Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri and his Giants of Africa
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Masai Ujiri is slowly becoming a giant of Africa – and it has nothing to do with his 6”4 height. As the first African-born general manager of a North American pro sports team, the Toronto Raptors, the man stands out.
Having spearheaded the Raptors to their best regular season record (56 wins) and playoff finish (Eastern Conference Finals) in the history of the franchise, through a series of shrewd off season signings (Bismack Biyombo), Ujiri is now really catching his stride.
The former pro basketball player who plied his trade on hardcourts in Europe for six years, and is as an award-winning NBA executive, has quietly used his outlier status to affect the development of the game in Africa, and to equally trigger societal change off the court.
Africa has produced some of the brightest basketball prospects, beginning with the retired top two leading shot blockers of all time, two-time NBA champion Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon from Nigeria and Dikembe Mutombo from the Congo. Today, the current NBA champion Golden State Warriors flaunt two hugely important Nigerian contributors in Andre Iguodala and Festus Azeli. And the list goes on — the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Serge Ibaka, Portland Trail Blazer’s Nicolas Batum, Toronto Raptor’s Bismack Biyombo.
Ujiri is hoping more players come out of Africa. The Nigerian native created his Giants of Africa foundation in 2003 to honour the work of his idol, the late freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. Its mission is to “use basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of African youth. We aim to provide quality facilities, gear and coaches with the goal of growing the game of basketball within Africa,” it states on the web site.
“We create awareness and support for underprivileged children and young adults through our camps, which place emphasis on hard work, accountability, honest living and positivity. We strive to create opportunity not only as a player, but in other related areas – urging African youth to Dream Big.”
“We try to give back to Africa and the youth of Africa. We do baseball camps and we feel it is important to teach life skills also, in addition to basketball skills,” Ujiri told Samaritanmag. “It’s tremendously important because we come from communities and we were once youth. We were once people in these positions and now that we’ve been put in maybe better positions, and we have the opportunity to have the jobs that we have, we always have to give back and give opportunities to others.”
Back in 2013, Ujiri signed a $15 million deal to become GM of the Toronto Raptors for five years. He actually got his start in an NBA head office nine years ago as a director of global scouting for The Raptors in 2007, and then worked as an assistant GM dating back to 2008.
Fast forward to today, and between his work as the highly successful Raptors GM and as the director of the NBA's Basketball Without Borders Africa program, which promotes basketball throughout the continent, he is inching that much closer to becoming a new breed of giant from Africa.
When quizzed as to why he is so firmly committed to giving back to those less fortunate in Africa, and in participating in NBA Cares initiatives which revolve around providing hands-on service to others, his answer is simple.
“It’s what I always preach,” says Ujiri. “I’m so proud of the NBA, so proud to be a part of it because it aligns with my personal belief system.”
* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.