Masai Ujiri's Giants of Africa Celebration Inspires Hope for the Next Generation

Masai Ujiri, Kayla Gray, and the Honourable Marci Ien talk about providing hope for the next generation at the eighth annual Nelson Mandela celebration .

Masai Ujiri at Giants of Africa event

Image via Twitter/@raptors

Masai Ujiri at Giants of Africa event

On the third floor of Hotel X Toronto near Lakeshore West is a large rectangular room with hundreds of formally dressed guests celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, the first Black president of South Africa who was known for fighting against racial apartheid and inspiring millions around the world to fight for change before passing away eight years ago.

The event is hosted by Masai Ujiri and his non-profit organization Giants of Africa. In the back of the room beside a wall outlining Giants of Africa’s newest and boldest initiative—the ‘Built Within Tour’: a commitment to build 100 new basketball courts throughout the African continent, with 10 already being built since this past summer—is an interactive art installation that asks guests to choose a coloured sticky note and write down one word or sentence that best describes Mandela.

There are countless messages pinned to the wall, including the words ‘leader,’ ‘inspiration,’ ‘courage,’ ‘love,’ ‘brave,’ ‘hero,’ ‘change,’ and ‘unity’ sprinkled throughout. But one message stands out above all else: ‘hope.’

Mandela was many things to many people, but after spending 27 years in prison and coming out with grace, forgiveness, and humility before becoming the president of South Africa and using his platform to inspire change, he represented hope for millions of African people, proving that no matter how grave the circumstances, anything is possible if you are willing to dream. 

Many of the people walking around the room eating hors d’oeuvres and drinking cocktails represent the same idea: Masai Ujiri, vice-chairman and president of the Toronto Raptors and the founder of Giants of Africa; Ilwad Elman, the chief operating officer of the Elman Peace Centre and a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee; the Honourable Marci Ien, Minister of Women and Gender Equality and Youth and Member of Parliament for Toronto Centre; Nomzamo Mbatha, South African actress, businesswoman, and human rights activist; TOBi, Juno Award-winning recording artist; Chantal Kreviazuk, Grammy- and Juno Award-winning singer and songwriter; and Kayla Gray, on-air anchor and reporter for TSN Sports. In each case, the odds were slim that they would reach the heights that they have, yet they persevered.

“Whether it’s a neighbor, whether it’s your brother, whether it’s your teammates, we all have to stick together in some kind of way during these times and by this way, we show kindness, we show hope, and we can move forward.” – Masai Ujiri

The message at Giants of Africa’s annual Mandela celebration—which began at this lunch gala, continued onto the Toronto Raptors game later in the evening, and concluded the next day with a diversity event for businesses and two outreach events for youths—is to do the same: dream big and fight for your goals regardless of the obstacles in your way. Because as Mandela proved, individual actions have the potential to impact the global community.

“Off the court, the work continues,” Ujiri said in a Raptors-produced video announcing his return to Toronto in early August. “[The] fight for equality in the justice system; work to prevent children from becoming child soldiers, grow the game in Africa and build the infrastructure there so kids can have a place to play, to dream their dreams; to make sure young women and young girls are valued and included.”

“These are global goals. Toronto is a global city. You give me the strength and inspiration to reach for that.” 

“I remember him telling me once how much he loves his job as president of the Raptors, but he also said that his job allows him to do this,” the Honourable Marci Ien tells Complex Canada as she gestures around that room. “And that’s the perspective… It allows him to travel and embrace kids and hold camps across the continent of Africa and bring kids together and give them leadership skills because he has the job that he has.

“I love the fact that he takes that position of power, and he just casts such a wide net. And I have to say not everybody does that, but it speaks to his character and speaks to the man and philanthropist that he is.”

Ujiri is clearly someone that uses his platform as the president of the Raptors to inspire change off the court. It’s no coincidence that since Ujiri took over in 2013, the Raptors have played a home game on Dec. 5 every year to celebrate Mandela’s life, with this being the ninth straight year. While people have criticized the idea that someone should use their platform in sports to inspire change—an idea characterized in the “shut up and dribble” rhetoric—those people are missing the point: sports is one of the greatest platforms we have to come together, relate to one another, and use our shared experiences to promote peace and unity.

“I think sport is the one and only way in which we can connect these days it feels like,” Kayla Gray tells me. “I got into sport because I would spend so much time with my grandparents watching the Blue Jays games and it would make my heart beat really, really fast and it’d make their hearts beat really fast. And then I grew up and would debate about teams and players and I’d realize it was all founded in the love of the game.

“I think when you kind of find that common ground of love, it’s so much easier to open the doors for different conversations of change. And I think for me especially, sport gave me family, sport gave me a community, sport gave me friendship.”

As Ilwad Elman put it: “Sports is transformation in the lives of children and young people everywhere around the world. But the unique relationship that a coach has with a student or a player is one that can actually galvanize their youth peacefully for character development and for mentorship. And I think that sports is the vehicle that not only contributes to all types of mental health for society, but also promotes cohesion and unity.”

It’s no wonder that Mandela’s five pillars of change were: sports, leadership, community, freedom, and future. In fact, Ujiri said in a video tribute to Mandela that played during the first commercial break of the Raptors’ game that evening that it was Mandela who taught him about the power of sports. In some ways, then, us Raptors’ fans have Mandela to thank for Ujiri’s career choice. 

“It’s so important for us. So huge. To have everybody together in one room celebrating Nelson Mandela. First of all, what he was about, and he was about hope, he was about kindness, he was about selflessness,” Ujiri tells me. 

“And for us, it’s prideful for us, for me as a man to honour him. He’s somebody that is the father of Africa and helped us really go through some [important] steps in Africa and… encouraged the youth a lot. So these events here for me [are about] bringing people together and giving a sense of hope that things are coming back and celebrating this man.”

While Mandela is the person of honour this afternoon, people are also in attendance to be around the uber-charismatic Ujiri, who has followed in his hero’s footsteps to give back and inspire his communities in Toronto, Saskatchewan, and throughout Africa with events like this one, outreach events for the youth, and with basketball camps and infrastructure in Africa. 

“When you see it truly, I mean, it sounds corny, but it is so true that when you see it, you truly believe that you can be it.” -Kayla Gray

“I think the most important thing is that he sees the humanity of it all, because that’s what is at the core of Giants of Africa: humanity,” Nomzamo Mbatha says. “To say that I was able to make something of myself. I mean, building myself up to become the president of the Raptors, as an African man, hello! What is it that I want to do to be able to make that a tangible dream for African kids across the continent? That in itself speaks volumes about the heart and humanity, or the gaze of humanity that he has.”

“I think especially for marginalized children, you’re told to dream big and you have all these dreams and then society limits you, right? It adds confines and constructs and it rips away some of those dreams and it’s heartbreaking, you go through heartbreak as a child going through racism, going through learning about what structures are all about,” Gray says. “So for this to kind of break that down and to rebuild what possibility is for young kids, I think that that’s what’s really important and why it’s so important for days like this, right? So kids can see that they can be the next Masai Ujiri or they can be the next me or the next Honorable Marcy Ien, right?

“When you see it truly, I mean, it sounds corny, but it is so true that when you see it, you truly believe that you can be it.”

Another thing Ujiri shares with Mandela is his focus on the youth. Watching him speak to young campers, it’s palpable just how much faith and belief he has in the next generation and their ability to be the change that he knows they are capable of. 

But in a world as doom and gloomy as this one sometimes appears to be, especially coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the message that change is in fact possible can be very hard to get across to young people. That’s why it’s so important to bring people together, not virtually, but physically. After all, there is an energy and sense of connection that in-person interaction and only in-person interaction can create, and that connection can create meaningful change. 

“When you look around this room, the stories: Each and every story is so empowering. So full of lived experience, shared experience. So I would say: know that things are possible,” Ien says. “You look around this room and you see women here who persevered. It hasn’t been easy. I’m one of them. It hasn’t been easy. But perseverance, believing in oneself, asking for help when you need it, and just not being afraid to lead. Not being afraid to be the only in a room. Know that trailblazing is a good thing. And know that discomfort is also a good thing. I always like to say: when you’re uncomfortable, that means you’re in the right place, because you’re learning.” 

“Coming together and being able to share those stories, meet those challenges, talk about different things, and then go back and do better. Go back to our communities and do better.”

It’s the same reason that the return of live sports is so important. After 585 days abroad, the Raptors were finally able to return home this October. And as the Mandela celebration carried into the evening — with many of the gala guests moving from Hotel X to Scotiabank Arena to watch the Raptors play the Washington Wizards — it was a reminder that as bad as things were for the past year and a half, things are finally returning to normal. In addition to all the celebrities in attendance, there were Giants of Africa warmup shirts being worn by the players, African music and dances sprinkled in throughout the game, and video tributes to Mandela.

“Hope. I think for me, we all have to come out of this strong. We all have to have that mentality that things are going to get better. Sometimes we’re going to go through these rough patches in life, but we all have to stay together and we all have to help each other,” Ujiri says about coming out of the pandemic. “Whether it’s a neighbor, whether it’s your brother, whether it’s your teammates, we all have to stick together in some kind of way during these times and by this way, we show kindness, we show hope, and we can move forward.”

“That’s where it all starts, right? I mean, I think you really have to believe and dream that the change that we want to see in our society can one day be true, that they can be realized. And that we have to make a concerted effort to work towards that every single day, no matter how challenging our environments are,” Elman adds. “And I think that as long as someone has the ability to dream and hope for a better future, then there’s a fighting chance.

“But when we lose that, that’s when we’ve lost everything.”

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