For many years, my martyrdom for sports and education has been visible for anyone that knows me well. My commitment to talking about and raising the profile of Africans within the NBA has been a mission of mine. I would jump on a plane and head to anywhere in the world if basketball is involved. But for me, education is not just about teaching others and sharing my experience but it is also about learning from others from a far and close up.
Masai Ujiri is a silent giant, walking amongst other greats and in doing so, setting a path for us, the next generation to walk through. I’ve known Masai Ujiri for many years and over that time, I have learnt from him and others like the Vice-President of NBA Africa Amadou Gallo-Fall, Michele Roberts, and RC Buford close up and also from afar. But my story, like Masai starts in Africa. This is the reason why his journey and his dedication to Giants of Africa have impacted on me so much over the years.
This summer after a month on the road in China inspiring women and girls across the country with some of the NBA players, I joined the NBA Africa team in Johannesburg. My second day in South Africa, I joined the team at the American International School and as I got out of my car, the first person I saw was Masai Ujiri – President of the Toronto Raptors and also the Director of Basketball Without Borders Africa. With a big, warm smile and arms open, I gave him a hug as I greeted him, NBA Legend Dikembe Mutombo and Amadou Gallo-Fall. After the official launch of the Basketball Without Borders Programme, I sat and listened to Masai drive home the message of learning, asking questions and listening.
A big part of the world now, is we all want to talk, like I am talking. No one wants to listen. We have to be better listeners. We have to be better followers. Great followers can turn into great leaders,
As he paced up and down on the stage, he reminded the 78-young people from 25 different African countries that, they were blessed. With passion in his voice and the silent assassin stir, he introduced a great panel of NBA players and executives to the stage like any head teacher would do. It reminded me of myself in school daily. After the festivities had started, I had a chance to remind him about wanting to learn more about Giants of Africa and I wished I had been on tour with them.
Fast-forward a month later, I was on a flight to Lagos to join that GOA team on the Nigerian leg of the tour. As a young girl growing up in Ghana, I never once thought sports would become the focal point of my life and I never imagined that, sports would be the one thing that would light the fire in my stomach as it does with Masai Ujiri. I walked into the National Basketball Arena in Lagos and as I walked around the court on arrival, there were so many young people hard at training. With coaches from around the world on the court sharing their knowledge and experience with the groups, who had come from around Nigeria to be part of the camp. The atmosphere had that hard core, no nonsense approach but also a loving and family like ambience for all. Masai was sat on the side, deep in thought as he observed the coaches and the young people working.
I observed him as he was pondering, he walked around the court, as he interacted with the staff and young people, all I could think about was, how amazing this opportunity is for the young people. But particularly for the girls, who were taking part in the camp? As a young girl who immigrated to the UK at the age of 11years old, I remembered the important role sports played in the first 15yrs of my life in London. My first year in London was spent at home, learning how to speak English properly. My mum had met a coach Burk Gravis, who had encouraged my mum to allow me to do sports and dance almost every day for that year, but that quickly turned to 23years old non-stop sports and street dance.
After qualifying as a dancer and an accomplished athlete, I realised that sports had taught me all the life skills no teacher in the classroom could have. Sports took me to university to complete my degree and masters. My thoughts and emotions had taken over; I was having flashbacks watching the GOA girl’s camp. I felt that, at that moment I had to thank Masai and his team on behalf of the young people especially the girls, because I felt that he and his team understood the seed they were planting but most importantly, the confidence they are giving these young girls by making them a part of the programme.
But if you know Masai well, you will also know that, he finds it hard to accept compliments and also shy’s away from the spotlight. So, I asked him why he had decided to make girls part of the programme and why was it important to him. By asking that question, I had opened a whole conversation I wasn’t prepared for. But a conversation that, would impact on me more than anything I have ever come across. Because as a young woman, who has spent years with my heads in the books, fighting against every injustice a woman of colour can face professionally and personally, the conversation stopped me in my tracks. I felt frozen because, this was someone I had and continue to admire.
Before coming to Nigeria, Masai and GOA team had visited Kenya. Where his mother is from but also, where he had gone with former President Barack Obama and his sister to launch the building of a new youth centre. But while he was there, he had visited the Samburu Girls Foundation.
The Samburu girl in Kenya is a sanctuary for young women kept away from traditional practices of child brides and genital mutilation. As I sat listening to Masai tell me about the impact the trip to Samburu had, had on him, inside I was imaging the positive impact he had, had on the young girls of Samburu. He spoke about them with great conviction and as he showed me the picture of his trip, where the girls were teaching him how to cook, dance and as I watched a video of him telling them, how special they were and to never stop dreaming, I had to keep my professional domineer and smile. But inside, I felt so sad, simply because I wish the world could he him louder. You can’t help it but admire his commitment to changing the status quo for women and girls in Africa and across the board. For someone, who had started GOA to find the next big thing for the NBA, you could tell that his focus on making thing better for all is not just something for show but also something he truly cares about. As a family man with a young daughter himself, this is a must for him.
In its 15th year, Masai and Wilson entwined by introspection of Giants of Africa foundation has ran camps for 450 players in six countries, and 150 of them were girls, the highest number ever for GOA. But this summer Samburu girls was his highlight and when I asked him about the impact he has made with GOA and why girls were so important to him, he said,
Its important because I see the women in my life that have given me the opportunity. Whether is my mother, my daughter, my wife or all the women around, they are all impactful. And then to be honest, I see the smartness of women. I mean all the exercise we do here, when you watch the girls, they are so much quicker, so much smarter than the boys. Then I question, why don’t we have equality for all? Then I question, why women don’t have the same opportunities some men have? And then maybe somehow, through this game of basketball, some more girls will become more confident and use this game to achieve so much. I don’t want to be one of those guys that speak about women and then don’t do anything about it. I have employed the most women on any NBA team and I continue to speak and be a voice and help by giving opportunity.
As he answered the question, I watched how poignant he came across when he talked about this. You can clearly see that, even though the passion for developing basketball and being the voice of the sport across the continent is important, the topic of raising the standards and giving girls confidence through sport has become the focal point of this journey for him. This had given him a new purpose in Africa and beyond. This is a new challenge that he is facing head on and giving it a hundred percent of his attentiveness.
As I sat proudly listening to his allegiance to his new focus, I am could only just imagine the confidence the girls feel knowing that, they have someone in their corner and wishing that, “I hope that more girls in Africa and beyond get the same opportunity”. But also wishing for two things;
- Firstly, for more men speak up for women and girls in all walks of life because it’s not easy being a woman in this world. Coming from someone who challenges the status quo daily, it was an awakening and refreshing to now learn that, my main connection to this man was sports and making the voices of women and girls be heard.
- Secondly, for more of us Africans who had immigrated, put Africa at the centre of our hearts and visions because, we can only make things better in Africa, when we all look back and see, not only how far we have come but also, where we started and how we can all come together to make things better.
Masai may not be a big fan of the spotlight or the coming of Christ, but his heart of pure, his focus and vision is what majority of us wish for Africa and his journey should be inspirational to us all.
We have all grown up in African households, where our parents wanted us all to become doctors, lawyers, engineers and bankers. But if Masai story is anything to go by, we now know that, sport or basketball particularly is a tool. A tool to inspires change for us all, a tool that has given people like me the opportunity to put my footprints on the same path some way or another. Also, it’s a tool that we can use to change Africa for the better.
Watching the girls sweat but with a big smile on their faces in Nigeria, I know that, Masai may not have changed their lives, but he has planted a seed that will grow and make them dream bigger than they ever had and they will aspire to be better each day and make Africa greater than we have all ever imagined and, as Masai always says,
“I wish I am here to see the change they make.”
Giants of Africa is every one of us trying to make our continent better than it was yesterday but not as much as it will be tomorrow or years to come.