Masai Ujiri, Raptors honour Nelson Mandela

The Toronto Raptors, led by general manager Masai Ujiri, are honouring the one-year anniversary of the death of South Africa's Nelson Mandela with an all-star benefit on Friday night.

1-year anniversary of South African leader's death

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, shown at a Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg, South Africa, will honour the one-year anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela with an all-star benefit Friday. (Nathaniel S. Butler/ Getty Images)

Masai Ujiri remembers being a boy attending a basketball camp in his native northern Nigeria, and the excitement of being given an Hakeem Olajuwon T-shirt.

It was a small gesture with a big impact.

"My eyes were so wide, to get that T-shirt was unbelievable," Ujiri said.

Ujiri speaks passionately about the power of sports to change lives. He's seen it first-hand through his Giants of Africa camp and Basketball Without Borders, and is himself living proof as the president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors.

It's a determination he shared with the late Nelson Mandela, who Ujiri and the Raptors will celebrate Friday in an all-star benefit.

"How many people in those kinds of positions ever have any kind of relations with sport in some ways other than being like a guest of honour or something?" Ujiri said in a phone interview Thursday.

"But Nelson Mandela, with what he did with rugby, the way he supported sports, I thought it was so impactful because he said it best: sports has the power to impact people and society, and youth. And so I think it's a great message for us, it's not only a great game, but it's a great day to spread that message around the world that we are blessed to have sports and we are blessed to participate in something fun like this."

When South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela famously donned the Springbok sweater, a gesture he hoped would help unite his racially-fragmented country.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary since Mandela's death at the age of 95.

Ujiri has assembled an all-star lineup for the event, including NBA legends Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson and Dikembe Mutombo, along with UN Goodwill Ambassador and 1999 Miss Universe winner Mpule Kwelagobe. Other guests include Raptors alumnus Tracy McGrady, Toronto Maple Leaf goaltender Jonathan Bernier and Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, former Toronto Argonauts star Michael (Pinball) Clemons, deputy commissioner of the NBA Mark Tatum and Amadou Fall, vice-president of NBA Africa.

Funds raised will go to both the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Ujiri's Giants of Africa.

Ujiri founded Giants of Africa in 2003, both as a means to enrich the lives of children in Africa, and to shine a spotlight on the abundance of untapped talent there.

Friday's celebration will begin with a panel discussion. It will continue into Friday's Raptors game versus the Cleveland Cavaliers, with video tributes. The Raptors will wear special edition shooting shirts and management will don Giant of Africa lapel pins. "The Giant of Africa" T-shirts will be for sale, featuring Mandela's five pillars; being a leader, fighting for freedom, creating a better future, committing to the community and using sport to inspire change. Proceeds from sales go to Giants of Africa.


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