Masai Ujiri’s ‘Giants of Africa’ growing basketball infrastructure in Africa

Masai Ujiri isn’t ready to talk about his legacy.

“No legacy yet man, we haven't done anything yet,” he says as he exits the red carpet of his non-profit Giants of Africa’s 9th annual “The Giant of Africa Gala,” where hundreds of the most influential people in North America have met to celebrate the life of Ujiri’s idol, Nelson Mandela, and to learn more about the non-profit’s goals and initiatives.

The vice-chairman and president of the Toronto Raptors and co-founder of Giants of Africa doesn't like to focus on the present. He is always thinking ahead, mostly to a future that has used sports — specifically basketball — to better the lives of African youths and to unite disparate groups of people all over the world.

“Masai always sees things before it happens,” Giants of Africa co-founder and Ujiri’s childhood friend, Godwin Owinje, says. “Even when we were younger, he was always aspiring to do things like this.”

“This” being the massive event held at HISTORY in Toronto, where hundreds of millions of dollars flow through the space — money that Ujiri surely hopes will be put towards his philanthropic work in Africa. But “this” also refers to the work itself, including Giants of Africa’s newest and boldest venture, the “Built Within” initiative, with the goal of building 100 new basketball courts throughout the African continent. In just over a year since announcing the initiative, Giants of Africa has already built 25 courts in nine different countries.

“Yeah, it’s [a] good [accomplishment],” Ujiri tells Yahoo Sports Canada. “Sometimes we are just really trying to show an example so that when people see that you can do it, people do — people also come and build more.

“But we do need infrastructure in Africa. We do need to continue to grow. These youth need a chance somewhere to play. And that's why it means a lot to us.”

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The idea for the 100 courts came during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Giants of Africa was unable to run the camps they are used to running for boys and girls throughout Africa. Instead, they diverted their resources to building physical infrastructure in the form of courts.

“Building these courts is very very important for us because it takes kids out of the streets,” Owinje, who was homeless himself for a period of time growing up in Nigeria before Ujiri and his family took him in, says. “The places we build these courts are very strategic. They're in communities that need it. So it can take kids out of the streets to try to do something with themselves.”

With each court unveiling comes a ceremony attached. Giants of Africa coaches and special guests including musicians and former NBA players gather with hundreds of kids in the community to celebrate the occasion, singing, dancing, and going through a basketball mini-camp. Players are run through drills by NBA players and coaches for a day before wrapping up, at which point the realization hits them that all of this — the court, the basketballs, the shoes, the equipment — is for them; that the coaches are leaving, but the rest is staying right there for them to use indefinitely.

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“It's like if you're growing up in the West, it's like getting a basketball court on Christmas morning,” Director of International Scouting for the Toronto Raptors and Giants of Africa coach Patrick Engelbrecht says. “The whole neighbourhood is gonna play on it, you know it's yours, it's gonna be there — it's just this feeling of the community will be able to gather, use it, play and change lives for so many youths.”

Raptors rookie Christian Koloko didn’t play basketball on a proper gym floor until he moved to the United States at age 17. The seven-foot center out of Duala, Cameroon remembers playing on all types of makeshift basketball courts, mostly outdoors, but says that it cost money to play in a good gym growing up, “so it was really hard.”

Like many kids growing up in Africa, Koloko only got his start in basketball due to a stroke of luck. During high school, one of his three sisters started attending a paid, month-long basketball academy at her school. But after just one day of practice, she was so tired that she decided she was never going back there again.

So Koloko, being the opportunistic young man that he was — playing basketball for fun at the time but never in a structured environment — took her spot in the camp for the remainder of the month. He fell in love.

“The next month, I asked my mom and my mom started paying for it,” Koloko remembers. “And that's how I started playing basketball.

“Basketball has the power to do a lot of things for people, for kids,” Koloko says, himself being an example. “So I think just getting them out of the streets, learning how to live with other people, and I think just doing that is going to help a lot of people back home.”

Koloko is an example of someone whose life was transformed by basketball in a very literal way, moving from his sister’s academy to a Basketball Without Borders invite to a prep school in the United States and ultimately to being the 33rd overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. But there are countless others who used the life skills and opportunities they got from basketball — the comradery, leadership, teamwork, communication, discipline, and, in some cases, the ability to move to the United States — and put them toward other endeavours.

Take Tolulope Omogbehin, aka WWE professional wrestler "Omos", for example. Omos snuck into a Giants of Africa camp in his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria when he was 14, having to convince Ujiri and other GOA brass to let him participate because he was 6-foot-7 and the youngest person at the camp. Omos excelled, moving to the United States to attend prep school and then playing college basketball at the University of South Florida, an opportunity he never would have had if not for Giants of Africa and basketball.

“Basketball changed my life,” Omos said on stage at the Gala.

Now, Ujiri and Giants of Africa hope it will continue to change the lives of many more African youths in the years to come.

The scale of building 100 new basketball courts throughout at least nine different African countries is massive. But for Ujiri and Giants of Africa, it’s only a start.

“We gotta keep going. We can't stop at these small numbers,” Ujiri says with a smile.

But when Ujiri talks about improving the basketball “infrastructure” in Africa, he isn’t just talking about the physical spaces. He is also alluding to the ecosystem that makes it possible for people to use basketball to change their lives, their communities, their culture, and their countries.

Think about it: in the West we have prep leagues, high schools, junior colleges, AAU, the NCAA, U Sports, the NBA, the WNBA, and the CEBL — not to mention a whole media ecosystem surrounding all of it. That huge basketball economy not only helps the players by providing them a clear direction of how to progress, but it also provides jobs for thousands of coaches, trainers, and executives throughout the North American continent.

“The grassroots infrastructure is what comes first, right?” Engelbrecht says. “You build the grassroots infrastructure first, start getting people excited about the game, excited to play and remember. Excited to coach, excited to teach the game… You have to have places where people can hone that talent and they can look to raise young players and teach them the game.”

But with the largest youth population in the world, it’s very complicated. While there are specific hotspots in Africa that are catching up, including a high-end basketball facility in Senegal and two in Egypt, the continent as a whole is way behind. And that’s why the goal of building 100 courts isn’t just about the courts themselves; it’s also about providing an example for local governments and businesses to follow in their footsteps by investing in more courts, gyms, and high-end basketball facilities that will ultimately lead to more camps, academies, and leagues that bring jobs to the locals.

Masai Ujiri walks between rows of youth players on the basketball court during a basketball training camp run by Giants of Africa in Juba, South Sudan. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)
Masai Ujiri walks between rows of youth players on the basketball court during a basketball training camp run by Giants of Africa in Juba, South Sudan. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

The Basketball Africa League (BAL) is a start. Founded in 2019, the 12-team league is a joint venture between the NBA and FIBA to help grow the game in Africa and provide a paid platform for professional athletes. Already, players like Egypt Zamalek center Anas Mahmoud have moved up from the BAL to the NBA, and with the new BAL Elevate program that places one young NBA Academy Africa player onto each of the 12 teams, the league is starting to move in a younger direction. Soon enough, the hope is the BAL will create a minor youth league or a development league (similar to the NBA G League) to play under the 12 BAL teams, giving elite youths throughout the continent a structured environment to play and develop their games.

“I’m proud of what the NBA is doing, you know, building a Basketball Africa League that has become incredible and that we are all identifying with. It's huge for us,” Ujiri says. “It’s going to start. Little by little you start growing, right? You build courts. Now you have facilities. Now you have a league, doing the camps, doing the clinics, coaches are getting better, more people are knowing more about basketball and [about] the talent on the continent. We have players playing in the NBA [that] are shining and trying to do more and better…

“We gotta keep building, keep growing. Because that’s going to affect youth and make our youth bigger and better; give them opportunities to play at a younger age.”

Ujiri isn’t ready to talk legacy. But the work speaks for itself.

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