Masai Ujiri has traveled all over the world in his path to NBA front-office stardom as the president of basketball operations for the Toronto Raptors, but he’s never forgotten where the journey started: Zaria, a city in northern Nigeria, right in the heart of Africa. He’s proud of that home. Even if the president of the United States might not think he should be.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that, during a meeting in the Oval Office over an immigration deal that might include protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and unnamed African countries, President Donald Trump asked, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” The president has since denied making those racist comments; Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was in the meeting, insists that Trump “said these hateful things, and he said them repeatedly.”
We don’t know for sure if Nigeria’s one of the countries that Trump called a “shithole.” We do know, for what it’s worth, that the New York Times reported on a June meeting of his national security team during which Trump railed against the arrival of 40,000 new immigrants from Nigeria by saying, “Once they had seen the United States, they would never ‘go back to their huts’ in Africa.”
As Ujiri told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Friday, his on-the-ground work in helping build the game in Africa — not to mention the experience of his 47 years of traveling to and from his home continent, country and city — put the lie to the president’s remarks:
“This summer, I went to Kigali, and Nairobi and Lagos, and I went to Kampala and Abidjan and Dakar and Johannesburg and I saw great cities, and great people,” Ujiri told ESPN on Friday. “And I went to visit the refugee camp in Dadaab, and I met good people and good families with plenty of hope. If those places are being referred to as shitholes, go visit those places, and go meet those people.”
“I don’t think it’s fair, and I don’t think it’s what inspiring leadership can be. What sense of hope are we giving people if you are calling where they live — and where they’re from — a shithole? […]
“I don’t know that just because someone lives in a hut, that doesn’t mean that isn’t a good person, that that person can’t do better, that person isn’t capable of being great. And just because it’s a hut — whatever that means — doesn’t mean it’s not a home. God doesn’t put anyone someplace permanently. I am a living testimony to that. If I grew up in a shithole, I am proud of my shithole.”
When he’s not trying to build a championship winner in Toronto, Ujiri spends his time and energy trying to spread the gospel of basketball — and the opportunity the game can provide — throughout Africa. For years, he’s worked with the Basketball Without Borders program, a joint global outreach effort of the NBA and FIBA that’s been running for more than 15 years, with 47 former campers having been drafted by NBA teams. He’s doubled down on that work by founding a program called Giants of Africa that aims to “use basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of African youth,” helping scores of campers to attend high schools and universities in the U.S. and Nigeria through their commitment to the game.
“As leaders, I think we have to give people in many places a chance to have success, not continue to put those people down,” Ujiri told Wojnarowski. “We have to inspire people and give them a sense of hope. We need to bring people along, not ridicule and tear them down. This cannot be the message that we accept from the leader of the free world.”
– – – – – – –