African youth helped to 'Dream Big' in basketball program inspired by Nelson Mandela
Rick Westhead, TSN Senior Correspondent
Published Saturday, February 17, 2018 7:00AM EST
Giants of Africa is a program to help African youth through basketball.
In 2003, Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri, who is from Nigeria, founded the non-profit organization.
His inspiration was the late Nelson Mandela and his five pillars of change: sports, leadership, community, freedom and future.
Each year, GOA holds camps across the continent inspiring and giving hope to underprivileged children and young adults.
The program’s slogan is “Dream Big”, which is what Ujiri dared to do when he began Giants of Africa.
In an interview with TSN’s Rick Westhead, Ujiri spoke of his background, his hopes and his own big dreams:
Rick Westhead, TSN: You described yourself as a son of Africa. What does that mean to you - where you come from, your upbringing here?
Masai Ujiri: This is really where I belong. That's the honest truth. The continent is where I grew up. This is where my parents are from and I feel that I have an obligation and responsibility to come back and give back, create a path for other youth. I love it here.
RW: Can you paint a picture for us of where you were at in your life and what was going on when you conceived the idea of Giants of Africa?
MU: When I played there was always this feeling of helping kids. Trying to help them get to the States or trying to gain them gear. And then I was (fortunate) with the NBA to be Director of Basketball without Borders in 2002. I got that call that basically changed my life. And when I saw that camp held in South Africa, I felt that it should be all over the continent, but first, I didn't have that (many) resources. I just did that camp in Nigeria and then it start to spread a little bit and go to other places.
RW: What are you hoping to achieve with the kids?
MU: Giants of Africa is a movement and it's going to be a movement that will galvanize and energize youth all over the continent. By the grace of God, it's going to carry on. Honestly, the simple answer is some kid is gonna take this, I don't know if it's a vision or this movement or this experience, and go transfer it to something that he wants to do. And it might not be called Giants of Africa, but all these youth will go on to do other things and maybe there's one little thing they've learned along this way with what we're doing with Giants of Africa that would translate into helping more youth. And maybe something big, but I think it's a movement that will continue forever.
RW: What do you remember about the first camp in 2003?
MU: Great memories for me. The first one was in Northern Nigeria in Zaria, very, very, very, far away to where I grew up in a low gym, and kids had to travel all over the country to get there. And we had to reject some kids because we only had 50 uniforms, and we barely had any shoes. To see how it has grown, it really tells a story, I think. Not the camp itself, but even the kids. There's so much more awareness of the game of basketball, it has become so global.
RW: In terms of the program's success, do you have any idea how many kids have moved from the Giants of Africa Camps on to prep schools, and colleges, or European pro leagues, or wherever?
MU: I would say that number is getting closer to 100 now, which is, I think, remarkable. I can't even keep count anymore.
RW: What life lessons do you share with the kids in the program?
MU: When you talk about honesty, it's huge in the continent, being honest in what you do. When you talk about respect for women, it's a powerful message to these youth, especially in this day in age. And things like being on time. Things like respecting your elders, respecting authority, respecting people around you. It doesn't matter how big or small you are. I think these life lessons are very basic, but very important. And very important that these guys know from a young age.
RW: Adam Silvers (NBA Commissioner) described you as the Pied Piper for a whole continent. How do you feel being described that way?
MU: I'm proud to represent an organization like the NBA. Honestly, it's the same way that I'm proud to represent Africa. I'm proud to represent the Toronto Raptors and the NBA because it's a huge organization that has given me this incredible opportunity, and it's going to pass on to somebody. A lot of people say, "Oh, first African GM," all that stuff. That means nothing if there is no one that comes after me. It absolutely means nothing. I don't want to be the only one. There have to be more people that come after me, and that's success in my opinion.
This interview is drawn from one given by Masai Ujiri to TSN’s Rick Westhead, which is part of a W5-TSN documentary “One Team” filmed in Rwanda.