Sunday, September 18, 2016

Masai Ujiri's "Giants of Africa" Documentary at TIFF

God bless Masai Ujiri.

I knew that I had to see the documentary based on the Toronto Raptors' president's organization "Giants of Africa" as soon as I heard it would be featured at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year. 

As a fan of the Toronto Raptors, one can't help but be proud to see how in just a few years the team has transformed into a powerhouse within the NBA. The fan base has expanded exponentially, media coverage, merchandise, awareness, and overall excitement for the Toronto home team has been electrifying to say the least. Basketball lovers around the world have witnessed the phenomenon that is "Jurassic Park," and viewers outside of our country have taken notice of the Raps in a real way. Masai is a huge part of this change, and this energy, and his influential hand has touched more than just the world of professional sports.

Giants of Africa--the organization--is exactly what people in positions of power and influence are supposed to do. They're supposed to give back. They're supposed to support their homeland. They're supposed to motivate the people around them, and they're supposed to do it with genuine love and intention. What I enjoyed about the Giants of Africa film is that after hearing about the organization over the years, and knowing generally what its mission was very powerful to see the impact that it had on the players, the coaches, and sports in Africa/for Africans overall. Particularly in Nigeria.

The mission of the Giants of Africa organization, which was founded in 2003, is to "use basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of African youth." The film takes us on a journey from Masai's office in Toronto as he plans the logistics of his summer, right to the final all-star game at the end of the camp season in Nigeria.

We are familiar with Masai. We see him in interviews, at Raptors' games, and his presence in the city is felt. And while he is uber-successful and legendary as the first African-born general manager of a North American professional sports team...the film also shows his humility, and his dedication to the bigger picture. We know him because of basketball, but his mission as a mentor is so much greater.

Born and raised in northern Nigeria to parents who worked in healthcare (his mother was a doctor, his father an administrator), Ujiri played college basketball in the U.S., and also played professionally in Europe before becoming a basketball scout, which is what led him to the Toronto Raptors in 2008 initially, and again in 2013. Also serving as the director of the Basketball Without Borders program, Ujiri has been committed to the international basketball environment, while still excelling with his home team.

What we see in Giants of Africa is the time and the care that Ujiri puts into organizing his basketball camp and the many young souls he interacts with along the way. While this movie could have easily focused on the successes of the coaches, the mentors, and possibly even some of the stars of the NBA, it instead singles in on the individual young men who have been selected to participate in the camp, and how it directly influences their lives.

From the beginning, we see that while the workshops and sessions are designed to improve and strengthen the players' skills on the court, it is also obvious that basketball is just a tool to a much more important message and lesson. 

The young players travel great distances from their home towns in many cases, to attend one of the camps set up by the Giants of Africa in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and South Sudan. We watch as the accommodations are selected, as the boys arrive and receive their gear and greetings, and even sadly see the dozens of other young athletes gathered around the gates of the venues just hoping that they too could be "on the list" and receive this opportunity of a lifetime.

We are introduced to many of the characters individually, like Sodiq, and Lino. As the film brings us through their daily drills and training, warm ups, chanting, meals, and socializing, you can't help but be moved by their bright smiles, determined eyes, and sun-kissed skin. It is an image of Africa that is inspiring and hopeful; an image of youth and energy and passion. The audience sees it, the coaches see it, and of course Masai sees this vision and the influence it has had over the past 13 years his organization has been in operation.

Hard work. Living honestly. Loving your mother/sisters/women. Being positive. Staying accountable for your actions. Loving your country. These are the messages that Ujiri drills into the young men, when they aren't being drilled on the court by a number of coaches and mentors from the league, from the continent, and from within the profession. It is particularly special to see Masai's long time mentor, Coach Oliver Johnson (OBJ), an American who had coached basketball in Nigeria for 40 years, including their national team. You can feel that Masai aspires to influence the young men in tribute and in the tradition of how OBJ mentored him. The campers are physically pushed to their limits, yet still hungry to do more and learn more...this is a special opportunity for the 50-60 youth (per country) to attend this elite camp, and it is evident how grateful they are for the experience.

Between drills, and at the beginning and ending of their sessions, they meet and dialogue with their coaches and mentors; they are reminded of why they are there. They are special. They are talented. They are encouraged to dream big, and they are reminded how important they are as individuals--regardless of their challenging circumstances.

What I loved most about this film is that the message wasn't to "get to the NBA" or to become professional athletes as a means of achieving success. Yes, it was mentioned by a few of the campers, but it was never emphasized by the instructors. The camp was more of a motivational tool to remind the young men that they should always dream big and work hard to achieve their goals.

In the most riveting scene of the movie, Ujiri urges the young men to make a difference in Africa. He demands this of them. Frustrated with an unfortunate encounter with one of the facilities (who refused to open the gym doors for the boys to practice one morning), he reminded the campers that they didn't have to be influenced by particular patterns of the culture that they often witnessed. He mentioned that while some Africans in power were driven by ego and money, that they should never value those things. Ujiri told the group of focused campers that they should be leaders at home, positive influences to their siblings, and role models in their communities. He reminded them that education was an essential tool to achieving any and everything in life, and that they could be powerful and influential in many ways. His message wasn't about getting to the was about getting through life with integrity and purpose: he insisted that they "change" Africa! I have no doubt that each of them will, in their own way.

To date, the Giants of Africa organization has seen over 80 of their campers attend high school and university in the U.S., and they've had over 100 of their young men attend university in Nigeria. There have been more than 30 athletes from this program who have played for the Nigerian national basketball team as well.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) had great vision when deciding to take the work of Masai Ujiri to the big screen. Along with the work of a strong team including cinematographer Chris Romeike, producers Josiah Rothenberg and Michael Gelfand, and of course Hubert Davis the Academy Award Nominated director of the film. This story represented the heart of basketball...beyond the sport itself. It was a reminder that behind every player--whether on the NBA floor before millions, or on a community court in Kiberia--there is a story of a young man who had a dream, and worked hard to achieve it.

We have the privilege of seeing the beautiful landscapes, and also some of the crowded and impoverished areas of the continent throughout this movie. We are reminded of the brilliance and diversity of the African people, as well as the struggles of humans everywhere. Giants of Africa, and the contributions of Masai Ujiri, are a great testament to what can be done when you have the opportunity to positively influence others. His humility is evident, yet his power and influence is overwhelming. We are lucky to have him lead our home team Toronto Raptors...but luckier to have him as a role model for young men who are dedicated to the game.

Photos via Giants of Africa Instagram page.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for the Kya Publishing "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

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