I’ve had many discussions with Masai Ujiri about his mentor, Nelson Mandela. Every time we discuss “Madiba” I learn more about both the famous South African Nobel Peace Prize winner and Masai himself, almost as if the topic of Mandela is a window towards his own soul and what makes him tick.
This year marks the fourth “Giants of Africa” event that the Raptors and Ujiri are hosting to both celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life and provide once in a lifetime experience for young basketball players.
It’s a date that is always circled on the basketball calendar. Every season the NBA grants the Toronto Raptors a game on Dec. 5, the date of Mandela’s passing.
When the Raptors take on the Phoenix Suns Tuesday night both teams will wear special commemorative edition Nike shooting shirts and the coaching staff and front office of both teams will don Giant of Africa lapel pins.
Among those in attendance this year will be Dikembe Mutombo, Vivian Onano (Youth Advisor to the UN Women Civil Society Advisory), Amadou Gallo Fall (managing director of NBA Africa), Yvonne Chaka Chaka (world renowned South African musician and humanitarian) and George Stroumboulopoulos.
In between the widely publicized events, Giants of Africa will also host a kids’ mini basketball camp for students from the nearby Nelson Mandela Park Public School.
What first struck me when I thought of this year’s event was how crazy it is that Mandela died in 2013, as it doesn’t seem that long ago. Secondly, I wondered how much longer can they go on putting on the event annually, without them being watered down the further removed we are from Mandela’s passing. I wondered if taking time to celebrate Mandela’s story of grace is even more important given the current climate, full of news regarding political figures in conjunction with sexual scandals, disparaging Twitter rants aimed at the less fortunate, and nuclear missiles.
The more time I spent with Ujiri, the more it became apparent that Mandela’s leadership and legacy has inspired his own philanthropy efforts. When you examine Mandela’s five pillars of change—sports, leadership, community, freedom and future— you realize they are all laced in the messages Ujiri passionately delivers to the wide-eyed campers at his Giants of Africa camps.
Ujiri could have spent the end of his off-season relaxing from an off-season busy with re-signing two off his own free agents and signing another coveted player from an Eastern conference rival.
Instead he travelled with GoA to Kigali, Rwanda and Dakar, Senegal, leading chants and throwing bounce passes not far from the equator. “The days doing the camp are tougher than my days here during the season,” he says. “Here at least I get a break in between meetings. There it is go, go, go non-stop from morning until night. They are long days where everyone just picks up and does whatever needs to get done. It’s draining but I love it. I really enjoy my time there.”
Which is why he fundraises using the spotlight of his day job in North America to make the long days under the sun in Africa beneficial for more campers. The hope is to add more countries, expand to have more campers and have female campers a bigger emphasis.
Ujiri’s non-profit is in its fourteenth year and the similarity to Mandela is the use of sports as a vehicle.
Masai gains access to these kids through the game of basketball. Campers receive free shoes and uniforms provided by Nike, and access to NBA-level instruction and exposure. More than 100 of his former campers have graduated to high school or university in North America, with around 20 currently playing professionally in Europe. But that is not the whole story, or why he is really there.
What Ujiri is really doing is gaining access to young minds. That’s the trade off. He gets to implore campers to dream big, to change the content of Africa to the word class power it, in his mind, is destined to become. In exchange, he gets to try and finish Mandela’s work and try to fulfill the father of Africa’ dream, by appealing to young Africans’ growing basketball dreams.
“You have to make this country for my son and my daughter,” Ujiri implored a group of campers in Dakar, Senegal earlier this year.”I’m relying on them to do that,” he laters tells me from his office in Toronto.
Ujiri uses the sports binary of winning and losing when he refers to the state of his native land. No participation medals at this camp. “Africa must win,” he repeats. Wether it is to the kids on a sweltering black top in Senegal or to a reporter in his air conditioned Toronto office, the conviction is consistent. The steely determined look in his eyes doesn’t change. Ujiri is unwilling to blink in that pursuit.
What he selfishly and nobly is doing is using the camp as a platform to spread his positive outlook for his fellow Africans. Listen to instruction. Have manners. Respect women. Dream big. These are the refrains campers hear from the 47 year-old Nigerian.
He’s already produced a documentary telling the importance of these stories. Next he has aspirations of building an arena and high performance training centre in Africa. He hopes the years of Giants of Africa and basketball without borders investment means the national teams from African nations one day will be capturing Olympic medals.
But more than anything he wants “Africa to win” on the global stage, because post-Mandela they have no other choice.