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Masai Ujiri's "Giants of Africa" program continues to grow

Sportsnet Magazine followed Ujiri for this summer's Giants of Africa program, which teaches basketball fundamentals and provides opportunity for Africa's youth.

Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

In his time as general manager for the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri has been lauded for his patient roster-building, a process that began with the trades of Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay and culminated in the signing of DeMarre Carroll, the biggest free agent grab in franchise history.

Ujiri's work away from the Raptors office, though, has been similarly excellent, and it goes beyond just his time with the Raptors franchise. In this month's Sportsnet Magazine, Ujiri's Giants of Africa program is featured. The article, which you can read in full here, follows him through Nigeria, Nairobi, Kenya, Ghana, and Rwanda, during a summer trip that continues to grow in length and impact.

Giants of Africa's purpose is to give young Africans - typically between the ages of 14-20 - opportunity through the game of basketball. Ujiri started the program with close friend Godwin Owinje in 2003, an origin story the article dives into:

When the two again became roommates in Bladensburg in the early 2000s, their playing days had just ended and, Owinje says, they’d been kicking around the idea of running a basketball camp in Nigeria for years. "I was [playing] in Spain, Masai was in Belgium," Owinje explains. "One weekend I would drive to Belgium, the other weekend he would drive to Spain. It’s a long drive, but we didn’t have anything else to do." While hanging out together in Europe, the two got to talking about how good basketball had been to them and all the places it had taken them. "We wanted that same opportunity for kids back home," Owinje says. "We wanted to simplify the process for them, because the way we got [where we did] was really tough."

The program also provides gear for the kids in the program as well, which started as a used gear drive among Denver Nuggets players and has culminated in full Nike sponsorships worth tens of thousands of dollars.

One of the more interesting Raptors connections in the article is assistant coach Jama Mahlalela, who joined the organization in 2013 and is responsible for player development. Mahlalela, just like Ujiri, started his basketball life in Africa and is tied to the program's core mission. There are a lot of great anecdotes in the article about Mahlela's up-tempo coaching style, which gives a bit of insight into one of the lesser-known members of the Raptors staff:

Mahlalela caps the first day with a challenge he didn’t break out in Nigeria. It’s called the Impossible Catch and it comes with its own mythology. In his years of running basketball clinics all over the world, he tells the campers, he’s probably seen 10,000 kids attempt the Catch, and of all those many thousands, only 17 have ever succeeded. Mahlalela is an artist at fuelling and directing the energy of a large group—"One of the best I’ve ever seen," Ujiri says—and he introduces the challenge piece by piece, gradually stepping up the difficulty and with it the shared intensity.

Stage one is simple. "Throw the ball up in the air," he says, miming the act for the 50 kids in front of him, each holding a ball at the ready. "Clap three times." He follows his own instruction. "Catch the ball." On Mahlalela’s "go," 50 balls are sent airborne and the court comes alive with clapping that ripples and swells like rain on a barn roof. "Not bad. Not bad," the coach says, watching the tosses for a few seconds before whistling them to an end. "Next level, GOA Impossible Catch: Ball goes up in the air, touch the ground, catch the ball. Ready?" Scattered nods. "Up, touch, catch. Go!"

A good bit of late summer reading, it's a dive into a program many Raptors fans know about, but may not understand on a personal level. It also gives some human context to Ujiri, who seems as genuine and giving personally as he is professionally.