World·CBC in Tanzania

How the Raptors NBA win is helping to inspire a continent

The goal of Masai Ujiri's Giants of Africa program is not to create a direct pipeline to the NBA, but rather to foster basketball and life skills that can lead to scholarships, education, and maybe a job in sports.

Goal of Masai Ujiri's Giants of Africa program is to foster both basketball and life skills

Raptors president Masai Ujiri, centre, with students at Minaki High School in Kisarawe, Tanzania. The only basketball court at the school is made of red dirt, with painted white lines and wood backboards. Basketball is in its infancy here, but Masai's Giants of Africa program aims to help the sport - and prospects for young people - grow. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

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:

Young basketball players, girls and boys from across East Africa, chant 'I'm a leader' during the Giants of Africa camp held this summer in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The camp, which teaches both basketball and life skills, is supported by Raptors president Masai Ujiri and others from Toronto's NBA team, as well as volunteers and corporate sponsors. 0:17

"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, centre, in a crowd of coaches and players at the Giants of Africa camp in Nigeria this summer with the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy. The highlight of Ujiri's summer tour? 'I would say going back to Zaria with the trophy and giving my parents the trophy was incredible for me,' he said. (Jamal Burger)

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. 

Ujiri leads a session at the Giants of Africa camp in Dar es Salaam. He sports an 'I am a giant' t-shirt every day of camp and his constant messages to youth are that they are the future of Africa, and that they need to dream big. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

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.

The goal is to teach basketball skills to the boys and girls who attend the camps, but also life skills and a desire to aim high in life. (Adrienne Arsenault/CBC)

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.

The invitation-only Giants of Africa camps draw young people from across the continent. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

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.

Fifteen-year-old Freddie David De De, left, and Fortis Felisian, 16, on the first day of this year's Giants of Africa camp at JMK Park in Dar es Salaam. Basketball is in its infancy here, and neighbourhood courts like this one are a rarity. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

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. 

In De De's shared bedroom, he hangs his uniform and shoes on the wall. He can't easily afford new gear, so he saves them for 'special' games. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

"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

Youths from Minaki High School in Kisarawe, Tanzania, play basketball on a red clay court. Ujiri says he wants to see experts help develop the sport and give young people more opportunities to play in the country. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

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."

Hasheem Thabeet is a giant — not just standing beside CBC's Adrienne Arsenault, but to kids all over Africa. This summer, Thabeet was part of the Giants of Africa basketball camp — the passion project of Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri. He talks about why these camps are so important. 2:19

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. 

Canadian High Commissioner Pamela O’Donnell loves playing basketball, and when she heard the GOA camp was coming to Tanzania she volunteered to help coach. Here she works with players on a goal-setting exercise. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

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."

Young girls invited to the kids camp didn’t let head coverings or full-length clothing limit their play. (Adrienne Arsenault/CBC)

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."

Pascal Siakam, seen here with the NBA championship trophy, was one of the Raptors players who took part in the Giants of Africa camp in his native Cameroon this summer. (Charlie Lindsay)

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."

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri describes his reaction and first thoughts when his team won the final game in Oakland, Calif., to clinch the NBA championship. 0:55

More from CBC News

Watch The National's story on the Giants of Africa basketball camps:

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri's Giants of Africa basketball camp brings kids hoops, hope and a little heartache 12:07

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.