Masai Ujiri didn’t take time off, not really. The Toronto Raptors really did win the NBA title, before Kawhi Leonard left, and it was all so exhausting. But there wasn’t any time to rest. The Raptors president had promises to keep.
So he didn’t stop. Draft, free agency, Kawhi, summer league, and even in the four days after that when he was stuck in London due to a paperwork issue he chatted with Pascal Siakam’s agent, who happened to be there too. Ujiri barely had time to breathe before Basketball Without Borders, and then, another summer in Africa.
And it was different. This time Giants of Africa, his charitable series of basketball camps, went to six countries, including South Sudan and Somalia. Both are products of civil war, past and present. This was new.
“All we’re trying to do with Giants of Africa is to encourage basketball and other sports that we can really bring people together,” says Ujiri, in his office at the quiet Raptors practice facility. “To go to these places where it seems like there’s no hope, but there is hope.”
He has visited the refugee camps in Dadaab and Kakuma in Kenya, and this time he went to the Mathare slum in Nairobi. In those places he has found so many welcoming people; he believes eliminating poverty is the road to eliminating refugee camps, and lifting people up. And he believes sports can be a small part of that in the cities and countries of Africa.
So he pushes to new places to learn their culture, to learn about their people, to provide opportunity, to stand with them, and to provide an example. Somalia was the more dangerous of the two simply because in Juba in South Sudan, the Giants of Africa camp was boys. In Somalia, it was 50 girls.
“We needed a bit (of security),” says Ujiri, with deliberate understatement.
Somalia’s civil war has endured in one way or another since 1991, and the radical Islamic group al-Shabaab remains active. Ujiri has Somali and Sudanese friends, including NBA player Luol Deng and a talented Sudanese former player and organizer named Sara Chan. He also read about Somali girls and basketball in a 2017 piece in The New Yorker by Alexis Okeowo. It detailed how radical Islamists in the East African country had threatened young girls who just wanted to play.
In recent times radical Somali Islamists had killed people for merely watching sports on television, and women could not watch in person. Somali women’s players would wear niqabs to and from the court to play, because dressing in pants could invite violence, and sometimes did. The girl at the centre of the story, Aisha, just wanted to be like LeBron James, who she had seen on the Internet.
As Ujiri has become more vocal about giving power to women in key positions — the organization counts women at several key positions, up to and including Teresa Resch, the franchise’s vice-president of basketball operations and player development — he has also increased the visibility and focus on women at Giants of Africa.
But Somalia was different. It was the first time he has ordered hijabs from Nike as part of GOA’s signature camp gear. The whole shipment was delayed; most of it arrived, eventually. Except the hijabs.
“They got stolen, or lost, and it broke my heart,” Ujiri says. “We never found them. We found everything else, we took everything else to the camp.”
So the girls wore their own hijabs, and they met at a facility run by Ilwad Elman, a Somali-Canadian who co-runs the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Mogadishu. Ujiri’s crew flew in, toured Mogadishu, and the girls played on the outdoor court. It was sports and a political statement at the same time.
And that is where Ujiri’s ambitions — which are both big and small — can get tricky. He must be a politician without being overtly political, but he refuses to bow to fear. He tries to make giving sports opportunity to Africa’s youth a common sense issue, with increasing political support. In places where radicals threaten women for merely playing sports, he has tried to show it is a simple human joy.
“I just try to bring in positivity,” says Ujiri. “That’s the way that I decided to look at it, and my positivity is through sports and through basketball. I know that it’s political, but I’m not going to go there. Me, I don’t look at it as tricky, because I don’t approach it with any bad intentions. There’s no changing anybody. If people decide that wow, I can do this, or women decide that we can get to to do this, why not? Let’s give them the opportunity, and see if they can do it or not.
“To me, human beings are the same everywhere. Happy, willing to learn. Some places they know basketball more, or less; some places there is more talent, and some less.”
But his announcement of the Somali leg was purposeful, too; he didn’t want to be secretive and fearful, but rather to stand proudly with the girls. Courage can be political, too.
“If we Africans are scared to go to Africa, who’s going to go? Who’s going to go?” says Ujiri.
“We have to create the narrative of what’s going on there, of the good. I was reading about the Toronto-Somali journalist who was killed (in an al-Shabaab hotel attack in June); her name was Hodan Nalayeh, and I think she said, we have to create the narrative of what goes on there, the good that goes on there. Or someone will create another.”
Soon Ujiri will return fully to his day job, on the other side of a championship. He can’t think about how Kawhi left; he has to start building towards acquiring a different star, and preparing the ground for the chance.
But he still has a sweeping vision of African sports lifting the continent, of some of their incredible talent staying home, of teams and leagues Africans can own and be inspired by. He is informed by Toronto. He was at a children’s rescue home outside Nairobi when he came across 30 Canadian doctors and dentists and their families who were volunteering there. They all said, every one, that they had been at the Raptors championship parade. Sports can bring people together. Ujiri has never believed it more.
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“It shows you the sense of pride,” he says. “That’s the dream of the continent.”
He keeps trying to build, anywhere he can. Ujiri is taking his family on vacation this week, but some things ring in his ears. When he presented the NBA trophy to his parents in Lagos, his mother Paula Grace, the doctor, told him, “There will be more.”
And his father Michael, the hospital administrator, the other half of these successful parents who have raised one boy, told his son something that a lot of people associated with Ujiri, with Giants of Africa, or with the Raptors might feel. His father said, “You made me feel big.”