How the Raptors NBA win is helping to inspire a continent
Goal of Masai Ujiri's Giants of Africa program is to foster both basketball and life skills
Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri said he didn't cry over losing star forward Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers earlier this year. "No. No. No way. Those kinds of things don't make me cry.
"There's no way I'm going to cry because of it, because a player left — you go find the next player. I'll cry here," Ujiri added, gesturing toward young basketball players in the gym behind him during an exclusive interview with CBC's The National in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Ujiri was in Tanzania leading a basketball camp with Giants of Africa (GOA), an organization he founded in 2003.
There's a bit of scouting going on for the next potential Pascal Siakam or Serge Ibaka — both Raptors players, both born in Africa. But the real purpose is to develop basketball talent on the continent and encourage young players to dream big.
Ujiri's message here is clear. You can hear it in the chants the young players are taught at camp, where "I am a giant, I am a leader" is a constant refrain:
"Everybody tells me I am the first president in all of [professional] sports from Africa," Ujiri said. "... I don't want to be the only one. If I am the only one it is a failure. If I bring others along, it is a success."
Or put more succinctly to a group of high schoolers: "What I am trying to tell you is that if my dumb ass can do it, you guys can do it even better."
You'd think, perhaps, that Ujiri would have spent his summer relaxing after the historic Raptors NBA championship win this spring. Instead, he criss-crossed Africa leading GOA basketball camps in Mali, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, Cameroon, Morocco and Tanzania.
"This is my happy hour, this is my golf. This is my whatever-other-people-do," Ujiri said. "The youth of this continent and how much I love where I grew up is what makes me keep doing this."
Ujiri is so passionate about this work that he secured money to fund GOA from the Raptors when he negotiated his own salary. Giants also has some corporate backing, including Nike, which supplies every camper with a ball, shoes and a uniform.
Each camp is run differently.
In Somalia it was a one-day camp in Mogadishu for 50 girls. It was held at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, which is co-run by Ilwad Elman, a Somali-Canadian.
In Tanzania it was a three-day camp for close to 100 boys and girls selected from across East Africa, but mostly from Dar es Salaam. Local coaches helped pick the eager youths to make up the roster. Others showed up the morning-of hoping to secure a spot, without any luck.
The goal here is not to create a direct pipeline to the NBA, but instead to foster basketball skills that can lead to scholarships, education, and maybe a job in sports.
So far, more than 100 kids from the GOA programs have made it to U.S. colleges on scholarships.
Momentum and messages
This year, Ujiri's voice at these camps had the added heft of the NBA win behind it.
"What better time — to come off a championship — to send messages, send messages [about] the change that you want on the continent, the change that you want to instill in these youths, so that it registers in them," he said. "It's momentum, right?"
And the campers here soak it all in.
Take 6-foot 7-inch Freddy David De De, a 15-year-old from a village in western Tanzania where there are a lot of tall people.
When he was orphaned a few years ago, a basketball coach persuaded him to come live with his extended family in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, so that he could work on his basketball skills. The hope was that De De might get a scholarship somewhere.
There is a dearth of basketball courts in Tanzania, and moving to Dar es Salaam meant De De was at least closer to places where he could play.
Still, he battles other huge obstacles — De De dropped out of school a couple of years ago, for example, because he could no longer afford school fees after his mother died.
"Some mornings we wake up and we have no money for food. Sometimes we have one meal per day," De De said of the extended family of eight he lives with.
The basketball shoes and jersey he was given at the Giants camp hang like trophies on the wall of the bedroom where he sleeps with his relatives, three-to-a-bed, each night.
"I am keeping these shoes for special games, because buying shoes is not easy. Getting $50 is not easy here," De De said.
The camp brings him confidence and fuels his passion for basketball.
And it bolsters his enthusiasm even more that Masai Ujiri is president of the Raptors, because De De's favourite player is Kawhi Leonard who helped lead the team to its NBA victory.
"Because he won the NBA championship, because the guy is cool and is not full of himself. And he's very funny," said De De, of his respect for Leonard.
A win for Africa
Tanzania is not a powerhouse producer of NBA prospects like Ujiri's native Nigeria or Cameroon. Still, there is one player who made the NBA from Dar es Salaam: Hasheem Thabeet.
He was invited to the camp.
The 7-foot 3-inch Thabeet is currently a free agent practising with the New York Knicks, and was the second overall draft pick in 2009 (he went to the Memphis Grizzlies). Despite his success, he said his country lacks basketball infrastructure and is still heavily soccer-focused.
"They play soccer, but for basketball you need hoops, you need shoes," Thabeet said. "The government recently took sports out of schools, so it's kind of hard. In other countries they take it seriously, it's a multimillion-dollar industry."
The GOA camp is especially meaningful to the girls who were invited to participate, as their options in Tanzania are more restricted than they are for boys.
Canada's High Commissioner to Tanzania, Pamela O'Donnell, is a keen basketball player and the first ambassador to participate in a Giants of Africa camp, working as a coach. She sees the challenges the girls face.
"The reality for girls in this country is very traditional. Girls get married young, they have lots of babies — the average is more than five children per woman. And a lot of the girls get married under the age of 18," O'Donnell said.
And in neighbouring Uganda, where some of the girls are from, they are simply discouraged from playing.
"Girls are not supposed to be given that chance," said Becky Curen, one of the players who comes from outside of Kampala, Uganda.
"Maybe when I grow up I would like to change that, because where I come from the girls are really tall."
Over the course of the three-day camps, youths are taught by the local coaches, along with an impressive roster of Giants of Africa and Raptors staff.
The Tanzania camp was led by Jama Mahlalela, the head coach of the Raptors 905 of the NBA G League. It included Patrick Englebrecht, Raptors director of global scouting, and Eric Khoury, Raptors director of analytics. Mahlalela was born in Swaziland, Englebrecht in South Africa, and Khoury in Egypt. You get the picture.
Mahlalela said that connection to the continent is incredible.
"Especially a year like now, when we are just coming off a championship. And there were so many of us from the continent that were on that team, that can now come back and celebrate back home. Makes it really, really special," he said.
"And many of us reached our dreams this past season and the kids see that represented. When we introduce ourselves we say, 'hi I am coach Jama from Swaziland,' 'I am coach Godwin from Nigeria.' That means something, because it is a coach in front of them that they view as a westerner, but really we are from here as well."
When Masai tells the basketball campers that the Raptors' NBA win was a win for Africa, that is what he means — the coaches, the president, a couple of the players, all African.
"These kids are dreaming in one way or the other, and I can guarantee that one of these kids is going to become something big," Ujiri said. "And that is what I want. That is what I want Giants of Africa to be all about.
"You have to change Africa. The only way for this continent to be great is you guys. We will be better. We will be the best. That is how I felt when we won the championship. I felt that Africa won."
More from CBC News
Watch The National's story on the Giants of Africa basketball camps: