Raptors president Masai Ujiri got a little emotional while recounting a moment from his childhood, in which his mother asked about his worn-out shoes and wondered if sports would ever feed him.
“It’s feeding a whole lot of people now,” Ujiri said Monday at the United Nations Unstoppable Africa Conference in New York.
Ujiri and Raptors star Pascal Siakam were among the high-profile panellists who reiterated a commitment to help basketball, and sports in general, continue to grow on the African continent.
“Sports is here to stay and we are the definition of unstoppable,” said Ujiri. “We should no longer see sports as a recreation alone. Sports is a business. It creates incredible opportunity for all of us.”
Giants of Africa, which Ujiri co-founded in 2003, has for years helped top African prospects reach the NBA. Now it is also focusing on job creation, empowerment of women and youth, and building a pathway to sustainable peace and prosperity.
Ujiri was instrumental in the creation and launch of the 12-team Basketball Africa League, which held its inaugural tournament last year in Kigali, Rwanda. Giants of Africa has also built courts and held summer camps in several countries to encourage participation.
Ujiri takes pride in the rise of NBA stars with African heritage — including Siakam, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo — and says it’s just the start.
“I can tell you this: there’s a thousand of each one of them walking around the continent,” he said Monday.
Amadou Fall, president of the Basketball Africa League, said growth in participation and interest will lead to financial opportunities.
“Africa needs to cease being an exporter of talent,” he said. “We want to create an entertainment platform right here on the continent.”
Few know more about the state of the game in Africa than the 28-year-old Siakam, a two-time all-NBA selection who arrived after participating in Basketball Without Borders camps hosted by former NBA player Luc Mbah a Moute. The Raptors power forward now hosts summer camps for youth through his PS43 Foundation.
“I started playing basketball when I was like 17, which is super crazy,” Siakam said at Monday’s conference, adding that as “a scrawny kid from Cameroon” it was motivating to see Africans succeeding in the NBA. He wants to pay it forward.
“I hope I’m part of these people who inspire other young Africans to dream big,” said Siakam, who mentioned plans to contribute toward the construction of schools and community centers in Africa. “Education is the most important thing. My dad believed in it, and so do I.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the work done by Giants of Africa goes beyond building infrastructure and discovering talent. He praised the program for teaching valuable life skills.
“I would include myself as one of those people,” said Silver, who never played professionally but added that sports taught him about discipline and hard work.
He added that about 10 per cent of current NBA players were born in Africa, giving young hopefuls something to aspire to.
Speaking on a panel with Patrice Motsepe, president of the Confederation of African Football, Silver also reached out to other sports.
“We’re not Coke and Pepsi,” he said. “Whether you shoot it or kick it, we can work hand-in-hand.”
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