paid tribute to the life and legacy of the former South African president.
“It’s special to me in my heart because I’ve met him a couple of times and he dedicated his life,” Ujiri said. “He was the father of Africa and I am one of the millions of sons.”
The guest list for Thursday’s benefit included DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Toronto FC’s Jermain Defoe, and Cleveland Cavaliers forward Luol Deng. Aloe Blacc performed and Wolf Blitzer co-hosted the event which raised funds for the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Ujiri’s Giants of Africa foundation.
Also in attendance were Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Sello Hatang, NBA Africa vice-president and managing director Amadou Gallo Fall and South African anti-apartheid activist Tokyo Sexwale.
As people floated along the red carpet, the vibe was a positive one in celebration of Mandela’s greatness.
“I have to give back,” Ujiri said. “For me, it would be a failure if I could not give back.”
Lowry called Ujiri a great man and spoke of how the sport of basketball has changed his life. He said there was zero hesitation about attending when Ujiri extended the invitation his way.
“He’s the most upfront, honest guy you’re going to deal with,” Lowry said. “He’s very vocal but he knows how to get his point across at the same time by not screaming and yelling.”
MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke had similar praise for the dedication his general manager has to his native Africa.
“[He] amazes me with his heart, his commitment, his thoughts and prayers that continue to go back to his roots, and for the trials and tribulations that many in South Africa still go through every day,” Leiweke said.
Defoe chatted about England’s World Cup loss on the red carpet, but grew serious when speaking about Mandela’s legacy, calling him an angel who wanted to make change and help others.
Now in a position to effect change, Ujiri has continued to speak out about what is important to him. Since founding Giants of Africa in 2003, Ujiri has been committed to using basketball as a tool to help empower youth in Africa.
Ujiri spoke of Mandela’s message of kindness and of the importance of giving back to children to create a brighter future.
“The more you give, the more you grow,” Ujiri said.