Film director Hubert Davis finds his 'dream project' in Giants of Africa

With the camera rolling, Patrick Mutombo caught himself just when it looked as though a torrent of emotion would wash over his face.

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he had been away from Africa for 20 years before returning in 2013.

In that span, he had left with his family for Belgium when he was 13 and crossed the ocean to play NCAA Division II basketball in the United States at 19. His college playing days at Metropolitan State University in Denver were followed by an 8-season professional career with stops in Italy, Brazil, Greece and the NBA D-League before he transitioned to coaching where he landed as an assistant with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets in 2012.

Time away from his home continent would have made it relatively easy to forget that things had not always been as good, that the government stopped supporting his father who was in pursuit of his PhD, forcing him into working odd jobs to support the family. Early on, money was tight enough to where his mother made bread to sell for extra income. Young Patrick, aged 9, would hit the street with the loafs in a basket on his head and call out: “Bread, bread, bread, would you like bread? Would you like bread?”

When he landed in Nigeria to help coach the Giants of Africa basketball camp three summers ago and saw children on the street selling mangos and bananas in the same manner that he once peddled bread, it came full circle. He saw himself again for the first time.

No tears were needed to convey the gravity of the scene, one of the most powerful in the new Hubert Davis documentary Giants of Africa which screened last month as part of TIFF 2016.

“When they asked that question, I was speaking from the heart, I didn’t know I was going to get emotional. In heat of the moment I realized it, expressing (those feelings) to someone else made me pause,” he told Yahoo Canada Sports via telephone. “I had not done that, not even to close friends, maybe my wife but it was part of life growing up and makes you more appreciative of the life we are able to have now, it was first time I expressed that to somebody, that’s what made me a little emotional.”

Giants of Africa is the brainchild of Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri. A Nigerian by birth, his aim is to invigorate the entire continent by creating leaders using “basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of African youth.”

Since its inception in 2003, the project has grown to hosting the top 50 or so teenaged players (it varies from country to country) over three weeks every August.

Giants of Africa was shot in 2015 and documented camps in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda. As seen in the film, the camp teaches not only basketball skills but life and leadership lessons on and off the court. Many of the instructors, including Mutombo, are either born on the continent or are of African origin. Ujiri gives guidance in group settings as well as on an individual basis.

“They get to see live and in the flesh, people like them who were able to accomplish certain things,” Mutombo said. “Masai is a prime example.”

When Ujiri was hired by the Raptors in 2013 he became the first, and remains the only, African-born president of any of the four major North American sports franchises.

Mutombo’s relationship with Ujiri goes back to his time with the Nuggets where Ujiri was the executive VP of basketball operations. They developed a friendship and led to Mutombo’s first camp experience.

This offseason, Ujiri hired Mutombo to be an assistant coach in Toronto.

“Masai is so passionate about his continent, he is doing something about it,” Mutombo said. “Let me contribute to his vision, if I can’t do the same myself. I am so thankful that he has created that platform for all of African people who don’t have resources, who haven’t had the same opportunities. He has given us a platform to be able to be contribute.”

“It is a movement,” Davis said. “They are trying to get more and more people involved, he kind of drives it forward and others join on.”

Davis was initially contacted about the project by executive producer Michael Gelfand at MLSE. He met Ujiri at the Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto where he was shown a photo book of what took place at the camps.

“I went in before a game during the season and we met very briefly,” Davis said. “He said something that stuck with me, he said he was going to use basketball to make the world a better place because it was what he knew.”

Davis refers to Giants of Africa as a “dream project” and the fact he was chosen to direct the film was no accident. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Hardwood, a documentary short about his father, Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis.

“I love the world of basketball, it wasn’t work and I felt a real obligation and weight as a filmmaker to tell the story the best I could and have an impact on people who watched it,” he said. “I think there is something lacking in terms of painting a full picture of Africa in a documentary.”

The stories of four campers drive the narrative of potential and perseverance, as each faces varying degrees of hardship.

In Kenya, Ryan Otsimi makes a long trek to Nairobi only to find his name is not on the list of players, possibly due to an administrative error. After pensively waiting outside the gates of Brookhouse School for hours, he is finally admitted and goes on to be selected an all-star. Meanwhile, Lino Wol fled war-ravaged South Sudan in 2008 with his cousins, and his graceful demeanor makes it hard to believe that he has not seen his parents since he was 10 years old.

Switching to Ghana, the focus is on Peter Amebgor, who escapes domestic abuse and poverty. His mother sells one of her few possessions of worth to fund his attendance to camp.

Davis beautifully captures Amebgor practicing a form of shadow basketball at dawn, as he did when he had no ball of his own. The poise and perspective he exhibits regarding his situation is remarkable.

With Sodiq Awogbemi in Nigeria, a heart-wrenching tales unfolds in which a young man has to flee his hometown of Maiduguri after it was pillaged by Boko Haram. He has nothing left, just basketball.

“When I was going for the first time, I thought it’s another camp, I get to coach basketball, when I got there my eyes were opened,” Mutombo said. “I thought, ‘what are you doing?’ Let’s look past living your life for yourself. I realized at that point that I had an obligation to continue to give back. When I go to those camps I am able to breathe life into someone who needs it.”

Unable to attend the camp this past summer due to prior obligations, Mutombo felt a pull when he watched the film at TIFF.

“I remember what I felt when I looked at the video and I saw the coaches and kids, I told my wife I needed to be there,” he recalls. “I was coaching elsewhere, I need to be there to give of myself to continue to teach and develop.”

It wasn’t that long ago, when he expected to instruct at just another camp. Since then his perspective has changed and something Ujiri told him early on in their friendship has taken on new meaning.

“Patrick, we carry the continent on our back,” Mutombo recalls Ujiri telling him. “I carry that with me every day.”

Follow Neil Acharya on Twitter: @Neil_Acharya