Masai Ujiri on why Africa is crucial for sports growth

Masai Ujiri, the founder of ‘Giants of Africa’ speaks during the launch of the Giants of Africa Festival 2020 at the Kigali Arena last week. Emmanuel Kwizera

Last week, a group of leaders and young basketball campers gathered at the recently inaugurated Kigali Arena to witness another initiative that Masai Ujiri, the founder of ‘Giants of Africa’ launched.

This time it was a festival, which Ujiri explained that seeks to bring youth from 11 African countries together to celebrate the game of basketball.

 

Ujiri’s vision is to inspire the next generation of basketball players from the continent to become like Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, or OG Anunoby – renowned basketball players of African descent.

 

Through his Giants of Africa charity, he’s been going around the continent holding training camps in countries like Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire.

 

The British born Nigerian-Kenyan basketball professional has managed to get a few leaders, including President Kagame to buy into his dream.

Last week, he hinted on his relationship with the President.

Ujiri said he invited Kagame a few years ago to watch an NBA All-Star Game in Toronto, but somehow, the President always seemed lost in thought and Masai was worried.

He asked what was wrong and the President answered with a question: What would it take to build an arena like this in Africa, in Rwanda?

A few years down the road, the Arena was up and running.

Growing up in Nigeria, Ujiri’s love of basketball paved his way to becoming the first African-raised general manager for a major North American sports team.

He made history last year for being the leader of the first National Basketball Association (NBA) champion outside the USA.

Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship.

In 2015, he opened the first training camp in Kigali, and a few years later in 2017, he launched a refurbished court (Rafiki Basketball Court) in Kigali as part of his outreach activities on the continent.

The New TimesJulius Bizimungu sat down with Ujiri to take us through his vision.

Below are excerpts:

Congratulations on another initiative you just launched today. How does this fit into the vision of ‘Giants of Africa’ and the efforts you have towards promoting sports in Africa?

It’s been a dream of ours to bring all the youths to one place on the continent. We go from one country to another every August; you are coming to Rwanda or going to Kenya or Ghana, teaching them.

Now, bringing them here (at the festival) altogether, for me is a dream because it allows them to exchange culture, values, and talent.

The fact that your mother is from Kenya and your father is from Nigeria, does it make you feel responsible to do something for Africa?

No question about it. It is an obligation. In my opinion, we have to do it.

God has blessed us to have what we have, why don’t we want to encourage the youth to have them?

I’ve been fortunate to live in different places around the world. My mother is Kenyan, my father is Nigerian, my wife’s dad is from Guinea and her mum is from Sierra Leone, my kids are Canadian and my wife is American.

There are many things that join us together.

Africa is a priority, we have to grow the continent. We all have to do it together.

Why is it important to promote sports in Africa?

Sport has a unique way of bringing people together. It symbolizes what we are about, camaraderie, togetherness, competitiveness, love, passion… it touches on every single point we cover in life.

The biggest thing to me, it brings people together.

Masai Ujiri with Desire Mugwiza, President of the Rwanda Basketball Federation at the launch of the Giants of Africa Festival last week. / Emmanuel Kwizera

There’s happiness around World Cup, there’s happiness around basketball, there was happiness all over the world when we (Raptors) won the championship, and there is happiness when you see the campers together.

When you take that away and bring in the aspect of the business, sports can encourage the whole ecosystem (to grow).

You have managed to get a few leaders on the continent to buy into your idea of investing in sports, but political will is still low. What’s the best way to mobilise the political will?

We have to start being voices, and we have to interact with them. Some of them are not exposed and we have to bring that exposure to them.

Some of these leaders, their specialty is not sports, so it’s our job in the positions we have to bring this to them, present it to the people around them, and the companies around them so that they can understand more.

Sports is a business too, there is an ecosystem around it, it can create jobs, it can create opportunities, we can build infrastructure, we can teach, and we can coach.

Those are many things I feel the continent needs that I feel we can do.

Where do you want Giants of Africa to be in the next 5 years, 10 or even 20?

I want Giants of Africa to have leadership with youth. When I look at a girl like Myrah Oloo who spoke today, they are the next leaders, what can they do, how can they keep carrying this flag, how can they build more infrastructure, more courts, how can they encourage more women, who are they inspiring?

That’s what we are trying to do and that’s why I see Giants of Africa spread and become like wildfire.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

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