African athleticism and sports prowess is undoubtable but remains largely under-developed. From the rugby and cricket skills of South Africa and the long-distance running prowess of Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes to the football skill that is evident all over the continent, especially in the populous countries in the west of Africa, such as Nigeria, the continent is brimming with athletic talent.
The commercialisation of sport on the continent has been hamstrung by the lack of infrastructure and inadequate structures, institutions, policies and regulatory frameworks. In the Western world, sport has been developed into a major industry that makes a significant contribution to national growth and employment. In contrast, the role of sports in economic development has yet to be fully realised in Africa, where gains are limited to the socio-cultural spectacle and its unifying effect.
Nevertheless, Africa is a hugely attractive market – a fact that sport scouts are increasingly acknowledging. Masai Ujiri, the Nigerian-born president and general manager of the National Basketball Association champions, the Toronto Raptors, is one of the individuals who is trying to draw on this untapped wealth of talent.
Aside from a full career in basketball, which started when he was 13, Ujiri has been the director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Africa programme. The programme promotes basketball throughout the continent by conducting two camps, one for the top 50 players of Nigeria, which is sponsored by Nestlé Milo, and another for African men, which Ujiri sponsors himself, with help from Nike.
The camps, which were initially focused on social change, have gradually become a hotspot for scouts and an impressive number of former campers have made it into NBA and/or college-level basketball. One such example is the Cameroonian Luc Mbah a Moute.
Ujiri and Basketball Without Borders were profiled in Hubert Davis’s 2016 documentary film Giants of Africa. The title refers to the Giants of Africa non-profit organisation started by Ujiri to help young children learn more about basketball and leadership.
Ujiri spoke to CNN’s Marketplace Africa about basketball in Africa. As the president of the Toronto Raptors, he helps scout for players to improve his team. Referring to the skills that he is looking for, Ujiri said: “I started scouting African players… We are looking at those long arms; we are looking at speed; we are looking at skill. I tried to understand what the real NBA skill is and what you’re trying to find. And that’s a difficult thing to explain… We all just go, oh my God, I just saw this guy and he’s an NBA player! He’s an NBA player!”
Explaining why the Giants of Africa initiative is necessary he said, “We lack the necessary facilities in Africa to give the kids a chance. I say that there is talent in Africa, walking around everywhere. It is a gold mine. They need to see people like us, so that they will believe in themselves. At the end of the day, in my heart, I am a scout. And one day I want to say, I found this Mutombo, or Pascal Siakam. You want that great player; you want to find somebody who is just going to come and kill it.”
Discussing why he is dedicated to the initiative, Ujiri added, “We need more general managers. I need more young people. I need more people to see that it can be done. Whether it’s coaching, whether it’s scouting or whether it’s playing, whatever it is, people can see, yes, it can be done by an African. This is something that I really take pride in.”
In his time as the general manager of the Toronto Raptors, Ujiri has been credited with playing the biggest role in building the current team that won the NBA championship trophy for the first time in the franchise’s history.