Giants of Africa and Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri continues to serve as an inspiration to the city of Toronto and the country of Canada. Never lacking for passion or energy, Ujiri has set himself apart as one of the best leaders in not only the NBA, but in all of sport, and takes the opportunity to honor and respect those who inspired him to get to this point.
Through Tuesday Dec. 4 and Wednesday Dec. 5, the franchise and the NBA as a whole will celebrate the centenary of Nelson Mandela with a series of events.
“Big night celebrating Nelson Mandela, 100 years of him,” Ujiri said at the BioSteel Centre on Tuesday. “We’ve always celebrated the day he passed here, Dec. 5, and this year we have a couple days and just wanted to show it, as you’ve seen all over the world, I think people are celebrating it and I wanted to bring a special couple days to remember him and, not only that, not to forget him and the impact he has had, on my life and many others and maybe even more youth as they continue to grow.”
This marks the fifth consecutive year that Giants of Africa, the not-for-profit founded by Ujiri, will pay tribute to the late South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
“It’s awesome. Especially in the game on Wednesday to have Pascal (Siakam), Serge (Ibaka), OG (Anunoby) – depending on the day he wakes up whether he’s British or American or Nigerian, depends on what sweatshirt he has on that day – (Joel) Embiid, and they are making impacts in the NBA, which is really cool to see,” Ujiri said when asked about the growing presence of Africans in the NBA. “I think their personalities are showing, and I do commend the work that they do. People don’t talk about it as much but they also do work around the continent and encourage youth to follow, like how they have come to. I think that goes a long way. It’s great to have good momentum like that.”
Among the special guests expected to attend are former Raptor Chris Bosh and African legend Dikembe Mutombo. The Raptors will introduce a ‘Mandela 100’ themed court at Scotiabank Arena and both the Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers will wear Mandela 100 warmup shirts.
Across the city, the Mandela 100 celebration will host events with the specific purpose of engaging and encouraging youth to reach their potential and be positive members of society. Giants of Africa, in partnership with the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship for the Government of Canada Ahmed Hussen, will connect with youth at risk and those facing barriers in their local communities. There will also be a mini basketball camp held at MLSE LaunchPad for 100 Toronto youth where the emphasis will be on Mandela’s legacy for change.
From small beginnings, Ujiri has built it and the people have come. Players have been proactive over the years in seeking to get involved with NBA Africa programs during the summer, and something he’s almost had to curb of late due to the volume of interest.
“Yeah, the NBA is trying to have me tame it down a little bit, there’s been so many,” Ujiri says with a smile. “It’s been amazing how many players have come and how many players have participated and how many players do things on the continent, how many people are interested. To be honest, Africa in my mind is no more about charity, it’s investing in the continent and giving youth opportunity. We encourage it and encourage smart people like Danny and the players, they know that this continent is growing. I don’t think it’s as much of asking for help, it’s more encouraging to come and invest on a great continent that’s ever rising and ever growing.”
NBA Africa has experienced tremendous growth over the years and players like Embiid and Siakam, both from Cameroon, have only helped further propel its advancement. Ujiri confirmed that Adam Silver discussed a Pan-African league a year ago and that plans to set the wheels in motion are underway after positive meetings with FIBA and gathering a strong network of people to build with.
“For me, the challenge on the continent is people see Africa as one country and it’s not,” Ujiri said. “There’s 54 countries with 54 different laws, regulations, rules, borders, and that’s the challenge for us. Once that challenge is met and we can have some sort of leave, I think it’s going to blow up, because you can see that there is talent there. Honestly, it’s a gold mine. It’s just the challenges of infrastructure. and coaching and leagues and structure. In terms of physical talent, I’m confident to say there are 10 Embiids walking around, there’s 10 whomevers walking around in Africa.
“It’s really interesting that there are people that have gone through their lives that have that athletic ability that didn’t even touch a basketball, but they have that gift but they never had the courts, they never had the opportunity. That’s why it’s a gold mine and people are beginning to realize it now, and it will become more prominent when we have a league.
Of course, Siakam serves as a perfect example of that type of person, having not played basketball till just eight years ago. Here he is, in the midst of a breakout NBA season, while Embiid is in the running for MVP after starting basketball at the age of 15. Players like them, Ibaka, Anunoby and Bismack Biyombo have become role models in their communities back home, and Ujiri believes this day of social media has had a positive influence in this regard.
“It’s why you like the rise of these players with Pascal and Serge and OG and these guys. Because with this day and age of social media, and you can watch highlights on your phone. It’s funny when I do my camps, back in the day as soon as camp breaks, guys are hungry and couldn’t wait to go to the cafeteria, and now as soon as camp is broken they go straight to their phones. That’s the first thing they go to. I feel in this day of social media, everybody knows them.”
Furthering that recognition is the fact that ESPN is engaging a ‘Toronto All-Access,’ a special content initiative that will feature a full day of coverage dedicated to the franchise across all ESPN platforms. Rachel Nichols will be conducting interviews with Ujiri and Kawhi Leonard, Doris Burke will be conducting a sit-down interview with head coach Nick Nurse, and other interview subjects include Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, while Ibaka will engage fans on Instagram.
The franchise continues to reach peaks unseen before, and it’s good to see the league recognize this on such a grand scale and embrace it. There is a feel-good factor as well, with Nurse even saying that players seemed to have an extra pep to their step in practice and were more jovial than usual after a loss.
Atop the league and commanding the attention of all NBA onlookers, having started from the bottom, the Raptors and Ujiri are now very much here.