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Raptors president’s passion: helping young people dream big through sports

In 2003, Masai Ujiri founded Giants of Africa, a non-profit that connects youth with top-level basketball coaching and facilities.

Adrian Armstrong

When he's not occupied with his day job as president of the NBA's Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri is only too happy to divert his attention to giving back to his homeland.

In 2003, the native of Nigeria founded Giants of Africa, a non-profit group that connects youth with top-level basketball coaching and facilities. He has devoted much of his off-season time to running camps in his home country and other African nations.

The foundation has started to bear fruit: Fifty-nine campers have gone on to play for the Nigerian national team, 120 have received basketball scholarships to universities in the United States, and three new basketball courts are being built in Kenya and Rwanda.

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Mr. Ujiri, who was the first non-American to be named NBA Executive of the Year in 2013, continually urges African youth to dream big. His foundation holds an annual fund-raising event at a Raptors game, and last year it released a documentary titled Giants of Africa, which depicts the work the foundation has been doing.

Here he shares his thoughts on empowering African youth and philanthropy.

What does philanthropy mean to you?

People call it giving back, but I don't see it as giving back. Even I sometimes get caught up in using that, but it's an obligation for me. It's really important that I have a voice – with the position that I have and where I come from, my experiences.

When I look at youth, particularly in Africa, I see myself. This is the way I grew up – it's through sports and basketball that I got opportunity. And now that I'm in this position, how can I go help these kids think about their lives and opportunities and dream big?

What are you looking for from people – is it their time or their money?

I almost feel uncomfortable asking for money. I want facilities in Africa to get better; that's where I want people to help. But it's not really about pumping money into Giants of Africa.

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How do we build courts, how do we build community centres where kids can go out and play basketball every day and use sports as a tool and use education as a tool? That's the mindset of what I want from people.

More money will always help though …

The camps are always going to happen, so it's the bigger picture now that I'm looking at. I need help with that in terms of how are we building courts, how are we building facilities? How are we funding community centres where kids can go and actually play or go to a classroom and learn about sports and what they can do through sports?

How have the fund-raising event and documentary helped to build awareness and persuade people to help your cause?

In these days of social media, people are very aware of what's happening on the ground with Giants of Africa. But sometimes I wish it could speed it up. I wish I could just go and put up a gym in Nigeria or put up a gym in Kenya and the kids can go play, but that involves money and fundraising and all that stuff, and that's what we're trying to do a little bit more of.

These events, they're not easy to do, especially when I have a full-time job. The Giants of Africa foundation is not as big as sometimes people see it. It's a small organization. We're limited and that makes it hard sometimes.

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How does working for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the Raptors' parent company, help with your philanthropy?

The backing from this company, from ownership, from the marketing people, it's almost like everybody feels Giants of Africa. Whether it's people who come and do little things for us, like follow us over there and film, all of those things have been a huge, huge advantage.

And Toronto has embraced it. The people who have attended events know about Giants of Africa, have seen the documentary, follow us on social media and Instagram and all that. They love it.

How do you juggle the two jobs?

It's 99 per cent Raptors and 1 per cent Giants of Africa. Unfortunately that's just the nature of my work. I have a voice with my job and I have to use that voice.

What does the future hold for Giants of Africa?

It's just like the Raptors: We haven't even started, we haven't done anything, in my opinion. I see a huge future, and we have to work hard to continue to get there. Giants of Africa is a movement and in my prayers it continues to grow. I know one of those youth, somewhere, somehow, is going to start something that might not even have anything to do with Giants of Africa but something inspired them, and they will grow and do bigger things and help other people.

I'm interested in the progress in the youth of Africa because of the way the population is going. There are so many young kids in Africa, and what do they become? Where do they go? I'm very interested in tough areas. I hate to use the words like refugee camps and slums, but I'm very interested in displaced youth, in displaced women. How can we help them through sports? How do you help these people be happier?

That's my dream for Giants of Africa, and that's why I feel that we've not gone anywhere. Maybe 15 years from now … maybe we'll talk again and we'll see where it is.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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