Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s Giants of Africa basketball camp celebrates 20 years
Raptors executive inspires a generation of African basketball players in the NBA and beyond
TORONTO – Chiney Ogwumike’s traditional Nigerian wedding ceremony was a star-studded affair recognized by People magazine. It was attended by her sister and fellow WNBA star Nneka; former WNBA stars Lisa Leslie and Seimone Augustus; singer Tamar Braxton; NBA champion Festus Ezeli; former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho; Malika Andrews, host of NBA Today on ESPN; U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas; and more. But for many of the Africans who attended, including groom Ethasor “Raphael” Akpejiori, the wedding guest they were most excited to see was Toronto Raptors vice chairman and president Masai Ujiri, who changed their lives with his Giants of Africa basketball camp.
In 2003, Ujiri co-founded Giants of Africa with Godwin Owinje, who is now a Brooklyn Nets international scout, in his native Zaria, Nigeria, with 50 boy campers. Twenty years later, more than 80 Giants of Africa camps have taught basketball, educational and life lessons to more than 40,000 boys and girls in 17 African countries. The more than 200 Giants of Africa alums, many who have received basketball scholarships in the United States, include Akpejiori, Toronto Raptors forward Precious Achiuwa, San Antonio Spurs center Charles Bassey, and WWE star Omos. And while the wedding’s focus was certainly on the bride and groom Nov. 19 in Houston, Ujiri became proud and emotional when more than 30 of his old campers made a point to say hello and thank you.
“I was walking in and seven of the groomsmen go nuts when they see me because they were Giants of Africa kids,” Ujiri told Andscape. “That’s crazy. So, they all start coming one by one and I said, ‘Go back and let’s get in line to enter the reception.’ I acted like their coach again. ‘Get in line and I’ll see you guys later.’ And that’s when it really touched me. I can’t even believe I saw so many old faces and they’ve changed. They’re grown now doing great things.
“So many came up to me. A couple, three or four of them, were even scared to come and talk to me. Nervous … They are from camps 10 years ago, eight years ago, 12 years ago. There were even two that were in the first camp. We’ve been doing this for 20 years.”
Giants of Africa celebrated its 20th anniversary on Sunday night at the 10th annual Dream Big Gala at HISTORY while also giving tribute to the life of anti-apartheid activist and South African president Nelson Mandela. The event was a fundraiser for the nonprofit Giants of Africa that has long motivated African youths to “dream big.” It also included performances from R&B icons Boyz II Men and Afro-fusion artist TÖME. Ujiri and several Raptors attended, including 2022 NBA Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes.
When asked to reflect on what he has accomplished with Giants of Africa, Ujiri said, “Honestly, I don’t look at this thing as what I did or I’ve done. I really don’t. Maybe when I’m dead you guys can look at it like that or something. But there is so much more to be done.”
There was no way Ujiri could have dreamed big enough to predict his stunning basketball path from Nigeria to the NBA.
Ujiri, 53, was born in England, and his family moved to Zaria when he was 2 years old. He fell in love with basketball around the age of 13 while playing on an outdoor court with friends. He played basketball in high school in Seattle, on the junior college and Division II level in Montana and professionally in England, Belgium, Finland and Greece.
Ujiri got his start in the NBA as an unpaid scout for the Orlando Magic in 2002 followed by being hired as an international scout for the Denver Nuggets. The 2013 NBA Executive of the Year went on to become an assistant general manager and general manager with the Nuggets and the Raptors’ director of global scouting, assistant general manager, general manager and vice chairman. Under Ujiri, the Raptors won the franchise’s lone NBA title in 2019.
“Masai has been an integral part of all our efforts and initiatives to grow the game of basketball on the African continent from day one,” Basketball Africa League president Amadou Gallo Fall told Andscape. “He has had an incredible journey, and we are always very proud to tell his story across Africa to our youth. He is a trailblazer who continues to carry the flag very high. He is doing his part, using his platform to leverage the transformative power of basketball to build value way beyond the court. We are very proud of him.”
Ujiri says that his first Giants of Africa camp in 2003 had limited resources, but he made sure that every boy had the same shoes, socks, shorts and a jersey. So why did Ujiri call the camp Giants of Africa?
“The name Giants, that symbol, that logo, that’s what Africa is about and what we represent in the continent,” Ujiri said. “We all have to be big. We all have to be giants. The first thing that came to me is a giant basketball player walking and stomping. At first, we did all these logos with giant walking all over Africa. But then what is the smallest person, biggest person, tallest person, a young girl, an older lady? We are all giants, and that’s how we should think in our minds. We should think big. Dream big all the time.”
After joining the Nuggets, Ujiri said players such as Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin Sr. and Marcus Camby donated shoes, basketball gear and clothing in a big bin the locker room. Martin even donated a fur coat, which didn’t get used in warm Africa and the memory of it still tickles Ujiri. Then-Nuggets general manager Kiki VanDeWeghe also was able to get complimentary Nuggets colored practice gear made for the early Giants of Africa camps.
“I put a big bin in the middle of the locker room and Carmelo and all those guys would put shoes and clothes into it,” Ujiri said. “Every time I see them, I still thank them for it.”
Ujiri said he was offered front-office jobs by the Raptors and the Golden State Warriors in 2008. What ultimately made him choose Toronto was that then-general manager Bryan Colangelo said that the franchise would donate $50,000 a year to the Giants of Africa camp. Ujiri said that annual donation helped build the Giants of Africa’s foundation.
“I give Brian Colangelo a lot of credit. It makes me emotional thinking about it,” Ujiri said.
At age 12, a “casual playing” Achiuwa was on a basketball team from his hometown of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, that traveled by car to play in a tournament in Lagos. As a result of that tournament, he and three friends were invited to participate at a Giants of Africa camp in Lagos. It was there that Achiuwa fell in love with the game and went on to play in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Camp in Africa before departing to the United States, where he played basketball in high school and college.
Achiuwa says attending the Giants of Africa camp was life-changing, and he now hosts an offseason basketball camp in Port Harcourt.
“To be there, it was very important, just learning the game subconsciously,” Achiuwa told Andscape. “And being around the [NBA] people that came to the camp, it was definitely life-changing. You pick up things subconsciously and then down the stretch you’re like, ‘hold on, I’ve been around this, I’ve been around that.’ ”
While more than 40,000 kids have attended Giants of Africa camps, Achiuwa believes the impact was much greater.
“I’d say if you look at the people that have been impacted through this camp, it’s definitely millions,” Achiuwa said. “And it’s not just the campers alone. For example, a camper can go to school in the States for free and can go on to become a doctor or a lawyer or engineer, whatever the case is. They not only affect themselves, they affected their family, their siblings, their parents, their community, their city. And you take that number for every kid and add it up, I think it’s in the millions.”
Giants of Africa Camp always includes conversations with the boys about treating girls and women with respect. Ujiri decided in 2018 that to truly treat girls with respect he needed to include them in the camp. Since 2017, the Giants of Africa Camp has included 50 boys and 50 girls who get the same level of clothing, shoes and coaching.
“It became staple for us to do girls and boys. And when we do girls and boys, we preach equal opportunities,” Ujiri said. “When women win, we all win.”
Giants of Africa hosted a private all-girls youth basketball clinic on Saturday here with female coaches, including WNBA star Kia Nurse, Raptors assistant coach Mery Andrade, and three-time Olympian Miranda Ayim in collaboration with the Muslim Women’s Youth Basketball League. Giants of Africa ambassador Myrah Oloo is a former girls camper who said attending helped her develop pride in being African.
“I started playing sports, then got invited to Giants of Africa,” Oloo, who grew up in England and Kenya, told Andscape. “I just thought it would be a basketball camp, but it was so much more than that. They talked about dreaming big, loving your identity, being African. And I was given the opportunity to talk about just what’s inside of me, and that was my passions for Africa and my dreams for Africa. And I realized that everybody in the room kind of agreed with me, understood me.
“And that’s when I realized that being African wasn’t just about being born in the country, speaking the language. It was a deep, cultural thing. And that’s what I loved about Giants of Africa, just understanding my identity as an African home and away.”
In August, Giants of Africa also hosted its first Giants of Africa festival in Kigali, Rwanda, to also celebrate its 20-year anniversary. More than 250 youths from 16 African nations attended the weeklong celebration of basketball, education, culture, and entertainment. The event closed with a concert that included American-Nigerian Davido, Nigeria’s “Queen of Afrobeats” Tiwa Savage, singers Bruce Melodie of Rwanda and South Africa’s rising star Tyla.
Africa has 54 countries fully recognized by the United Nations, two independent states with limited or no recognition (Western Sahara and Somaliland), and several territories (mostly islands) controlled by non-African countries. Ujiri’s hope for the Giants of Africa festival was to bring the continent together as one and to embrace the culture.
“When I think of the festival we just had now and how big it was, I don’t know how we would’ve pulled that off,” Ujiri said. “But it’s something that had been in my head to bring culture, entertainment, food, sports, all these things together, all in one place, in the name of youth and the future of the continent.
“That festival was the biggest thing I’ve done in my life in terms of sports.”
Achiuwa had flashbacks of his time as a camper when he attended the Giants of Africa festival and talked to the kids.
“It was like a full-circle moment, especially when I got there and I’m seeing the kids with the jersey on in the camp, sitting down, listening, participating in the drills,” Achiuwa said. “That was me literally. And that was me without even knowing anything, without thinking anything else. And I just told them just enjoy the game.
“It’s a beautiful game. Put your heart into the game. You never know what [could] come out of this.”
Africa’s first NBA stars included Basketball Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo. Current NBA stars from Africa include Basketball Without Borders alumnus Joel Embiid, the 2023 NBA MVP from the Philadelphia 76ers, and Raptors star and Cameroon native Pascal Siakam. Two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks is also proud of his Nigerian heritage.
While Ujiri never played in the NBA, his impact on basketball in Africa has made him a giant of Africa in his own right.
Golden State Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga, who is Congolese, told Andscape: “He means so much. Every kid from Africa knows what Masai has done to bring basketball to Africa. He’s helping young men coming to America. We have so many people doing that, but just him doing that and recognizing where he comes from means a lot.”
Siakam said: “To give opportunities to young kids on the continent is important. For kids to get this opportunity who may not otherwise get it is awesome. [Ujiri] has put in the work over the year. He’s done an excellent job and I’m sure he’s going to keep doing it.”