Masai Ujiri with a group of kids © Courtesy of Giants of Africa
By Raye Mocioiu
Masai Ujiri is a name that resonates with anyone who loves basketball, but his influence extends far beyond the court.
Described as an influential leader, Ujiri’s journey to becoming one of the most influential figures in North American sports began in Nigeria. He fell in love with basketball while watching highlights of Hakeem Olajuwon, an NBA star who was also Nigerian, instead of playing soccer like his peers.
His love of the game brought him to the United States for high school and college basketball, where his career on the court began. Ujiri spent 11 years in Europe as a professional player starting in England and ending in Denmark. But when one door closes, another one opens: the end of his playing career was only the beginning of his off-the-court career as a basketball executive.
A Courtside Legacy
Ujiri started as a globe-trotting scout on the lookout for talent and worked his way up the ranks to become the first African general manager in pro sports with the Denver Nuggets in 2011. Two years later, he proved his mettle by snagging the NBA Executive of the Year award before eventually assuming the prestigious position of Vice-Chairman and President of the Toronto Raptors. His visionary leadership and daring maneuvers helped guide the Raptors to their historic 2019 NBA Championship win, making them the first and only non-American team to claim the coveted title.
An advocate for equity and diversity, Ujiri has made it his mission to ensure that these values are reflected in his organization. Not only has he made a commitment to hiring women, but he has also invested in creating an inclusive and diverse workplace culture.
Ujiri has long used his platform to make a difference in the lives of young people, even serving as director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Africa program since 2002. He was also part of the Canadian delegation to the 2019 African Union meetings, traveling with the Canadian Prime Minister and encouraging exchanges between the two parliaments.
Not one to sit still, Ujiri currently serves on the advisory board of the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace, and Security, an organization focused on eradicating the use of child soldiers.
Ujiri’s influence is unmistakable, and the recognition he has received only furthers his impact. Having been named Toronto’s most influential person, Ujiri’s inspiring words to “believe in this city, believe in yourselves” have become a rallying cry for all who share his vision for a better future.
A champion of equity, diversity, and inclusion, Ujiri has said that while he is proud to be the first African team president in North American sports, he would consider it a failure if he was the last.
“Being first is good, but I don’t want to be the only one,” he said. “There have to be more.”
A Giant Maneuver
Throughout all that Ujiri has accomplished in his career as a basketball executive, he has never forgotten his roots. He has always believed in the potential of Africa and its people and has worked tirelessly to promote the continent’s talents and opportunities. For that reason, he remains committed to his work with the non-profit organization Giants of Africa.
When Ujiri co-founded Giants of Africa with a childhood friend in 2003, he had a simple goal: to use basketball to enrich the lives of African youth. Two decades later, the organization has positively impacted thousands of kids across 17 countries and shows no signs of slowing down.
Giants of Africa uses sport as a tool to empower the lives of youth across the continent and throughout the diaspora, creating opportunities for them on and off the court. Since its inception, the organization has traveled across Africa, conducting basketball camps for boys and girls. These camps, led by NBA and local coaches, empower young participants to improve their skills on the court by learning from their heroes. This is only the beginning of Giants of Africa’s critical work: the basketball camps also include a life skills curriculum, including discussions addressing topics ranging from the importance of health and well-being to education, female empowerment, goal setting, problem-solving, self-leadership, and other relevant matters to their community.
The results are impressive: Over 200 of Giants of Africa’s campers have attended high school or university in the United States. On top of that, hundreds of Giants of Africa alumni, inspired by the game of basketball, have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, teachers, and community leaders. As part of Giants of Africa’s ongoing mentorship and education program, the organization launched an annual Alumni Grants program in 2021, offering grants for education, community activism, learning opportunities, and more.
For Ujiri and Giants of Africa, empowerment has no boundaries. The organization proudly hosts women’s camps in Africa, stating: “There’s no greater gift than witnessing the equality and empowerment of our daughters, sisters, and colleagues. When women win, we all win.”
Giants of Africa has also partnered with African female community leaders such as Dr. Josephine Kulea of the Samburu Girls Foundation in Kenya, and Ilwad Elman of the Elman Peace Center in Somalia on the organization’s community initiatives, providing positive role models for young women to look up to.
Ujiri believes that through the game of basketball, girls can gain confidence and use the sport to think, act, and dream big. Every girl deserves a right to education and the opportunity to reach her full potential.
Building Bridges to Success
Beyond empowerment, the organization has taken its commitment to the next level by investing in sports infrastructure across Africa, building basketball courts through its Built Within initiative, a multi-year, 100-court commitment.
This physical investment in the continent marks a significant milestone for Giants of Africa, which has already impacted the lives of countless young people—not just through basketball camps, helping children improve their on-court skills, but also through skills training and personal development.
Africa is on the rise: studies have shown that the continent’s population is growing at an unprecedented rate, and within the century, many African cities will become megalopolises. Moreover, by the end of the century, 13 of the world’s 20 biggest urban areas will be in Africa, making up more than one-third of the world’s population. Suffice it to say, it’s a region worth the investment, and with Ujiri’s love for his roots, he’s perfectly positioned to make a difference.
As of January 2023, 26 basketball facilities have been built in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, and Somalia, with more facilities yet to come this year. This is no small feat, but Ujiri is up for the challenge. He knows that sports can be a powerful force for good, promoting health, fitness, and teamwork while providing opportunities for education and personal growth.
Through Giants of Africa, Ujiri has created opportunities for young people who might otherwise be overlooked and is inspiring a new generation of African leaders both on and off the court.
Twenty Years of Dreaming Big
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Giants of Africa traveling across the continent to enrich the lives of African youth.
Since the beginning, Giants of Africa has positively impacted the lives of over 40,000 African youth across 17 countries through access to over 30 basketball courts and 80 basketball camps and clinics.
“It has been humbling to reach such an incredible milestone, and there is much to be proud of as we reflect on the last two decades,” said Ujiri. “Twenty years of service has only been possible because of the passion and commitment of every person and community that has come together to make Giants of Africa what it is today.”
The 20th anniversary will be celebrated during the inaugural Giants of Africa Festival in Kigali, Rwanda, this August. The festival will bring together more than 250 youth from the 16 countries across Africa that the organization has visited over the last two decades. This week-long celebration of basketball, education, culture, and entertainment will include an opening ceremony celebration, an education forum with more than 2,000 Rwandan youth, and a closing concert—a powerful reminder of the potential of Africa and its people and of Ujiri’s commitment to building a brighter future.
“We’ve really only just begun,” continued Ujiri. “There is an understanding that we need to keep going and a desire to learn from our journey so that we can continue to help more. We are excited about the bright future as Giants of Africa continues to develop infrastructure and inspire African youth with programs focused on education, empowerment, and leadership, both on and off the court.”
Giants of Africa’s commitment to building infrastructure is a testament to Ujiri’s ethos to “dream big” and create a better world through basketball. His vision is a reminder that sports can not only shape the lives of future generations but also build entire communities, and Giants of Africa is making that vision a reality one basketball camp at a time.