Raptors president Masai Ujiri inspires African youth in TIFF documentary
Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri is shining a spotlight on the challenges facing up-and-coming African basketball stars in a heartfelt new documentary on empowerment, failure and the meaning of home.
Ujiri sat down with CTV News Chief Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme to discuss “Giants of Africa,” set to make its Toronto International Film Festival premiere on Friday, Sept. 16.
The documentary follows Ujiri to basketball camps he started in Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and his home country, Nigeria.
But the film -- directed by Oscar-nominated, African-Canadian director Hubert Davis -- is about more than showcasing aspiring basketball players.
“It used to be about finding that next giant -- the next Hakeen [Olajuwon], the next Dikembe Mutombo. And then I realized: What happens to the kids that don’t make it in basketball?” Ujiri said.
That thought drove him to find a way he could help.
“That was the challenge in my heart, honestly. I’m always going to find basketball talent. Out of those 50 kids, a couple will make it to the NBA, one or two. Ten or 15 will make it to school in the States. But those other 30 kids -- what happens to them? That burns me right there.”
For Ujiri, the solution was simple.
“That’s where we need to teach education. We need to teach them the fundamentals of all these social issues,” he said.
“For me, we should be putting all these kids in a position where they do better. They know better so they do better, and they go back and they make changes. It has to be done collectively and it has to be done by the youth.”
The film follows Ujiri as he coaches young players on important skills both on and off the court. In one scene, Ujiri becomes outwardly upset with the problems facing his home country and encourages the youth to “change this f***ing country.”
“It’s the most frustrating part,” Ujiri said. “It’s something that steadily gets better slowly. It’s better than when I was at home but it breaks my heart, it just breaks my heart.”
In particular, Ujiri points a finger at politicians in his home country, who he accuses of letting down youth.
“People get into positions of power where they forget where they are from, they forget the youth and they forget what brings them along. Now it’s, ‘How do I oppress?’ and it’s wrong.”
Ujiri, who is the first African-born president of a major North American sports team, also spoke about his emotional ties to his new home, Toronto.
“This place has given me a remarkable opportunity. I get emotional when I talk about it. I don’t know how I was chosen, but I was. This is home. This right here is home,” he said.
As for the upcoming basketball season, Ujiri said he feels confident in his team and those supporting them.
“I’m so confident with the organization, the people of Toronto -- fans, family, friends, everybody. You feel it,” he said.
With a report from CTV News Chief Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme