Giants of Africa director Hubert Davis on Raptors GM Masai Ujiri's real passion

Masai Ujiri became the General Manager for the Toronto Raptors in 2013 and has been a frequent name in the headlines since. He's also founder of the charity Giants of Africa (GOA), an organization dedicated to using basketball as a means of educating and enriching the lives of young people across the continent — and the subject of a new documentary, with the same name, by Academy Award nominated filmmaker Hubert Davis.

Oscar-nominated director travelled to Africa to shoot basketball camps

Masai Ujiri attends the Giants of Africa event to honor Nelson Mandela at the Air Canada Centre prior to the game between the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers on December 5, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)

Before the CBC, I worked for over a decade in the non-profit sector. I started off as an activist who had lofty dreams of changing the world; then I inadvertently stumbled into the fields of education and social service. My time there was defined by hard work, minimal pay and the consistent threat of exhaustion. As a result, I would often roll my eyes at headlines celebrating celebrities for their charity work.

He has a lot of pride. He never shies away from the idea of where he came from.- Hubert Davis on Raptors GM Masai Ujiri

​Masai Ujiri became the General Manager for the Toronto Raptors in 2013 and has been a frequent name in the headlines since. He's also founder of the charity Giants of Africa (GOA), an organization dedicated to using basketball as a means of educating and enriching the lives of young people across the continent — and the subject of a new documentary, with the same name, by Academy Award nominated filmmaker Hubert Davis.

When I sat down with Davis a few days ago, he acknowledged the inevitable eyebrow-raising that celebrity charity work often prompts, but he quickly distinguished Ujiri's work from a kind of branding exercise.

"I think what became really apparent as soon as we started filming is that this isn't his side thing, this is actually his thing — almost like his job is being the GM of the Raptors, and [GOA] is his passion. This is what he feels like he was put on this earth to do."

As a filmmaker, Davis is fascinated by characters that are passionate about what they do. For him, that made Ujiri the perfect subject. 

"He says what he wants to say, he doesn't really have a filter and he's very real. And real in that I think he's the same person who he's always been."

From his strategic trade decisions, to his visionary marketing strategies, controversial bluntness and success in bringing the NBA All Star Game to Toronto — where last night's sneak preview screening of Giants of Africa was part of the festivities — Ujiri has become one of the most talked about figures in franchise history. 

"He has a lot of pride. He never shies away from the idea of where he came from. That's in everything that he does, this identity that he's from Nigeria, he's from Africa — he's so proud of that, he wants to share that with everyone and he's not gonna apologize for that. It's interesting, that idea of leadership. I think he preaches it because that's who he is."

The film follows Ujiri as he travels to his homeland of Nigeria where the camp began 12 years ago. 

"Masai describes Nigeria as the loud country in Africa. He said you always know when Nigerians come into the room because they're the loudest.  So going into Lagos there was so much happening at all times and there was a real kind of hustle.

"That came across in the kids. They were there, they were trying to compete, they were trying to show themselves." Davis then continues with him as he journeys to their recently launched sites in Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda. Staff of the organization travel throughout each country, looking for potential players to apply to the GOA Top 50 Camp. "They really try to get kids from as far [away] as they can, so it's not just the city centers."

The camp provides young people with access to facilities, coaching and educational opportunities. To date, over 80 campers have attended high school or university in the United States and over 100 have attended university in Nigeria.

Davis notes that Giants of Africa has consciously moved away from the conventional notion that success in basketball is defined solely an NBA draft.

"[Ujiri] didn't bring any NBA players, although he could have. He had a really important thing that he said to the kids which was that none of the people there who were working, coaching and teaching were good enough to make the NBA. But it's all the other lessons and relationships that you make that can translate into wanting to do something with their lives."

Canadian documentary filmmaker Hubert Davis, left. (CP)

The name Giants of Africa was inspired by the NBA scouts that used to travel the continent looking for big players such as Hakeem Olajuwon and, according to Davis, Ujiri originally started GOA with big man camps. "But eventually it became bigger than that. Instead of just finding these literal giants of Africa, it became every kid can become a giant of Africa, in their own way."

When Davis was approached with the idea of the film, his first thoughts were of his father, former Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis. Hubert, who directed Hardwood, an Oscar-nominated 2004 short documentary about his father, recalled the senior Davis' passion for using basketball in ways that transcended the game. 

"My dad played professional basketball, but his real passion was coaching and coaching kids.This whole idea of basketball camps as tools to teach life lessons is 100 per cent what he was about.

"The idea of someone who uses sport as a way to communicate with young people and try to make the world a better place sounds like a big thing but that is what [Ujiri is] trying to do. I related to that on a personal level, because that was my dad."

Rather than making the film a biography of Ujiri, however, Davis chose to shift the lens and focus on the young people who participate in the camps and utilize their voices as the anchors of the narrative. He deliberately made a film that was distinctly different from many Western films about the lives of people in the continent of Africa, choosing to illustrate the contrasts between each location and not focus on the negative contexts that often define these regions in the Western imagination. 

"There are a lot of documentaries that I see on Africa and they're negative in what they're portraying in the worst of humanity. I think that although those are important stories to tell, it's also nice to tell other stories so that it isn't all painted with the same brush. That's my hope for [Giants of Africa], that it opens eyes in ways that we haven't seen in Western documentaries talking about Africa."

Giants of Africa, written and directed by Hubert Davis, is scheduled to be released in Fall 2016.


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