Growing up playing basketball in Africa, NBA Champion and Toronto Raptors Vice-Chairman and President, Masai Ujiri realized the abundance of talent in his homeland – but these players were often referred to as raw, lacking experience in the game and lacking access to coaching and facilities.
That’s why Masai founded Giants of Africa in 2003 – a non-profit organization that provides quality facilities, gear and coaches with the goal of empowering African youth through the power of sport.
I’m thrilled to sit down with Masai Ujiri, NBA Champion and Toronto Raptors Vice-Chairman and President, to explore his incredible nonprofit Giants of Africa and his vision and passion of using sports as a vehicle for transformative impact.
Diana Tsai: Let’s start from the beginning! You started Giants of Africa in 2003. Was there a catalyst or was this a long-held dream?
Masai Ujiri: When I was playing on the national team years there were always these youth that would want to hang around all of us. They wanted to learn, and I could see sometimes it was the fundamentals they were lacking. When I first started the camps, honestly, it was kind of selfish! I wanted to find the next star. And so we created these camps, and I modeled it from Basketball Without Borders (by the NBA, which I was director of their camps in Africa). So I had 3 motivations: inspiration from the impact of Basketball Without Borders, wanting to find the next star, and teaching kids the basic fundamentals of basketball. Because ultimately, when I see those kids, I see myself.
Tsai: What has been the total impact of Giants of Africa to-date?
Ujiri: Each summer since 2003, we’ve conducted camps across the African continent for boys and girls between the ages of 15 and 19. We’ve connected with youth in over 17 African countries and territories thus far, Giants of Africa has developed players at the local, national, international and professional levels. Over 100 of our campers have attended high school or university in the United States and Canada, nearly 25 former participants have played on junior teams in clubs throughout Europe and over 65 have attended the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program in Africa. And those numbers don’t include the hundreds of Giants of Africa youth who – inspired by the game of basketball – have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, teachers and so forth. In addition to hosting camps, Giants of Africa has built basketball courts and conducted outreach programs in communities of need throughout Africa, including United Nations-sanctioned refugee camps in Kakuma and Dadaab. We’re now launching a new initiative to build 100 basketball courts across the continent to help build critical infrastructure for local communities.
Tsai: You’ve leveraged your influence and leadership in sports for good. Any advice for other athletes out there who want to follow your example on how they can best use their superpowers for good in the impact world?
Ujiri: I was advised when I first got into a leadership role something really important: follow your passions. What am I passionate about for the greater good? I chose Giants of Africa. That was my passion, it’s what I loved. And that was the best advice I got – choose something that you are passionate about, choose something that you know does good. Bring other people along in some kind of way. You talk about helping other people. That’s my passion too: how do I go back and give people as much opportunity and more than I got as a young basketball player?
Tsai: You speak so powerfully about how proud you are of Africa, the potential you see in the talent of Africa. What’s your biggest dream for Africa? How is Giants of Africa part of that dream?
Ujiri: Africa’s biggest resource is its people. That’s why my mind expanded from when originally I was looking for basketball talent to today, where we nurture the talent potential in every one of our kids to all types of careers even outside of sports. Because the reality is that out of each camp of 50 to 100 kids, there are only 1 or 2 that make it into the big leagues. What happens to the rest of these kids really matters, and so at our camps we teach life skills, and develop their minds beyond sports. We use sports as the opportunity to open their eyes to different career paths like become a sports doctor, or psychologist, or lawyer, or journalist.
We have an incredible example of a kid called Webber, he became an engineer while playing basketball. He wanted to find out ways to make the basketball upright, because these things were costing so much money to ship from the US to Africa, like $15,000. And he’s saying, we have all the metals, we have the glass, we have everything here, why can’t I make them locally! And he learned to make them- you should see the rims! He’s making them and they are incredible, NBA-quality. We use them for some of our camps, he’s supplying universities. And it’s incredible. This is someone who didn’t play in the NBA, he didn’t play professionally, but used the game and now found a niche, found an opportunity, found a career.
For me, Africa has talent. And Africa’s biggest resource is its people.
My biggest dream for Africa is everything can happen there that has happened for us here in the Western world. And I firmly believe sports is one the next big things that is going to happen in Africa.
Tsai: What are the core principles of being a pro-basketball player that apply to just professional success in ANY career path?
Ujiri: It’s the discipline that sports brings. The discipline of being on time. The discipline of camaraderie. The discipline of winning. Of listening. Really listening. A lot of us like to talk, not listen.
Tsai: You’ve inspired hundreds of African youth that basketball can be a tool for breakout professional success. Who inspired and mentored you when you were a teenager, growing up in Northern Nigeria? Ujiri: The first mentorship and role model comes from parents – the beliefs, values, work ethic, honesty, how we treat people the right way. When I started playing sports, I was lucky to have a great American coach who had come to us via the Peace Corps, Oliver Johnson. He taught us life skills.
Tsai: What’s the most important life skill your mentor Oliver Johnson taught you?
Ujiri: I’ll give you something that happened in one of his camps. I sprained my ankle and it hurt, so I sat out the drills. Then in the evening, when the game started, I tied up my shoes, like “I’m ready to go!”, and Coach [Oliver Johnson] looked at me and said, “You didn’t do the drills, but your ankle is good enough for the game?” And I had to go sit back down. That taught me, not everything is fun. You have to put in the hard work, the grind. And I just learned that lesson right there. Every time you’re in sports, you have to go ALL IN, ALL OUT, work hard, have passion. That’s what it takes for you to even participate, to compete – and then for you to win.
Tsai: The NBA generates around $8B in revenue per season. What’s your prediction as to how long it’ll take basketball in Africa to become a billion-dollar industry?
Ujiri: It’s coming. People are beginning to realize. I think social media, and the way games are being watched now, is playing into this. The game is really evolving into something that is engaging. How long is it going to take? We need infrastructure first though. That’s what motivates me.
Tsai: You say, “we need infrastructure” – if you had $100million to invest into infrastructure to empower talent, where would you put the money?
Ujiri: ARENAS. The arena space in Africa is almost nonexistent. You go to cities like Nairobi, Lagos, there are no arenas. Arenas are incredible spaces that host hockey, conventions, basketball, lacrosse, our Raptors, fairs, speaking engagements – you cannot get a date. These engagements create leads, business, restaurants, apartments, bars, shops, everything around that – we don’t have that. Building arenas is where we should be going now, because it’s going to develop so much.
Tsai: You had mentioned earlier your passion for teaching boys at your camps about respecting women. One of the things that brings me the greatest sadness in the world is the amount of violence that’s committed against women. As someone who cares deeply about women’s empowerment, I’m really curious how this became an important message for you? I think sports are one of the most incredible ways to reach young men because young men are so influenced by sports.
Ujiri: It starts with my mom. My sisters, my wife, my daughter. When I sit and look at her, you imagine all kinds of things. She could be a young girl born in a refugee camp. Here she is, an incredible, beautiful soul, like so many incredible beautiful souls are born all over the world. Why should they not be respected or treated in the best possible way? There are different cultures around the world, but for me, I always say this, i don’t know anyone from this world that did not come from a woman.
Tsai: How can listeners get involved / help?
Ujiri: Join the Giants of Africa online community at www.GiantsofAfrica.org and follow @GiantsofAfrica and #BuiltwithinTour on Instagram.