Over the weekend in Ethiopia, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the African Union summit, where he was drumming up support for Canada’s campaign to get a seat on the powerful UN security council.
Who better to bring along than Ujiri, the man whose Giants of Africa charity has already made an imprint in many corners of the continent?
Ujiri is already friends with many African leaders whose voices weigh heavy on the continent’s political sphere, such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta.
“I am a Canadian citizen and I am a son of Africa,” Ujiri told reporters, as Trudeau and Ahmed Hussen, the Somali-born Canadian federal minister of families, children and social development, stood behind him.
“Any way we can help, any way I can help, it’s a big part of making the world better.”
Since coming back to Toronto in 2013 and leading the Raptors to the top of the basketball world last year, Ujiri has had an impact transcending pro sports both in Toronto and around the world.
And that impact in Toronto will continue to be felt, whether he stays with the Raptors, or if he departs for another organization when his contract ends reportedly after next season.
Rachel Pulfer, executive director of Journalists for Human Rights, still remembers when she made a decision to approach Ujiri in an effort to bring him on board her organization.
It was the spring of 2014, a few days after the Toronto Raptors were bounced out of the playoffs in a Game 7 thriller against the Brooklyn Nets, and Ujiri was speaking to media in a year-end news conference. Unprompted, he launched into a passionate plea for the world to come to the rescue of 300 girls who had just been kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram.
“What is happening in Nigeria is an absolute atrocity,” he told reporters in Toronto, imploring Canada and the rest of the world to strongly address the issue and adding his voice to the then-growing #BringBackOurGirls crusade.
That willingness to bring attention to something that is outside basketball is what got Pulfer fixated on Ujiri.
“Here’s a successful sports executive . . . most sports executives don’t stick their neck out for human rights, or much else quite frankly. I was just very impressed,” she said.
Ujiri’s call for action was in line with what JHR strives for: directing the media’s attention to major human rights issues around the world. Since 2015, he has been the group’s ambassador and co-chairs its annual gala held in Toronto.
The desire to win big on the hardwood aside, another key element of Ujiri’s tenure in Toronto has been his goal to empower women and give them a platform to flourish, both in the sports world and other fields. He started by increasing the number of women working within the Raptors organization.
“We went from one to 14, and I’m damn proud of that,” Ujiri recently told a gathering at a celebration of Toronto’s chapter of WISE — Women In Sports and Events.
In 2017, the Raptors launched a speaker series they aptly named “She The North” with the goal of inspiring young girls in the community through sharing stories of women’s success in leadership positions.
Through his Giants of Africa program, Ujiri was able to organize and conduct the first ever summer basketball camp for girls in Mogadishu, Somalia last year — going as far as ordering Nike-branded hijabs.
Ujiri’s influence can sometimes be subtle but far reaching.
Just a few days after the Raptors had ended an exhilarating NBA championship run last June, Mitch Robson saw something that deeply unsettled him: a city staff worker was pulling down a basketball hoop at an outdoor court, as kids dribbled the ball.
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He tweeted a video of the incident, and called it “sickening display.” It was part of the city’s policy to remove nets on community courts every night because of noise complaints. Ujiri was incredulous when he was asked about it, and said kids should be allowed to play basketball, whether it makes noise or not.
For a city that was still basking in championship celebrations, the incident caused quite an uproar. Soon after, the city revoked the policy and basketball nets have stayed up on community courts since then.
“Had Masai not built a championship contender and made the Raptors matter as an NBA destination, basketball does not break out in the mainstream and capture everyone’s attention last year,” Robson said.
The policy to keep the nets up was expanded to the courts at schools, partly following a petition effort launched by Toronto resident Luke Galati to let kids play after school hours. Galati said he has “no doubt” it worked because of what Ujiri means to the city.
“What the Raptors have accomplished with their championship has without a doubt inspired people to strive for greatness and to reach for the stars,” he said.
As a Raptors season ticket holder, Robson was concerned when rumours emerged last week that the New York Knicks was targetting Ujiri to take its team president job. (The Knicks have since reportedly moved on offered the job to Leon Rose).
If Ujiri had left, Galati said the city would be losing an important voice.
“Besides that, Toronto and Canada would be losing an incredible humanitarian, whose work in his native Africa on charitable causes and growth of the game throughout the continent are something we should all aspire to as citizens of this country,” he added.
Pulfer said Ujiri’s presence within the JHR organization has brought “a huge boost of energy” for everyone, building on his fundamental principles and beliefs especially about the potential for women and young people.
He was instrumental in helping the organization land $12 million in federal government grants last year, the largest sum JHR has ever secured.
Throughout the years, he has been at the centre of the organization’s efforts to build trust with its partners — from Indigenous communities to programs in Africa, where Ujiri’s name is synonymous with success and pride, she said.
“He is our biggest star,” she said. “Him and (CTV chief news anchor) Lisa LaFlamme have been both hugely helpful in building our brand and giving our brand a character. He exemplifies meritocracy in everything he does. Nobody handed him what he has now; he works incredibly hard for it.”
Were Ujiri ever to leave, Pulfer said it would be difficult not only for JHR to fill his shoes, but the city of Toronto would also feel his absence.
“Masai has made the city walk tall,” Pulfer said. “He has given the city a sense of confidence, a sense of embracing greatness and valuing it and nurturing it,” she said, noting there’s still so much more that the city and the country can continue to learn from him.
“It doesn’t matter if you are in Rosedale or Rexdale, We The North has become such a great unifier in a way that I have not seen in my lifetime.”
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