Nigerian sends Canada’s only NBA team to its first final in history

By Francis Akhalbey

On Sunday, the Toronto Raptors made history when they beat the Milwaukee Bucks 100 – 94 to qualify for its first ever NBA playoff finals in its history.

Coming back from a 2 – 0 deficit to officially win 4 – 2 in the Eastern Conference best-of-seven finals, the Raptors will be looking to upset favorites and defending champions, the Golden State Warriors when they square off against each other.

Looking to further cement their name in the history books, the Toronto based basketball team wouldn’t have made it this far had it not been for the tactfulness and brilliance of their Nigerian president and the first African NBA Executive Masai Ujiri.

Born in the northern Nigerian town of Zaria to a Nigerian father who was a hospital administrator, and a Kenyan mother who was a doctor, the soft-spoken 48-year-old former basketball player sat down with Face2Face Africa last year to talk about his life and how he is uplifting African youth through basketball.

Masai Ujiri is a true African with a big dream for the continent’s youth which he manifests through NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Africa programme and his Giants of Africa programme that uses basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of underprivileged African youth through camps.

“It’s an obligation for me to do this. I see it more as an opportunity. It [the role] is heavy on my shoulder and I feel it because I grew up like these youth, but I think I have the opportunity and I may as well use the opportunity to help the youngsters in Africa,” he said.

The humble NBA executive was quick to acknowledge the efforts of several other people who are also grooming young African talents through basketball with the same goal of developing the future of the African youth.

“I am not the only promoter of the game … There are many people that do it. I do have a platform that’s visible because of my position. There are lots and lots of people doing lots of great things on the continent with basketball, some may be as visible, some not as visible, some even more visible. It is a huge continent and it takes a lot to get things going.”

The Hausa-speaking Ujiri recalled his childhood in Nigeria where he played football until he was 13 and then met legendary American coach Oliver Johnson in his home country who trained him and helped him develop the love for basketball.

“I had the opportunity to go to the States to further my education and I played professional basketball. I was very good but I discovered early that I could do other things in the game, like I started coaching the junior national team in Nigeria, I started scouting, and that’s how I got into the NBA,” he said.

Ujiri talked about his parents’ contribution to his childhood and their concern for his future after he discovered basketball which has turned him into a global icon and an inspiration to many young people in Africa.

“My parents were protective, you know Nigerian parents or African parents. It’s always education first but I did have encouragement from them too whether it was my mom travelling and buying me basketball shoes or a basketball, basketball gear or basketball magazines, so I did have good encouragement from my parents too,” he explained.

Masai Ujiri did not mince words when Face2Face Africa asked him if he regretted ending his professional playing career in 2002 after playing two years of basketball at Bismarck State College in the U.S. before playing professionally in Europe for six years.

“There is no regret at all because I wasn’t good enough as a player. [I miss] the competitive part of the game … I wasn’t good enough to be a high-level player and now I find myself to be in a high-level position so this is clearly better than what I could have done as a player,” he said confidently.

Masai Ujiri’s Giants of Africa recently built a basketball court in Alego, Kenya, as part of the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resource and Vocational Training Centre founded by Auma Obama, former U.S. President Barack Obama’s sister.

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