Masai dreaming bigger with Giants of Africa

Pius Ayinor
In 2003 a former Nigeria international Masai Ujiri returned to the Nigeria to run a training camp for teenage basketballers. He told reports journalists on arrival in Nigeria that his vision was to give back the community where he started from, reports.
Then he said, “I started from here like most kids in the street corners of Zaria not knowing exactly how far this could go. At the time we barely had people guiding us. My dream is to help these kids start on the right footing. We have to build them up in life generally and not limit them to basketball development because at the end of it not everybody that started off on the court will end up at the NBA or even pro basketball.”
Today he has continued to teach kids such values of life. What started small with a few players with the help of his former coach Oliver B. Johnson (the American is simply known as OBJ in Nigeria) moved to Lagos with a bigger space and more at the National Stadium. And not too long after the first camp held, the desire to help kids do well with life soon before a dream without borders and the Giants of Africa programme has expanded to sis Africa countries.
Masai was in Lagos in August and said, “The run has been great for us. The whole idea as I have always said is that I am giving back as much as I can to the society. The idea to expand the programme started from the first time I spent doing the Basketball Without Borders in South Africa. That was good I thought it would be nice to take the game down to all corners.
“It was a bit challenging at the beginning but now easier moving around because of the relationships we have built around over time. I’m really proud of those who have been of tremendous help to the programme. We are so proud of how we have used basketball to develop the youth in different spheres of life.”
Masai left Nigeria as a young man when Nigerians were still proud of the Lagos National Stadium. This year he couldn’t go near that venue. Indeed for the past three years the Giants of Africa programme has used alternative halls rather than the Sports Hall of the Federal facility where the national teams had won so many games in the good old years. They used the Teslim Balogun Stadium just down the way because the national venue had degenerated.
Masai did not find situation encouraging. He had a message for those in charge.
He told reporters, “We are grateful to the Lagos State government for the use of this facility. We cannot also forget the National Stadium that we started with but we must also say it as it is now. I do hope that those in charge can hear us. They need to shut down the National Stadium and completely rework the place. It’s in a very bad shape now that’s not the right message to pass to the young ones that we cannot maintain our facilities. It’s been like this for ages and nobody seems to care anymore.”
When reporters asked why the NBA Africa game has not moved to Lagos since, the answer was handy and similar.
“When the arena is available I am very sure the NBA would love to be in Nigeria. They know the kind of talents here and the love for the game here but it will be difficult to squeeze in here for a world programme that requires standard hall.”
Giants of Africa, the organization founded by Toronto Raptors President, Masai Ujiri, held their programme in Lagos in August. The event was held in six African countries this year. Dedicated to supporting the growth of basketball on the continent, Giants of Africa hosted skills camps in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Senegal. The youth focused camps kicked off in Rwanda from August 7 to 9; Uganda from August 10 to 12; Kenya from August 13 to 15, and then Nigeria from August 19 to 21. It continued in Ivory Coast from August 23 to 25 and was concluded in Senegal with boys’ and girls’ camps from August 26 to 28.
“Sport can change the world. Africa must rise and the way we get there is together. One of Giants of Africa’s fundamental mottos is – Dream Big. We believe that basketball can be used as a tool to educate and develop youth around the world to accomplish their dreams. In addition to training coaches in each country and building infrastructure, we strive to serve as role models for these kids to learn from and be motivated by hard work. We feel a deep sense of responsibility to help them develop as athletes and be good citizens within their community,” Masai said.
Giants of Africa summer camps ‎band together elite and emerging coaches from across Africa and internationally. The skills sessions are tailored to develop aspiring basketball athletes both on and off the court. Sessions over the course of three days focus on helping players develop athleticism, enhance life skills, set goals and inspire them to accomplish their dreams.
In each country, Giants of Africa is participating in outreach projects in each local community. In Rwanda the team opened a new court at Rafiki Club. Kenya community outreach included a project impacting the neighbourhood of Kayole. The Giants of Africa team visited Little Saints Orphanage in Nigeria, Cite d’Ivoire Orphelinat De Bingerville in Ivory Coast and will support the SEED project in Senegal.
Masai’s love of basketball paved his way to becoming the first African-born General Manager for a major North American sports team and he never forgot his roots, or the opportunities presented to him. Inspired by the NBA’s ‘Basketball Without Borders’ programme, Giants of Africa exists to create those same opportunities for not only African youth, but also for coaches and mentors who go back to their own homeland to influence future generations. Since the Giants of Africa camps began more than 100 camp attendees have moved on to high school or university in the United States, with around 20 now playing professionally in Europe.
Masai’s outreach to the society has seen other helpers of the society collaborating. This year the former Nigeria international was involved with the Red Cross this year especially with the flood situation in Sierra Leone.
Giants of Africa 2017 camps have been made possible with the support of partners including the NBA, Nike, Nestlé Milo, Ecobank, MLSE Foundation and Sportscorp Travel.