Masai Ujiri’s giants of Africa dream
Fifty-eight sweaty young men sat down in six rows on the floor of the Molade Okoya Thomas Hall of the Teslim Balogun Stadium on Saturday, August 12, listening to one of the most evocative messages they would ever hear. Masai Ujiri, wearing a light blue t-shirt with the inscription ‘The more we give, the more we grow’ stood in front speaking to them about self-discipline, hard work and self-belief. “If you don’t want to dream big, there’s no dream at all,” Ujiri told his Giants of Africa class, as the annual Lagos camp for some of the best young basketball players selected from across the country started.
Everything is choreographed in the camp, how the players sit, where their arms and legs are placed, how they bounce the ball, how they throw, how they mark their opponents, how they think about their life. They are the future of African basketball, players who will find their feet in the game and take it a notch higher. Ujiri tells them: “For this country to move forward, you have to do better than us.” No mean words from a man who left Zaria many years ago to pursue his basketball dreams in the United States of America and is today a shining light in the sport.
While Ujiri’s playing career did not make headlines, it is his life afterwards that has attracted many accolades. The 47-year-old is the first African to head a major sports franchise in North America’s big five leagues. As President of Toronto Raptors, a $1.1bn team in Canada’s most populated city, Ujiri is in the eye of the public to deliver value for his club. Under his leadership, the club reached its first ever Eastern Conference final in 2016 where they lost in six games to eventual champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers. The success and profitability that he has seen
with the Raptors keep him on his toes.
“I have to figure out how to win in Toronto during the season and how to give back at home in the off season,” he told me on the side lines of the training camp. While Ujiri said it is difficult to find the next ‘big thing’ during his many camps that have been running for more than a decade, he sees his work as an opportunity to guide the young players, who come from all over the country and as far afield as Togo, on the right path. “I try to instil discipline in them, respect, time management, honesty, integrity and respect for women,” he said.
He also shows them that there are more opportunities outside of playing in the NBA or in Europe. The story of how he made his rise to the NBA front office is one of tenacity and focus. Ujiri started out as an unpaid scout after his unspectacular career ended. He once said he knew he didn’t have the kind of talent that would shatter records, so he turned his focus to helping American schools find top quality African players. Becoming an unpaid scout for the Orlando Magic was the opportunity he needed to get his foot in the door into the multibillion dollar NBA. He has not looked back since and in 2013 he signed a five-year $15m contract as president of the Raptors.
These opportunities, though not regular, are what he wants the players to see. He wants them to look at the bigger picture of what life offers in every facet of endeavour. Ujiri wants young African boys to be able to dream and achieve those dreams using sport. When I asked him what Nigerian basketball needs to do to become bigger and better, he avoided talking about the politics that has recently thrown up two different executive boards. He looked around the court and said: “More facilities like this, Nigerian basketball needs to provide courts for young people to play and then we will see more talents emerge.”
While Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo are two of the most successful Africans to have played the game, Ujiri is lighting the way for the sport on the continent in his own way. His boardroom success means that Africans are not restricted to the physical part of the game, they can succeed as brains behind franchises. At present, there are 15 players who represent Africa in the NBA, and many others with an African heritage representing other countries.
Ujiri’s Giants of Africa Foundation organised camps in six countries across the continent this year. There were camps in Kenya, Rwanda (opened by President Paul Kagame), Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda and Senegal, which opened to girls. Last year there were camps in Ghana and Botswana. The one thread that ran through all the camps is the belief in the power of the young African to achieve big dreams despite their lowly beginnings.
It is a long way from Zaria to Toronto, but Ujiri did not allow the distance to limit his dreams. So would many of the young people who now look up to him.