Masai Ujiri: Next step in developing African basketball is a pro league

TORONTO — Masai Ujiri believes there are potential NBA stars living in Africa who might never pick up a basketball.

The Toronto Raptors president and his Giants of Africa organization is hosting "Mandela 100," a two-day celebration honouring the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. It culminates with the Raptors' game Wednesday against the visiting Philadelphia 76ers that will feature three African players in Toronto's Serge Ibaka (Republic of Congo) and Pascal Siakam (Cameroon), and Philadelphia's Joel Embiid (Cameroon).

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Ujiri said there've been talks involving both the NBA and FIBA about the possibility of an African league. The problem is Africa's infrastructure.

"For me, the challenge for the continent is people see Africa as one continent, one country, and it's not. There's 54 countries with 54 different laws, regulations and borders and that's the challenge for us," Ujiri said Tuesday. "Once we can have some sort of league it's going to blow up because you can see that there is talent. It's a gold mine.

"I'm confident to say there are 10 Embiids walking around, there are 10 whoevers walking around in Africa. There are people who have gone through their lives that have that athletic ability who haven't even touched a basketball. They never had the courts, they never had the opportunity. That's why it's a gold mine and people are starting to realize it now."

Ujiri was asked about how a player such as Siakam or Embiid would be received in Africa.

"I think I was on a phone call with (American sports executive) Scott O'Neil the other day and he said 'Embiid goes back to play it'll be like Muhammad Ali or something,'" Ujiri said. "It's why you like the rise of these players with Pascal and Serge and OG (Anunoby, who was born in London to Nigerian parents) and these guys, with this day and age of social media and you can watch highlights on your phone."

Ujiri's Giants of Africa program uses basketball to educate and enrich the lives of African youth.

The two-day celebration began Tuesday with a tribute gala.

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