In Africa, Masai Ujiri’s mission to create opportunities for young women starts on the basketball court.
Earlier this year, the Toronto Raptors made history by claiming the top place in the league and winning the NBA championship — a first for the team, and Canada. Much of that success can be attributed to Masai Ujiri, President of the Raptors and mastermind behind the team’s rise to greatness. While his leadership is well known in the league, Ujiri’s impact has been felt beyond the NBA courts through his non-profit basketball camp, Giants of Africa. Established in 2003, the camp lifts communities by using the sport as a vehicle of opportunity for underprivileged youth. Part of that mission has been the empowerment and championing of young women. In its most recent year, the tour added Somalia and South Sudan to its schedule, nations that have experienced unconscionable trauma from war and conflict. Marred by religious extremism, young girls in Somalia are hindered in their access to basic resources (including the watching of and participation in sport), denying them the vital skills and lessons that would otherwise be developed. In places like Mogadishu, a basketball camp for girls is as much about human rights as it is about sports. Here, young women are unapologetically encouraged to play, learn, and take the first steps towards realizing their dreams.
What do you think that these young children take away with them after they’ve attended a camp like Giants of Africa?
We have to give them a sense of hope and opportunity. If we can do that, it’s going to brighten their eyes to see that they can make it. And that’s what I really want to show with Giants of Africa. I have to show these young kids around Africa, and around the world, that they can do it. I grew up in Africa and [the same] environments that these kids are growing up in. A lot of people on my staff are the same, and that’s why we bring a lot of these African players, scouts, and coaches so these kids can see that if these guys can do it and grew up in the same way as them, then they can do it, too. Whether it’s Patrick Mutombo or Jama Mahlalela, these guys are Africans. I’m African.
What lessons do they learn about compassion and humility from sports?
We teach them all the basic fundamentals of the game. But we also teach them life skills, which builds their confidence. We teach them about honesty, being on time, and respect. We teach them how to look at people in the eye, talk to others, and how to be confident with yourself. We teach them about being proud of where you’re from. It’s about all of these things. We think of lifting young women up and telling them that they are equal. For me, that’s what Giants of Africa is about. That’s the compassion that we want to show and leave wherever we go.
What did it mean to take the NBA Championship trophy on tour with you throughout Africa?
I saw all the celebrations when I was growing up on VHS tapes or on TV with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, and then recently with LeBron and the Golden State Warriors. Now, we’re actually the ones carrying it and bringing it home. That’s amazing and it’s still not real for me. I’m still trying to put it together.
I was just talking to Bobby [Webster], our General Manager. He took it to Hawaii and told me that he brought it to the gym where he started playing basketball. Somebody came up to him and asked, “Why did you bring the trophy here?” It was as if he was implying that it was too big and grand to bring there.
But that’s the feeling. I hope it means something. I hope it inspires people to know that they can do it.
Through Giants of Africa, you run women’s basketball camps in Mali, Cameroon, and Tanzania. This year you also kicked off a camp in Somalia for the first time in the organization’s history, despite the conflict that exists due to religious extremism. Why was it important for you to take it there?
It’s very important that we go into these areas because they are wonderful places with wonderful people, and this is just their experience now. I read somewhere, “God bless Giants of Africa. We will remember Giants of Africa when Somalia becomes great again.” And Somalia is going to become great again. There’s no question about it. That’s just how the world works.
I’ve seen what President Kagame has done in Rwanda, a country that went through genocide. I’ve seen countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, and how they’re picking up. I always say that there’s a small amount of bad people in this world, and there’s a huge amount of good people. Good people have to overwhelm and influence the bad.
I think with good leadership, these problems are going to be overcome. As an African, why would I be afraid [to go there?] There’s no reason because these people are just like me. There’s no part of me that feels afraid of going anywhere in Africa because that’s where I’m from.
Do you think having access to sports is tied to women’s rights?
Sports is going to give women a big voice. I think it’s going to get bigger, and it’s going to take over the world. We see it already. People watch it and are engaged in it so much, especially in Africa where we have the physical abilities, the smarts, and the intelligence. We have to give women that opportunity.
I don’t know everything, but I do know sports. That’s my expertise. I hope to take back a little bit of what we’re doing here and make it more accessible on the continent. And that’s done by building arenas and influencing leaders to think, talk, and do more in sports. That’s going to encourage women. I’m very happy about some of the meetings I had on the continent with good people that I think are going to take it to another level in influencing sports. And not only that, but also hopefully encourage more women to play sports in places like Somalia, South Sudan, Mali, and Tanzania. Those girls need love and they need to be encouraged in a lot of ways.
Are there any stories from these young women that have really stuck with you?
They all have stories about where they’re from, the things that happen to them, people that have influenced them, good experiences, and sometimes bad experiences. That builds them up as people. You see some of those women and you just know that they are going to be leaders. I can see it in the way they carry themselves on the basketball court and the way they speak. You just know that it’s just one little opportunity that they are looking for. They might not play in the WNBA or become professional players but when I see them walking tall at the end of camp, I know they’re going to go somewhere.