Ujiri Tells La Loche Students To Dream Big

Holly MacKenzie - Raptors.com

Hours before the Raptors recorded a 132-113 victory against the Brooklyn Nets, the team's BioSteel Centre was the place to be. Raptors President Masai Ujiri, head coach Dwane Casey, members of the team’s front office and support staff and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were at the practice facility visiting with a group of very special guests: a group of students from La Loche, Sask., who were struck by tragedy just one year ago.

The town of 2,600 people are still healing from the events of Jan. 22, when a shooting left four people dead and a community changed in the aftermath. A 17-year-old has been charged in the deaths of four people in a tragedy that started at home with two younger cousins and ended at the local high school, where a teacher and teacher’s aide were shot and killed.

CTV journalist Marci Ien reached out to Ujiri after seeing photos of students mourning that showed a boy in a Raptors hat. Ujiri responded immediately, wanting to help and feeling a need to figure out a way to do something. In November, Ujiri and Ien flew to La Loche to visit the community, walk through the halls of the school and speak to the students, letting them know that they are heard and that their voices matter. Talking about dreaming big, the mantra of Ujiri’s own Giants of Africa foundation, he spoke passionately about seeing beyond the circumstances placed in front of you. Ujirii and the Raptors organization began to plan for a trip that would bring 10 students to Toronto to tour the city, attend Raptors games, and go through a basketball clinic. The students toured Ryerson University as well as attended a taping of The Social in between sightseeing and meeting with the Prime Minister.

“We started at Ryerson this morning, went through the academic program, were in the classrooms, watched some of their students in the science labs with their instructors,” Dene High School acting principal Greg Hatch said. “It widens the world view that there is this educational institution that offers such a wide variety of programs and then we walked across the street to the old Maple Leaf Gardens, right where I used to listen to [famous Maple Leafs broadcaster] Foster Hewit.

Friday afternoon at BioSteel Centre, after a private meeting with Mr. Trudeau in the Raptors locker room, Casey and the Prime Minister oversaw basketball drills as laughter flowed throughout the gymnasium. Later that night the students stood in front of the Raptors during national anthems. They’ll do it again on Sunday. While a four-day trip won’t erase everything that has happened, Ujiri believes strongly in the power of sport to unite and inspire.

“I think sports brings people together and it’s very, very unique to have different people from different aspects of life,” Ujiri said. “Visiting [La Loche] and seeing how they live related to some of the things we do in Africa. I wanted to do something here. I don't know where it takes us, you know, but I think it’s important that we find this way to give back some kind of way and maybe find a platform to talk about what’s some of the history and how we can make it better. For the Prime Minister to be here, it’s just an incredible, incredible afternoon for us. I’m so thankful to Marci and thankful to that incredible community in La Loche. I went there and spent a day there and what an incredible place. They are healing and they will heal. I know they will heal.”

When Ujiri hosts his Giants of Africa camps each summer, one of the biggest messages is dreaming big, but also believing you can accomplish whatever those dreams may be. Ujiri wants that same message to be spread to the youth of La Loche.

In Africa, you see everybody, it doesn’t matter how poor they are, there’s such a passion,” Ujiri said. “When I go to this community, I feel, we have to figure out a way to give them some passion for life. A reason of hope.

“I know I’m not a politician and I’m not claiming to be an expert on this, but I know I can create a platform,” Ujiri continued. “I can be a voice. I want to be a voice in some kind of way. And then if we can create programs like this where I can help, you know, these 10 kids [on this trip], I guarantee you one thing: one of these kids is going to make it. Two, three five, a couple of them are going to make it and they’re going to help somebody else make it, too.”

Part of Ujiri’s message is always about taking pride in where your story begins. As the students of La Loche experience Toronto for the first time, Ujiri most wants them to be proud of who they are and where they are from.

“You have to stand up and be proud of where you are,” Ujiri said. “I always say in my camps in Africa, in everything we do, ‘My name is Masai and I’m from Nigeria.’ My name is Masai and I’m from Nigeria. It’s plain and simple. If you’re from La Loche or you are from Toronto you should be proud of it. Those are the first two things everybody says. Their name and where they are from and everybody should stand tall and talk about that and be proud of that.

“We have to make La Loche better,” Ujiri continued. “And they have to. One of the reasons I did this is for these kids to see that they can come back. It’s not always asking for help too, it’s also taking responsibility. So they can take responsibility, so they can go back and maybe they help their little brother or little sister, or maybe they help in their schools. That was the purpose. Be very proud of your name and where you come from. It’s so important. Say it loud and clear for everybody to hear.”