Ujiri’s efforts have African basketball on precipice of breakthrough

The Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, right, after receiving his NBA championship ring. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Masai Ujiri loves Toronto and has thrived professionally in the NBA, a league with global aspirations but it remains overwhelmingly American in its roots and make up.

However, Ujiri’s personal journey from Nigeria remains fresh in his mind, even nearly 30 years later. He first arrived in Idaho, of all places, to visit with family friends on his way to Seattle where he was participating in an exchange program to finish high school, with an eye toward finding a place to play university basketball in the U.S.

It was not what he was expecting.

“I get to Idaho in the summer, to help get me set up. and I’m thinking: where is MTV? Where is the Cosby Show?” He says now, laughing.

“It was so weird. Its weather, people, food. My Mom and Dad have been here [visiting in Toronto] for two months now and they are still complaining about the taste of the food. It’s a big adjustment.”

The adjustments were just beginning. After a year in relatively temperate Seattle, Ujiri found himself enrolled at Bismarck State College, a Division II program in North Dakota.

Winter came.

“I was living with my friend Godwin and in the evening, we had been watching a college basketball game and they were saying there was going to be a big snowstorm.

“We were living in a ground-floor apartment and the next day we looked out of the window and we couldn’t see. The snow had covered the whole window.

“We just said wow.

“My coach came to pick us up that morning and we basically had to shovel our way to the car. I’ll never forget walking into accounting class. Godwin and I are late because of the snow. We struggled our way to class, we had everything covered – we have one of those hats that covers your whole face – and everyone starts laughing, and the teacher says:

“I know how you guys feel,” and I said “No, you f—ing don’t. You’re from here.”

“It was very funny. My teacher always remembered that.”

Some moments you never forget.

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On Thursday night at Scotiabank Arena, a few different things will be going on. The high-flying Toronto Raptors will be hosting the human scoring machine, James Harden, along with his Houston Rockets teammates. The game will be on NBA TV and represents a chance for the post-Kawhi Leonard Raptors to demonstrate why they believe their defence of their 2018-19 title will be a substantive one.

It also marks the sixth consecutive year the Raptors and Ujiri’s Giants of Africa foundation will play a national TV game as part of a tribute to Nelson Mandela, the South African humanitarian and Ujiri’s personal hero.

It’s another touchpoint in Ujiri’s endless quest to raise the profile of Africa within the NBA and to use the influence of basketball and the NBA on the continent to create opportunities for young people there.

This past summer, Ujiri and GOA ran programs in six different countries and have a footprint in nine now. The dream is to be present in all of Africa’s 54 countries at some point in the future. In the meantime, athletes he’s had in his camps are following his path, pursuing athletic and educational opportunities — using the game to find a place in the larger sports eco-system.

The latest is Sarah Chan, a south Sudanese refugee to Kenya who worked for GOA and who Ujiri recently hired as the Raptors’ lead scout in Africa and will be sharing her story with a crowd of 500 North York school children at an event Thursday morning.

But Ujiri wants to do more. He’s come a long way from holding out in his contract negotiations with the Denver Nuggets for his first general manager job for an extra $50,000 for his foundation to help fund his camps, but there are still miles to go in his mind.

The good news is Ujiri isn’t so far ahead of the curve anymore.

Africa may be on the verge of having its NBA moment.

In New York this week, the Basketball Africa League (BAL) – a 12-team professional league run as a partnership between the NBA and FIBA and scheduled to tip-off in March, hosted their inaugural scouting combine.

Early expectations are modest – the league is aiming to echo the G-League in North America, except with a distinctly local flavour — in order to build out the infrastructure of the sport in what Ujiri believes to be overflowing with talent.

And not just basketball talent, he emphasizes.

“For me, with GOA, it became how can you create different paths? What opportunity does sports give you? Because sports are growing,” he says. “There is a huge eco-system around sports that is going to grow on the continent just like there is here.

“There are going to be a growing amount of sports executives, sports managers, trainers, coaches, sports psychologists, sports doctors.

“That’s not as exposed on the continent to these young kids as we would like.

“I’m the prime example. I didn’t play one day in the NBA, I only played [two years] of college basketball and I wasn’t good in Europe [as a professional], but I run an NBA team.”

Making the NBA always involves threading the eye of a needle given there are only 450 full rosters spots – an absurdly small number given the global nature of the sport – but African-born players have to overcome cultural and geographical hurdles at the very least, but often economic and political ones as well.

Few NBA players travel farther – metaphorically and literally – than those who had to leave Africa to pursue their basketball dreams.

Raptors forward Pascal Siakam has arrived on the cusp of superstardom by way of talent identification camps in Cameroon and then South Africa as a teenager which in turn led him to Lewisville, Tex., at a basketball-oriented prep school called God’s Academy. Weather was not an issue, but there were issues. No one spoke French and the first English words he heard over and over again were his teammates mocking his then-rudimentary skills.

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“It was so different right, from what I was used to, from being at home in Cameroon or being at boarding school there,” says Siakam.

“It was a little weird, and maybe not the best environment to be in, but at the same time it was an opportunity for me to realize the dream I was looking for.

Serge Ibaka had to leave Congo for France at 16 and then moved to Spain before was drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2010.

Even now, Ibaka doesn’t like to go into detail about the challenges of leaving home so young for such an uncertain future.

The sacrifices required and hurdles to navigate help explain why a continent of 1.2 billion can claim only 13 African-born players in the league at the moment – lagging well behind Canada, for example.

Like Ujiri, many of the league’s African players see changing that as part of their duty.

“And African players, we all have the same mission, it doesn’t matter if we’re from Congo, Nigeria, Cameroon – we’re only here for to represent our countries and our continent, to inspire other generations,” says Ibaka. “It’s important because we have to prove to the world of basketball we have talent.”

Siakam and countryman Joel Embiid from the Philadelphia 76ers, along with reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo – born in Greece to Nigerian parents, as Ujiri is quick to point out – are already helping shift the stereotype often attached to African players from lower-skill defenders or energizers to all-round talents that can shape games.

In that light alone, the possibilities seem endless.

“Look at Pascal, he’s on his way to being a top-10 player, he won a title,” says Embiid, the 76ers star. “Serge has been doing it, me I’m going to keep doing my thing and there is more to come.

“Other kids are going to come up and look at Pascal, at me and think wow, this is crazy, an African player is one of the best in the NBA and they’re thinking, ‘it’s achievable.’”

Siakam got his first taste of the influence his example can have when he brought the Larry O’Brien Trophy to the GOA camp in Cameroon this past summer. With his professional career established and a max contract in hand, he wants to follow his Ujiri’s example and give back.

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“From the beginning, from my rookie year – he always told me: ‘We have to make a difference. It’s not just about you or about me, it’s about making a difference’.

“That’s the way he sees things and I’m blessed to be around him, seeing things to way he does and be able to learn from that.”

Siakam’s efforts are still in the planning stages, but his goals are clear: to help build more basketball facilities, which were few and far between when he grew up but also change the way people from the west look at his home continent.

“I want to continue to show the progressive side of Africa, not just the poor part,” Siakam says. “There are smart kids with a lot of talent, and we want to make sure we give kids to have a chance to show their talent, that’s what I’m focusing on.”

A passionate soccer fan growing up, and still today, Ujiri points to the highest levels of European soccer as an example of how quickly talent can travel when bridges are built. In the English Premier League, for example, the number of African-born players exploded in less than a decade from eight in 1996-97 to a high-water mark of 59 in 2007-08. There were 47 African-born players on rosters at the start of this season.

He’s predicting a similar wave will be hitting the NBA in the years to come, but more importantly, that a greater African presence in the league will merely be the headline on a larger story of sports creating opportunities of all kinds for smart, ambitious kids willing to dream big.

The close of 2019 could mark the beginning of the NBA’s African decade.

And a decade from now?

“I’ll be on my farm in Africa, milking my cows and watching it all on my phone,” he jokes.

Unlikely, knowing him.

But idea of the leader of the next generation of Africans planning to make their way to bigger things through hoops, having to dig out of a North Dakota blizzard to find their way?

That’s unlikely, too. He’s seeing to that.

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