President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, An ABU Alumni, talks about basketball, sports development and family in this interview with KEMI LANRE-AREMU
What stirred your interest in basketball?
Growing up in Zaria, Kaduna State, me and my friends always saw this beautiful court at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, on our way to play football. One day, we stopped, and a number of us a just took the game up with coach OBJ (Oliver B. Johnson). I would say coach OBJ has been very influential in my life, in sports and in the game of basketball in Nigeria. He is the one that really encouraged us to play.
What motivated you to establish Giants of Africa?
Giants of Africa is dedicated to supporting the growth of basketball in Africa. The organisation hosts skills camps in several countries in Africa. We believe that basketball can be used as a tool to educate and develop youths around the world in order to accomplish their dreams. We strive to serve as role models for these kids to learn from and be motivated by hard work.
I want to give back to the young ones and that is why I host these camps all over the continent. We are home now (Nigeria) and I want to use this opportunity to thank the Lagos State Government for giving us the opportunity to host this camp at the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Surulere. The gym has been very fulfilling for us and this is in terms of what we are trying to do which is teach these kids the basic fundamentals and life skills.
I hope that things like this will send a message to the Federal Government. I know we have been saying this for a million years but the Lagos National Stadium is an eyesore and I think it’s time that we took sports seriously in this country.
In my opinion, that place should be shut down and renovated so that it will be progressive for sports, athletes and everybody. I can’t believe that we have a location like this and since I left this country many years ago, there has not been any meaningful change
When do you think Nigeria will be able to host an NBA game?
I think that can only be possible as soon as the facility to do so is available. When we have a good arena, then Nigeria can host the NBA. We have had talks about this and we are challenging people all over Africa. I don’t think the NBA necessarily wants to keep it in one place; their dream is to take it to other places. If they come to Nigeria now, tell me where we are going to play.
Just tell me the venue where there is going to be a good game. Are we going to play in that place (National Stadium) that is already an eyesore? I think the youths need to be encouraged and I don’t know how many people will be encouraged by what is on ground presently. I don’t know why sporting events are not prioritised in Nigeria. Sports bring people together and we need to pay attention to sports in this country
You have taken the basketball clinic to countries like Rwanda, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire and now Nigeria. How would you describe the many experiences you have had in these countries?
I have had great experiences. You visit and see different cultures of all the people in Africa. To me, one of the things it symbolises in Africa is that it is open now. Back in the days, it used to be difficult to travel to all these countries and do camps, events and sporting activities. Now, everybody is receptive and I think, that’s one thing Giants of Africa has shown in its expansion.
It has built relationships and we are proud of our relationship in Kenya, in Rwanda with President Kagame, Uganda, South Africa to name but a few. We are proud of those relationships and how we can continue to build to give the African youth a platform to use basketball as a tool.
How do you fund Giants of Africa?
For this particular trip, we visited eight African countries. I don’t like to talk about funding for any reason. It’s an obligation for me to come back and do this for the continent and I take pride in doing this annually and we have done this for the last 15 years. It’s something that I have to do and we have to find a way of doing it.
Do you think that basketball can be to Nigeria what football is to it?
Basketball is a global sport. It is a sexy sport and is one of the most followed sports. People love the lifestyle, players and I think it’s growing phenomenally all over the world. The NBA and its commissioner have done an unbelievable job of spreading the word. We play soccer right from when we come out of our mum’s womb and it’s because there are fields everywhere. Hopefully, one day, we would have courts everywhere too.
You have lived out of Nigeria for many years, what do you miss about Nigeria?
I miss Nigeria, but I have a job that I do so I can truly say that I am a son of the continent because I love the continent of Africa, I love being here. The month of August is usually my happiest because that is when I do this work. I don’t miss Nigerian food because my wife cooks everything for me.
Is she a Nigerian?
No my wife is half Guinea and half Sierra Leonean. She knows how to cook everything and she learnt from my mother, friends and the Internet.
Who influenced you growing up; your mum or dad?
Both of them. My parents really influenced me growing up. They taught me how to be a man from an early age. They taught me the meaning of focus and following one’s passion. Education was important for them and they prioritised it. Today, I am glad that they did.
Were they into sports?
Not so into sports but nonetheless, they encouraged me to pursue a career in sports.
As a young basketball player, what challenges did you face?
It’s the normal thing that these guys undergoing training here are also facing in terms of facilities. It was terrible but we enjoyed it so much growing up. We came across different things but we overcame them. To be honest, they are fond memories and I won’t change it for anything.
When did you start playing professional basketball and for how long did you do that?
I played professional basketball for six years.
You did not play for long…
I wasn’t that good and that’s another story entirely. I wish I had a longer career but I am happy.
So what are some of the highlights of your playing career?
My favourite time playing as a basketball player is probably Dakar 1997, when I played for Nigeria. That’s one of my fond memories as a basketball player.
How have you fared as the President, Toronto Raptors?
I don’t like to talk about what I do or what I have done because I don’t think that’s humble.
I understand your wife was an international model?
I try to keep things a little bit personal but I have two beautiful kids; a boy and a girl. One is three and half years old and the other one is 17 months old. My wife’s dad is from Guinea and her mum is from Sierra Leone. We just live a normal life and we love Africa. We love the continent and we try to give back as much as we can.
What attracted you to your wife?
There is always something when you meet the person that you love. The best thing is that we are beautiful friends and that’s how we fell for each other.
How do you like to unwind?
I unwind with my family by playing with my kids. I really like to relax at home and I enjoy reading.