Masai Ujiri starts to direct traffic like he’s one of his point guards dictating screen and roll options.
“You can go in the back, you can go in the front with the driver, she can stay in the middle with me,” he instructs a group into a black SUV. It’s a summer night in Toronto and Masai has had a hand in directing things all week ahead of the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of his “Giants of Africa” documentary tonight. Getting the film shot, completed and entered in the world renowned festival was a two-year process.
“What a night, what a night,” he says as he sinks back into the black interior leather and rubs his eyes. As soon as his right hand leaves his eyes it reaches for his wife Ramatu’s hand beside him. Shortly after the left hand reaches across his body to grab the phone. No rest for the weary.
The car has barely pulled away from the curb in front of the theatre and Masai is already in negotiation mode. This scenario is nothing new for a professional basketball executive.
He’s negotiating with a three year old. Her name is Zahara— his daughter. Zahara is negotiating on behalf of her client. His name is Masai Dean, Ujiri’s son who turns one later this month. The President of the Raptors is wondering why his offspring aren’t in bed yet.
“Where’s brother? Where’s brother?” he chimes into the phone. “Yeah. Why is brother still awake?” he asks as a smile comes across his face. The face of a father talking to his first-born lights up the dark car at night.
This is a big moment for Ujiri and his family. In a few short hours, his film will be well received by the festival crowd. “Congratulations, You should be so proud” a female viewer tells him as he leaves the theater. “Such important work you’re doing,” proclaims a young father as his son decked out in Raptors gears looks up. “Thank you! Thank you so much for coming. Really appreciate you,” is the uniform response.
Long before this documentary existed, Ujiri had steadily built his Giants of Africa foundation— a series of basketball camps in Africa that impart life skills to its campers— since 2003, but this opportunity is a big one because it gets the message out in front of people who aren’t necessarily basketball fans or don’t otherwise know the project he holds so close to his heart.
“It’s huge,” he says on the way to a rooftop after-party. “The fact that so many people care about what I’m doing is humbling. Not just the people that watch but the way MLSE has gotten behind it. It is their baby now. But it’s important work because the kids count on us. They count on me to get it right.”
The kids in his GoA camps all feel like his children, he says. There may be no better example of that than Ryan Otsimi. Otsimi, a Kenyan native who grew up estranged from his father, is a central figure in the documentary. Now he considers Ujiri his father. “He’s the closest thing I’ve had to a father. Learning from him how to act. I want to come to North America and do well and be professional like him.”
“I’m always texting him. Constantly sending him messages. I don’t want him to forget about me,” Otsimi says on the red carpet. Ujiri surprised Otsimi with a trip to Toronto for the premiere after his apprentice agreed to mentor the next generations of GOA campers as an alumnus.
“I want him to see there is more to the world then what he see’s in Africa. I want him to dream big,” Ujiri explains.
Monday, Dec. 5th marked the third annual Nelson Mandela tribute by Ujiri and MLSE, held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. This year’s rendition included a roundtable discussion with Olympian Clara Hughes, Associate Chief of Pediatrics at Sick Kids hospital Dr. Jeremy Friedman, and grandson of Nelson Mandela and Co-Founder of Africa Rising Foundation Kweku Mandela.
None of this is a small undertaking.
That day job and the charity keep him occupied in the “offseason” so finding a balance with family proves tough. “Don’t tell my wife that” he jokes when it’s suggested that his charity has grown to the size of a second occupation.
“It was tough in the beginning,” his wife Ramatu says with a smile, “[But] I want his kids to grow up and see their dad giving back. So for me it’s not a problem. Besides, I’ve got two little babies to keep me company when he’s away.”
What makes it easier is the root of the couples relationship is based in the charity. Early on in the relationship Ramatu came with Ujiri to the camp. He was amazed that she had no issue “hanging out in a dusty, old gym all day talking to everybody.” She was taken aback how generous he was with the kids she called her mother immediately to say, “He’s special. It’s rare you find someone with that heart.”
It’s easy to see why Ujiri is still connected to the Giants of Africa cause even though he’s now decades removed from his home in Nigeria. As much as things have changed for the president and former executive of the year, nothing has.
So when you see Ujiri talk about what he wants to build— whether he’s talking about his franchise, foundation, family or the memory of “the father Africa”— don’t be surprised if all his answers sound the same. They come from the same place. In his mind and heart they are all intertwined.