Raptors president Masai Ujiri runs an elite basketball camp for underprivileged African kids

Raptors president Masai Ujiri runs an elite basketball camp for underprivileged African kids

A new TIFF film dives deep into Ujiri’s inspiring passion project

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 Photograph courtesy of Giants of Africa

Masai Ujiri is a Toronto hero. In his three-year tenure as general manager for the Raptors (of which he is now president), he has transformed the once-floundering team into one of the strongest franchises in the NBA. During the off-season, Ujiri manages another team: the players at the Giants of Africa, a basketball camp he runs every summer for teens in his home country of Nigeria, plus Rwanda, Kenya and Ghana. A gripping new film at this year’s TIFF—also called Giants of Africa—chronicles Ujiri’s passion project. Hubert Davis, a documentary filmmaker whose dad was a member of the Harlem Globetrotters, spent the better part of a summer following Ujiri and his acolytes through intensive drills, agility tests and conditioning. We asked him about the story behind the film.

The Backstory

Ujiri grew up playing basketball in Zaria, a small village in northern Nigeria—at 6’ 4”, he was known as the shrimp among his friends. In 1993, he moved to the U.S. to play college ball at Bismarck State College, where he shared a cramped studio apartment with a fellow Nigerian named Godwin Owinje. A few years later, they were both playing basketball for European teams—Ujiri in Belgium, Owinje in Spain—and they’d drive back and forth on off-days. It was during those visits that they started to imagine a basketball camp for talented kids back in Nigeria who didn’t have access to coaches or facilities. A couple of years later, while Ujiri was working as GM for the Denver Nuggets in 2003, they pooled together $3,500 out of pocket to fund the first camp in Ujiri’s hometown of Zaria. The Nuggets players donated their old shoes for the kids to use. “Masai grew up going to camps like this,” Davis says. “He has a lot of pride in who he is, where he’s from. He views this as his calling.”

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 Photograph courtesy of Giants of Africa
The Camp

Every year, the camp travels from Lagos to Accra to Nairobi to Kigali, spending three days with kids from each spot; they set up shop in local university gyms. At the beginning of every session, Ujiri comes out and meets the players himself—in the film, he offers to introduce them to Drake—then leads a team chant. Then they spend the next three days performing intense balance exercises, passing drills and fundamentals with African-born pro coaches that Ujiri has brought in from the NBA.

For Ujiri, who spends most of his Raptors seasons in meetings, it’s an opportunity to relax. “The Raptors are his job,” explains Davis. “This is his passion.” He’s involved in every decision: what jerseys the kids are going to wear during their training, what they’re going to eat for dinner, who’s going to sit where on the plane. “I don’t know when he sleeps. We’d be exhausted from the training, and he’d still host dinner and do political press conferences. I was shocked by his energy,” Davis says.

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 Photograph courtesy of Giants of Africa
The Kids

Giants of Africa’s scouting process is long and rigorous: the organization’s director, Mike Akuboh, spends more than a year meeting Africa’s top teenage talent and local coaches, books gyms and accommodations, and eventually selects 50 promising kids from each host country to participate in that year’s program. “When the camp starts, the kids are all intimidated. The skill level is pretty low,” Davis explains. “Over the course of the next few days, you start to see their confidence grow. They know what movements they should be doing, where they should be standing. I loved watching the kids come out of their shell.”

The film focuses on several young basketball fanatics, many of whom grew up surrounded by violence and poverty—one 19-year-old player from Ghana explains how his village didn’t even have a basketball, so he had to practice with an imaginary one. The most memorable subject in the film is a young man from Nigeria named Sodiq Awogbemi, whose family had escaped Boko Haram. His mother was a merchant on the side of the road, and one of the soldiers was a regular customer. Before they invaded Sodiq’s village, the soldier warned her to take her family into the basement and wait. Once the soldiers were gone, Sodiq’s family walked hundreds of miles to reach Abuja, the Nigerian capital. When Sodiq arrived at Giants of Africa, the experience was still fresh for him. “It seems like bull to say that a sports camp can shape a person, but they start out at the beginning and they’re unsure, and then you see confidence. There’s real camaraderie,” Davis explains. At the camp, he made close friends, and even stayed in Lagos with them for a few weeks after the sessions were done.

Giants of Africa screens at this year’s TIFF. Tickets and show times available here.

Clarification

September 7, 2016

This post was updated to reflect Ujiri's recent change of title, from general manager to president.