On 28 February, the Toronto Raptors’ General Manager Masai Ujiri paid a special visit to Marc Garneau CI as part of the Black History Month celebrations. Mr. Ujiri delivered a talk on his personal experiences as a student, basketball player, scout, and manager, and spoke to students about empowerment, perseverance, and respecting others. Approximately six classes attended, as well as the junior and senior basketball teams. Teachers signed up their classes for the event ahead of time with Mr. Alexander, who arranged the visit, and classes who were not signed up prior to the event were not admitted, though there was available space.
The event began with an introduction by SAC President Nabeel Ahsen, a video on Masai Ujiri’s Nigeria-based basketball program named Giants of Africa, and an introduction of the members of the school basketball teams to Mr. Ujiri.
Mr. Ujiri stated that his intent in coming to the school was not to talk about basketball but about overcoming challenges and pursuing goals. Of his own experiences moving from Nigeria to US college basketball to European professional basketball and then to management in the NBA, he related his struggles both in making ends meet financially initially and establishing himself later in his career. He began at the NBA as a part time scout for the Orlando Magic and made barely 2000 dollars in his first year. “I had to fight hard to travel, to go to all these tournaments, and come up with these results, without the resources, because they couldn’t hire a scout, I was only doing this part time. But I wanted to prove myself, so I took all the savings I had and I used them to travel around the world.” Mr. Ujiri would move up very quickly after that from part-time scout to director of scouting, director of player personnel, and finally to assistant GM of the Toronto Raptors in his first several years at the NBA. He then became the General Manager of the Denver Nuggets, where he encountered a new struggle: criticism from the media. “When I became GM in Denver, there was a player by the name of Carmelo Anthony who wanted to leave Denver, and this was my first time on the job dealing with anything like this. It was a trying time for me, because every day in the newspaper, every day on the radio, on ESPN, everybody’s killing you, everybody’s saying you’re inexperienced, this kid from Africa who wants to come and run a team. I had to overcome all these boundaries.”
Following Mr. Ujiri’s talk, the floor was opened up to questions.
STUDENT: Could you tell us a bit more about Giants of Africa and what it does?
UJIRI: I grew up in Nigeria and I grew up loving basketball. I always wanted to come up and play basketball in the States, I wanted to play high school basketball, I wanted to play college basketball, I always just kept dreaming. My mom would buy me Sports Illustrated, she’d buy me Michael Jordan videos when she travelled, and so I always had this dream of playing college basketball, of playing high school basketball, and maybe eventually playing in the NBA. There was one basketball camp you could attend in Northern Nigeria. I attended it one time, and I wanted to bring back more camps in Africa and give more kids opportunities. So ten years ago, I started a foundation called Giants of Africa where I take coaches from the states and a couple of players, and we go over there sponsored by Nike. It didn’t start off sponsored by Nike, I started off gathering shoes, anything just to give the kids, and I rented a gym in Nigeria and brought 50 kids together. We coached the heck out of them, and tried to help them go to school in the States. And since I started Giants of Africa in 2003, we’ve helped about 153 kids come to school in the States, and we’ve helped over 400 kids in Nigeria to go to university in Nigeria. I always tell them to use basketball as a tool. You might not be able to end up as a basketball player, but you can use basketball to get somewhere.
What are your goals for your Basketball Without Borders program?
My goal for Basketball Without Borders is again, to affect young kids and to help them grow even more. Basketball Without Borders is a bigger program than my program Giants of Africa. I was made director twelve years ago and I’m still the director today. It’s one of the most unbelievable camps in the world. We travel around Africa, and I used to go in for seven or eight years, and now there’s a couple scouts we hire to go in and find the best 100 basketball players between the ages of 16 and 19. We have a partnership with Nike and South Africa Airways and we fly them to South Africa and we take NBA players and NBA coaches to go spend one week with them. During this program, we also have a lot of life skills seminars, education and help – different things that can affect their focus, their careers, different things that can help these kids.
Where do you see the Toronto Raptors in the playoffs?
Ah, I promised I’d never say the P-word, I promised I’d never talk about it. I can tell you guys one thing, it will take patience, it will take growth, but we will win as a basketball team and I promise that.
TEACHER: One thing that really strikes me with what you’ve talked about today is that you have so much respect for the people you interact with and you have a lot of humility. You’ve also met a lot of great people, and I’m wondering, if among the great people you’ve met, if that sense of respect and humility is a common trait?
For sure. 100%. I’m close to a couple people in my life that I consider really special people. I’ve been fortunate to meet Nelson Mandela twice and interact with him twice. I’ve been fortunate to meet Barack Obama. He’s unbelievable – he’s an unbelievable person, in terms of how he treats people. And for me, that’s how I really look at people. Another person I’ve always wanted to meet and I really respected for how he affected people with his values was Mohammed Ali. And look at what Mohammed Ali is going through in his life now, but what a humble and unbelievable person. Another one, I know you guys see him as a celebrity and as a music star, but Drake is one of the most unbelievable persons I’ve met. He’s extremely humble, and he treats people the right way, and he works with us in the Raptors. He’s a phenomenal and fantastic person.
TEACHER: I was wondering, how about some of the incredible women that you’ve met?
So the most incredible woman I’ve met is Carol Stern. She is the president and CEO of UNICEF, and UNICEF affects the world more than anybody will ever know. I’ve traveled with this lady in Africa, and different places throughout the world. And what an unbelievable thing, her caring for other people, because where we come from, there’s a lot of poverty, there’s a lot of war, there’s a lot of struggles. And for people to be so into helping, what they do at UNICEF is unbelievable. So she’s the most unbelievable person I’ve been around, next to my mom, and my wife, and my baby daughter.
STUDENT: I was wondering, I’ll give you my number, and can you draft me in ten years?
I’ll draft you now. Wanna come in my car with me and go? Maybe you can make the shot we missed last night.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into basketball but they’re not in places where they can get noticed?
Well I think when you want that, you have to pursue it. If you think you’re talented, then find a way to do it. If you can get into school in the States, any way you can get exposure – talking to coaches, writing letters. You have to keep grinding, and grinding, and grinding.
What’s one of the most dangerous things you’ve seen going on back home?
I’ve seen Muslims and Christians fight in Northern Nigeria, where you don’t leave your house for three or four days. You see stuff that you can’t believe is happening. It’s hard, it makes you who you are, and you build courage, and instead of participating in that, I want to participate in things that will make that not happen anymore.
Were you the best player in your high school?
I was the fourth best player in my high school, there were three better than me. One is an engineer now, one is a doctor, and the fourth one I hired to be a scout for the Raptors in Africa.
In closing, Mr. Ujiri said: “What I want you to do is when you ask those questions, I want you to stand up with confidence, keep your shoulders broad, and speak so people can hear you. Because we’re going to be confident, and we’re going to be successful. I’m so proud, I’m so honoured, to be talking to you guys, and we are all family now.”
The presentation concluded with several students and a representative from each of the basketball teams thanking Mr. Ujiri. One student thanked him on behalf of Toronto Raptors fans for trading Andrea Bargnani, and sportingly, he responded by thanking the fans for putting up with Bargnani for seven years. This was followed by the presentation of a group of portraits of MGCI students photographed by Garneau student Idris Ali to Mr. Ujiri. After the presentation, many students gathered onto the stage to take photos with Mr. Ujiri.