TORONTO — Masai Ujiri could see it in the proud posture and wide smiles of the young female players.
The Toronto Raptors president was in Somalia last week for the last stop on his annual Giants of Africa tour.
“We have to preach equality on the continent and all over the world,” Ujiri told The Canadian Press. “There’s as much talent in girls as there is in boys. They have to be given the opportunity, too. At the end of the day, you see them walking taller, which was very important for us to continue on this journey.”
Ujiri has barely paused since the Raptors won the NBA championship in June. There was free agency and the departure of superstar Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Much of his time has been devoted to Giants of Africa, his passion project since 2003. The tour added Somalia and South Sudan to the schedule this summer, two countries still staggering from civil wars.
Islamic extremism in Somalia had forbidden females to watch sports let alone participate in them. The sight of young girls shooting hoops and kicking balls is unusual. The resurgence of female athletes has been in itself a symbol of defiance.
The 50 girls at the Giants of Africa camp in Mogadishu played in hijabs. It was held at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, which is co-run by Ilwad Elman, a Somali-Canadian. Her father, Elman Ali Ahmen, was assassinated in 1996. He was a renowned peace activist responsible for a campaign to rehabilitate young soldiers through education.
Elman has introduced sports to girls and women at the center as a way to empower them.
“Basketball has been a breath of fresh air there,” Ujiri said. “It’s about what sports can bring you: happiness, peace, bringing people together, working together. For us, that was our message.”
Sitting in his office at an otherwise quiet OVO Athletic Centre this week, the 49-year-old executive reflected on his tour, which also included trips to Morocco, Mali, Cameroon and Tanzania.
Arriving as the reigning NBA champions took the tour to a new level.
“That was awesome, just to show that at least we can do it ... we can believe in ourselves to do this,” Ujiri said. “I love it that Pascal (Siakam) and Serge (Ibaka, a Congolese native) played brilliant roles for us in this championship. Kids can see that.”
But he also wants the youngsters to know it’s not only the players who can achieve “something big.”
He listed Patrick Engelbrecht, the Raptors’ director of global scouting from South Africa; Raptors assistant coach Patrick Mutombo, who is Congolese; Jama Mahlalela, the Swazi-Canadian head coach of Raptors 905, an NBA G League team; and Raptors assistant Eric Khoury, who’s Egyptian.
Ujiri is an English-born Nigerian. When the Raptors won the Larry O’Brien Trophy, he became the first African to lead a franchise to a major North American title. He took the trophy home to Zaria, Nigeria.
“We as Africans have to go back and do more,” Ujiri said. “I have to continue to do more and more, to create more opportunity. It’s very important that we tell the story and create the narrative there rather than somebody else create it for us.”
Ujiri said the tour was a chance to “recharge” before jumping back into his seventh season at the helm. Toronto opens at Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 22 when a championship banner will be raised and rings presented.
Ujiri says the NBA crown stands beside his work in Africa.
“These people have an incredible passion for life,” he said. “It’s joy for me, and an obligation. I feel so good doing it every year.” — (AP)