As Masai Ujiri walked into the room filled with luminaries, his voice trembled with humility and he blinked his eyes as if fighting back tears.
The Toronto Raptors President and General Manager entered his team's third-floor practice gym to see it completely transformed into a bustling and elegant cocktail party. Black carpets and curtains covered the floors and walls as servers carried trays of wine glasses and canapés, and celebrities including Magic Johnson, Tracy McGrady, Dikembe Mutombo and Charles Barkley walked the red carpet. Among a room of hundreds, they were all gathered in Toronto at Ujiri's request, to celebrate the teachings of a man he had considered a sort of spiritual father: Nelson Mandela.
"It's incredible to see Magic, Charles, Dikembe, they came here just like that," said an emotional Ujiri, the first from Africa ever to earn an executive job with an NBA team. "The world is not in a good place in my opinion, and Mandela makes it better. He will be bigger, even though he's passed. He was bigger than life."
On the first anniversary of Mandela's passing, Ujiri wanted to hold a gala before a Raptors game at the Air Canada Centre to celebrate the late former South African President and Nobel Peace Prize winner, one which would earn money for the Nelson Mandela Foundation and his own not-for-profit organization, Giants of Africa. Ujiri asked the NBA for a game on Dec. 5, and the league, eager to help, granted Toronto one of the league's premier matchups: the Raptors versus LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Giving back to Africa has become as big a part of Ujiri's life as his role managing the Eastern Conference-leading Raptors. The native of Nigeria first met Mandela in the summer of 2006 in Johannesburg when he was there an ambassador for the NBA's community program, Basketball Without Borders.
"Growing up I always remember watching the news with my dad, and I remember images of fire, fights on the street and I would see my Dad's reaction and I began to learn about Nelson Mandela," recounted Ujiri. "As I got older, it began to mean more to me what he had done. When I met him in 2006, it completely changed everything. He was someone I idolized."
Ujiri's foundation, started in 2003, helps educate and enrich the lives of African youth, using basketball as a tool – providing them with camps, coaching and facilities. He had taken up the sport as a 13-year-old boy in Nigeria, and went on to play college ball in the U.S., then as a pro in Europe.
Africa doesn't have nearly enough facilities or coaches, but the NBA's attention on the continent is helping. The Raptors took a chance drafting 18-year-old Brazilian Bruno Caboclo in June – Ujiri believes Africa has hundreds of talented players too, perhaps without a place to play, waiting for someone to help develop their talent, waiting to be discovered.
"I feel pressure, I have to do well for the continent and perform and win," said Ujiri in a video message that began the evening. "It's not just about basketball; you can make a living and you can help others."
A panel shared experiences they had with Mandela: Mpule Kwelagobe, the first woman from Africa to be crowned Miss Universe, along with NBA icons Mutombo, Barkley and Johnson.
"I thank Masai, someone who was fortunate to sit down with Madiba, to talk to him, to be inspired by him," said Mutombo, the retired seven-footer from the Congo who knew Mandela well. "This is such a great evening."
Johnson told of the time in 1996 when Mandela asked him and other NBAers to come to South Africa to play some exhibitions, lead camps, and speak to citizens about HIV.
The former Lakers superstar said when MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke called him to share Ujiri's idea for Friday's Mandela night, he agreed instantly to make the trip.
"Masai is bringing us all together here to remember Nelson in the way he should be remembered," said Johnson. "He's showing people he has a heart and soul, and that the Toronto Raptors aren't just about playing winning basketball; they're about changing the world, and I love that."