TORONTO — Masai Ujiri could see it in the proud posture of the young female players. It was written in their wide smiles.
The Toronto Raptors president was in Mogadishu last week for the last stop on his annual Giants of Africa tour — and first visit to Somalia in the organization’s 16 years.
“We have to preach equality on the continent and all over the world,” Ujiri said. “There’s as much talent in girls as there is in boys. They have to be given the opportunity too. At the end of the day, you see them walking taller, which was very important for us to continue on this journey.”
Ujiri has barely paused to take a breath since the Raptors won the NBA championship in June. There was free agency and the departure of superstar Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers.
A major chunk of his time has been devoted to Giants of Africa, which has been his passion project since 2003, and continues to expand its footprint across the continent. The tour added Somalia and South Sudan to the schedule this summer, two countries still staggering under the impact of brutal civil wars.
Islamic extremism in Somalia had forbidden females to watch sports let alone participate in them. Women’s sports is still a contentious issue there. The sight of young girls shooting hoops and kicking balls is unusual. The resurgence of female athletes has been in itself a symbol of defiance.
The 50 girls at the Giants of Africa camp in Mogadishu played in hijabs. It was held at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, which is co-run by Ilwad Elman, a Somali-Canadian. Her father Elman Ali Ahmen, assassinated in 1996, was a renowned peace activist who was responsible for the “Drop the gun, pick up the pen” campaign, a movement to rehabilitate young soldiers through education.
Elman has introduced sports to girls and women at the centre, which includes an outdoor court, as way to empower them in their everyday lives. “Basketball has been a breath of fresh air there,” Ujiri said.
“It’s about what sports can bring you: happiness, peace, bringing people together, working together. For us, that was our message. How can we spread this and create that platform for more opportunity for youth? That’s the message we’re trying to spread.”
Sitting in his office at an otherwise quiet OVO Athletic Centre this week, the 49-year-old reflected on his African tour, which also included trips to Morocco, Mali, Cameroon and Tanzania. Arriving as the reigning NBA champions took the tour to a new level. There was more reason to celebrate.
“That was awesome, just to show that at least we can do it . . . we can believe in ourselves to do this,” Ujiri said. “I love it that Pascal (Siakam) and Serge (Ibaka, a Congolese native) played brilliant roles for us in this championship. Kids can see that. But the other thing that we try to show them is that (other people besides players) that come from that continent can achieve something big.”
He listed Patrick Engelbrecht, the Raptors’ director of global scouting from South Africa; Raptors assistant coach Patrick Mutombo, who is Congolese; Jama Mahlalela, the Swazi-Canadian head coach of Raptors 905; and Raptors assistant Eric Khoury, who’s Egyptian. Fresh off playing a huge post-season role, Siakam, a native of Doula, Cameroon, joined Ujiri on that stop. Ujiri told the Cameroon campers there he was introducing a new skill.
“Instead of the ‘Euro step’ here, we’re going to teach the ‘Afro step,’” Ujiri said to cheers. “When I see Pascal Siakam go to the hoop and he turns around and he goes like this and he lays the ball in, that’s no Euro step, that’s an Afro step.” When the Raptors won the Larry O’Brien Trophy, Ujiri became the first African to lead a franchise to a major North American title.
He took the trophy home to Zaria, Nigeria, to share it with his mom Paula Grace, his dad Michael, and Oliver Johnson — or “OBJ” — who introduced him to the game as a teenager and now works alongside him with Giants of Africa. “We as Africans have to go back and do more,” Ujiri said. “I have to continue to do more and more, to create more opportunity. It’s very important that we tell the story and create the narrative there rather than somebody else create it for us.”
He would love to see the Raptors play an NBA game in Nigeria or Kenya, where his mom was born, but said with frustration in a recent interview that there’s no infrastructure to host the league. “I want my NBA team to play a game in my dad’s or my mom’s country but I can’t because there are no arenas with NBA standards to play in,” he told Citizen TV Kenya. “You cannot tell me there is no money to build arenas. The facilities we have are an eyesore. They are outdated.”
The Raptors tip off their regular season on Oct. 22 versus New Orleans. Ujiri said the African tour was a chance to “recharge” before jumping back into his seventh season at the helm. The Raptors will be celebrated on opening night with a ring ceremony. The NBA championship banner will be hoisted to the Scotiabank Arena rafters.
While Ujiri said his work in Africa is a different kind of rewarding than winning an NBA crown, “it’s next to it.” “With (Giants of Africa), it’s everyday life, it’s people we’re talking about and their way of life. These people have an incredible passion for life. It’s joy for me, and an obligation. I feel so good doing it every year, I don’t feel tired, it just feels great to do. I love it to the core. It’s part of my life now, and if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t feel good.”