Masai Ujiri understands the power of sport in building community and empowering people. As President of the Toronto Raptors, Masai has led the team through its most successful period in franchise history. Off the court, he’s been using the sport to educate and enrich the lives of African Youth through his non-profit, Giants of Africa.
Originally from Nigeria, Masai grew up playing basketball and played professionally in Europe for six years. He saw the potential of talent in his homeland, but often saw these players turned down because they lacked experience and access to coaching and facilities.
Masai founded Giants of Africa in 2003 to provide quality facilities, gear, and coaches with the goal of growing the game of basketball within Africa. They create awareness and support for underprivileged children and young adults through their camps, which emphasize hard work, accountability, honest living, and positivity. Giants of Africa strive to create opportunity not only for players, but in other related areas —urging African youth to dream big.
Forbes recently interviewed Masai about his work with Giants of Africa as well as his passion for using sport as a vehicle for transformative impact. Below is a segment of the piece, read the whole article here.
Forbes: 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.
Forbes: 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.
Forbes: 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?
Forbes: 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.
Forbes: 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.
Forbes: 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.
Forbes: 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.
Masai Ujiri is in his seventh season as President of the Toronto Raptors, leading the team to the most successful period in franchise history, including a NBA Championship. He speaks on his incredibly successful leadership philosophy, social justice, women empowerment, and building strong business cultures.
Interested in learning more about Masai and what he can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].