Do Hard Things: How Masai Ujiri is Changing the Face of African Basketball, One Court at a Time

Masai Ujiri, NBA Champion and President of the Toronto Raptors, recently announced a major investment in the infrastructure of basketball throughout Africa, harnessing the power of sports to create opportunities for youth and propel the continent forward.

As a passionate ambassador of The Room, Masai spoke with basketball broadcaster Silalei Shani about his dreams for the initiative and what motivates him to do the hard things that make the world a better place.

By Silalei Shani and Bamidélé Malaika Akpovo

“Africa’s resource is its people, right?” comes the rhetorical question from basketball great Masai Ujiri on a Zoom call bridging the miles between Toronto and Nairobi.

“I just feel that the continent is so deserving to have the best that it can.”

It’s a simple yet passionate response to an equally simple question… Why spearhead a massive investment of time and money into a basketball project in Africa? In his answer, the NBA executive’s love for both basketball and the African continent merge, suggesting something bold and exciting — a revolutionary step in the African basketball sector, perhaps, or more like one giant leap.

The current Toronto Raptors president, in tandem with Giants of Africa, recently announced a multi-year, 100-court investment in the infrastructure of basketball called Built Within. Director of Partnerships and Community Relations at Sport Court, Lauren Gillian, shares Ujiri's vision and awareness.

“Athletics can not only play a role in shaping the lives of future generations; it can also build entire communities,” she said, explaining the company’s support for the project.

Praising the project and the partnership with Ujiri’s Giants of Africa, Gillian said the project would unlock “long-term access to the power of sport to youth throughout Africa.”

That transformational nature of sport may be why Ujiri found receptive partners in Mastercard Foundation and gold mining company, IAMGOLD. They, alongside Sport Court, a pioneer in backyard modular sports surfaces, agreed to contribute to the initiative over the coming years.

According to Ujiri, the project already has three courts, two in Kenya and one in Tanzania, up and running after just the first month.

The Built Within initiative — which owes its name to a promise to tackle issues at a grassroot level — will build and refurbish new courts in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso in the coming months.

Ujiri has vast experience of basketball in Africa through his Giants of Africa initiative. It was that venture which brought to his attention the unsatisfactory nature of the majority of the continent’s courts — with very few fit for the competitive levels of basketball seen at the Giants of Africa camps.

“One of our biggest challenges when running the camps is having to rent courts to use. You’re only getting these places for maybe 5 days for a camp. That kind of set-up doesn’t sustain the youth through the year. Building these courts helps us influence the programming and it allows more youth to come use the courts. The impact becomes year-round rather than one time in the summer,” he explains.

Giants of Africa was co-founded by Ujiri in 2003 with aspirations to leverage basketball as an avenue for young boys and girls to “dream big”, while also visualising opportunities for their future, both in Africa and globally. The organisation has since been able to achieve this in a variety of ways; from life skills and personal development training, to a focus on health and wellness, along with mentoring in leadership and social impact.

As the first and only President and General Manager of a North American sports franchise who is of African descent, Ujiri is keen to see young Africans look to basketball for its transformational potential, not only by playing a game, but also as a means of providing professional support.

“The real impact is in things that are going to last a long time.”

“The teaching of the business of sports is important. All these kids are not going to end up being basketball players. Some of them are going to be professionals in the workforce, but will use their exposure to the sport as a path and as an opportunity to find a niche as a result of that experience, similar to myself. Understanding sports as a business is something that on the continent we need to realise,” says Ujiri.

“These infrastructures can grow through more basketball competition on the courts we’ve built, more knowledge about the game of basketball and exposure in some way, where it’s not just about playing basketball, but also how the mind is developed too.”

Asked where the inspiration behind the current initiative came from, the basketball executive, who recently returned home from a trip to Kenya, highlighted its potential impact — impact that carries well beyond basketball. The recently built courts in Kisarawe, Tanzania; Lagos, Nigeria; and Korogocho and Samburu in Kenya, are in areas where their impact is likely to be transformational.

“I remember seeing a court in Korogocho that was right next to a dumpster with smoke all around and kids were playing right there. It really bothered me. Having these courts creates opportunities for conversations with the community, local government and even the private sector on how to improve the living conditions by putting something strong there and in turn it encourages everyone to do more in developing that community,” he explains.

“The real impact is in things that are going to last a long time. A [Giants of Africa] camp can affect a hundred kids, but when you actually think about building a court in a community, it can affect thousands and thousands of people because all the kids are going to come and play on it. So when COVID happened and we were not able to do the Giants of Africa camps, we decided that it would be a good time to use the funding for that year to build courts, since we were not going to be able to travel for the camps.”

His vision has already started to take shape with a regular Giants of Africa court in Tanzania being used by different schools and organisations to run initiatives that closely mimic the Giants of Africa annual camps and life skills training programs.

Back to Ujiri himself, it’s hard to imagine how the former NBA Executive of the Year has the time or the energy to do so much in Africa. Not only does he lead the Giants of Africa camp and now, the Built Within initiative, but he is also one of the NBA’s most outspoken voices on social justice. Additionally, he is part of the group that founded the Humanity movement, which is behind the Humanity art installation recently erected in Toronto’s Union Station.

However, Ujiri brushes off any suggestion that his commitment to Africa might be overly demanding of his time or energy.

“I love Africa. I grew up there. I feel like I’m on top of the world when I’m in Africa and around Africans.”

“It’s the right thing to do. I don’t see anyone who would be in my position that would not do it, because the opportunity is just huge. The continent is ours. I love Africa. I grew up there. I feel like I’m on top of the world when I’m in Africa and around Africans. For me, I will always be there to help. Nobody forces me and I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody. I just feel that the continent is so deserving to have the best that it can,” he explains.

A personal mantra that goes a long way in reminding those in positions of influence that those positions come with a degree of responsibility, a social obligation to do the hard things that can make the world a better place.

“Win on the court, win off the court, and as you do it, bring people along. That is what life is all about.”

In the meantime, there are courts to be built.

“There’s so much work to be done and that’s where my mind constantly is. Basketball development and growth is not even close to where it’s going to go in Africa. My job is to get that done.”

About the authors

Silalei Shani is a former Kenyan national basketball player, a mother to one and a basketball commentator and presenter. Bamidélé Malaika Akpovo is a writer, filmmaker and script writer at Bird, the story agency of Africa No Filter.

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