A decade before Masai Ujiri joined the Toronto Raptors’ head office, he began running basketball camps in his native Nigeria to share his knowledge and passion for the game with the country’s youth.
Yet even with the current demands as club president overseeing the playoff-bound Raptors, there has been no waning in his philanthropic efforts since founding Giants of Africa in 2003.
“I’m a strong believer when you build something, you stay true to who you are, really, and that has more impact on people; and that will have more impact on the youth. So, when I started doing these camps, that’s what I did,” Ujiri said in an interview last fall at his office overlooking the courts at the Raptors’ training facility.
“As much as you’re trying to lift others, they lift me too.
To me, I wake up in the morning, go to camp, spend all day in the gym. I don’t want to be one of those (people) that’s in their hotel room or going to do something else…. That’s not what it’s about. To me, it’s real.”
In the documentary “Giants of Africa,” award-winning Canadian filmmaker Hubert Davis turns his lens on Ujiri and camps organized in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda, which are aimed at helping youngsters develop their skills in basketball and as the next generation of community leaders.
Among the campers profiled is Sodiq Awogbemi from Nigeria, who speaks of his desire to make his family proud, and to pursue a career as a doctor if his dreams of making the NBA fall short. He also recounts a heartbreaking story of being forced to flee his home after militant terrorist group Boko Haram opened fire in his community.
“There’s a very small amount of bad people, but sometimes with what they do it can be overwhelming,” said Ujiri. “Sodiq is unfortunate to come from that part of the country.
It’s the same part of the country I grew up in. Northern Nigeria has become like that. Where I had a great experience growing up, and I know up to a certain time Sodiq had a great experience of growing up _ and then he experiences this.
“It’s important that he knows that he has to use this as a chance now. If there’s a breakthrough, he has an opportunity to go do something and then go back and preach doing better.
It’s very, very important, and you can see that he sees it.”
While campers receive guidance on improving their basketball skills, Ujiri is determined to also instill values that will translate away from the court.
In the film, he gives an impassioned speech during one of the camps about the importance of valuing women. Campers are also seen receiving coaching from Temi Fagbenle, a Harvard grad of Nigerian heritage who played for the British women’s basketball team at the 2012 Olympics.
“It’s what they need to understand, especially at a young age. You know what? You go back to your community and you can respect your neighbour’s daughter, you can respect women around you without thinking a different way.”
Ujiri said he hopes that the youth attendees will spread the messages learned at the camps within their communities.
“There are so many people at a certain age you can’t change them…. But when it comes to the youth, they’re the ones that can shape how they grow up, and most youth will grow up with their environment. They’ll take to what they see, and they’ll take to what they’re accustomed to.
“If they hear it from us, year in, year out, day in, day out, who are preaching these things, now they can see. Now they can know. This is so important for the campers.”
“Giants of Africa” is now screening in Toronto.
By Lauren La Rose. This article first appeared in City News.