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For Masai Ujiri, the right leadership is key for growth

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Toronto Raptors’ President, Masai Ujiri, whose team won the NBA title for the first time in their history last season, was in Nigeria… recently.

Not many people in the world have led a sports franchise to win a major trophy. No African has been as successful on the global stage like Masai Ujiri has in leading the Toronto Raptors team to win the NBA Finals against defending champions the Golden State Warriors in June. I first interviewed Masai in 2017 on the sidelines of the Giant of Africa camp where he told the young boys to dream big, life is not worth living if one cannot dream big.

Two years later, here he was in front of this small audience of reporters and writers at the intimate NOK Restaurant in Victoria Island with the shiny Larry O’Brien Trophy in tow. He looked more assured and fulfilled in a grey blazer over a black t-shirt with the text ZARIA written in minimalist white font. He had just returned from Zaria where he toured his old primary school and stomping grounds with one of the most coveted diadems in global sport. It was the culmination of a dream that started from the sun-kissed courts of that university town where he first picked up the sport of basketball and ended up making one of the bravest team decisions ever to lead the Raptors to their first NBA title and place Canada on the map of global basketball.

Ujiri has never failed to speak his mind to power. His work with the Giants of Africa basketball camp helps to scour the continent in search of young boys and girls that will become the next Pascal Siakams, Serge Ibakas and Joel Embiids, African kids that can fulfil their potential on a global platform. “The talent in Africa is incredible, it is abnormal and we have to pay attention to it,” said Ujiri.

“This goes to officials, governors, ministers. I know there are slightly more important issues but sport is a big thing that we can encourage in this continent. We have to encourage them in many ways and it starts with facilities. It starts there. People are slowly building it. President [Paul] Kagame built an arena in Kigali, President [Macky] Fall built one in Dakar. We have to pay attention to what is going on and how we can develop talents,” he said

The 49-year-old believes that leadership is key to the development of sports in Nigeria and around the continent. The extant reality is that sports decisions are made politically and it leaves the industry bereft of the right hands to run its affairs. “Government in a lot of the countries control sports. We have to choose people who are experts. Every time we choose a minister, why do we always have to put someone that’s not an expert in sports all over the continent? Why does it keep happening? We have to put experts in sports [as the sports minister] that knows things about sports,” Ujiri declared. For someone that controls a $1.7billion budget at Toronto Raptors (according to Forbes), Ujiri means business.

Ujiri also backed the upcoming Basketball Africa League that is the NBA’s first foray into setting up a franchise outside of the United States. The BAL starts in 2020 with the backing of former US President Barack Obama and top brands like Nike. It is set to provide opportunities for young African players who can play and earn decent wages to shine in front of their home audiences. Lagos has been chosen as one of the cities that will play host to matches of the BAL next year while Kigali’s new 10,000-seater arena will host the semifinals and final.

Yet, Lagos lacks the kind of facilities that can host a truly world-class indoor sports event. I went with my family to watch the final two days of the ITTF Challenge Plus Nigeria Open table tennis championship over the weekend where Aruna Quadri retained his men’s singles title in front of a vociferous home crowd. The seats at the Molade Okoya Thomas Indoor Hall of the Teslim Balogun Stadium were tight with many broken and in need of replacements. Lagos wants to play big in the sports industry and it has already replaced the artificial turf inside the main bowl of the Teslim Balogun Stadium with grass. Still, the Indoor Hall needs a total overhaul to make it more user-friendly.

As Ujiri said, we need to improve sports facilities across the country. And this needs to be done across several spaces to increase accessibility to sports participation for many young people all over the country. We have too many talents that need to come through and unless we can provide an avenue for them to pick up sports, we will, unfortunately, continue to lose them. This is where leadership is key. As President Muhammadu Buhari announces his ministerial portfolio in the coming days, this is a piece of important advice that he needs to take on board; give the sports ministry an expert, not a politician. But it seems already too late.


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