Sarah Chan: When opportunity and passion collide

by Holly MacKenzie

When Sarah Chan showed up to volunteer at a Giants of Africa basketball camp in Kenya, she simply wanted to give back to the youth in attendance. Chan didn’t know Raptors President Masai Ujiri, wasn’t overly familiar with Giants of Africa, and didn’t have any idea that her positive attitude and work ethic at the camp would leave an impression that would change the trajectory of her own story as she began a journey that would culminate in her being named manager of scouting in Africa for the Toronto Raptors.

“I heard there was a camp that was happening on a Monday,” Chan said. “And so I volunteered for it. At the time, I didn't know it was the Giants of Africa camp. I wasn't part of the coaches. And you know, I ended up just showing up.”

Showing up, passing along her knowledge and impacting the gym with her infectious personality, Chan didn’t realize that Ujiri was watching her work. She also didn’t expect to get a call from him.

“I was just enjoying myself, learning and teaching as well,” Chan said of her time at the camp. “A few days later, Masai called me for a meeting and he basically [told me that he] felt that my principles and my work ethic did align with everything that they were doing. [He] wanted me to be a part of the Giants of Africa team. It was such an amazing opportunity for me.”

Chan jumped at the chance to get involved officially, and soon began scouting for Giants of Africa. She was soon scouting for the Raptors, and after a few years in that position, moved up to hold her current position of managing scout of Africa for an NBA team. 

She couldn’t have scripted it. That’s what makes it so special.

“It has all come, in my opinion, out of a passion meeting with opportunity,” Chan said. “Just pursuing knowledge, wanting to teach and wanting to learn, constantly learn, [along with] years of work.”

Though Chan’s Raptors story begins with a Giants of Africa camp, her own personal journey begins in Sudan. 

“At the time, [in Sudan], a young girl couldn't participate in sports,” Chan recalled. “The country was going through a dark era. One of the longest civil wars in Africa. My parents had been looking for opportunities to be able to continue to provide for us necessities, like just basic necessities, and education has always been so key in our family. They applied to some sort of scholarship that came through and we ended up in Kenya in 1998.”

It was in Kenya where Chan was introduced to sports for the first time. Though she originally got involved with basketball because of her height, she soon discovered the benefits of the sport that extend well beyond the court.

“I really started to enjoy the competitive nature of sports and basketball, to be specific, I really started to love the discipline, it taught me so much,” Chan said. “ I was just constantly learning and I was constantly learning not just basketball, but life skills as well.”

As she continued to improve her game, Chan also discovered that her time on the court provided an escape from whatever was going on outside of it. She received a basketball scholarship to Union University in Tennessee, then went to Europe to play professionally, before returning to Africa to play there. 

Before long, Chan decided she wanted to do her masters. In the middle of her degree she also started volunteering at different schools to help with their basketball programs.

“I always just enjoyed being around that basketball environment,” she said. “That atmosphere was calming, it helped me redirect. It helped me refocus and just recenter myself and everything that I was doing.”

As she was nearing the completion of her masters, Chan started to shift her focus toward the future. Since she was a little girl, Chan’s mother had always stressed the importance of using one’s time wisely.

“I've always remembered my mom emphasizing the power of time,” she said. “You can never get it back, and time waits for nobody. She's always said if you're going to do something, do it with excellence or don't do it at all. Don't waste it. Don't waste your time. Don't waste anybody's time. If you have time on your hands, try to see which way you can impact and which way you can be able to bring a positive change.”

Chan soon realized she wanted to give back through basketball and mentoring. Things fell into place almost immediately after that.

Getting to work with the Raptors has been an experience that Chan calls a blessing. It’s impossible to not hear the excitement in her voice as she talks of the gift that is blending your life’s work with your greatest passion.  

As a woman holding a position that is often dominated by men, Chan gives credit to the Raptors organization as well as MLSE as a whole for the ways they have created an environment that champions all of its employees equally.

“The Raptors keep adding competent women day in and day out, fearlessly,” Chan said. “It's such an example in the NBA, it’s such an example globally. The other day, when it was an all-women [broadcast] for the game. That is so inspirational. So many kids that look up to that will be inspired, [thinking] ‘I can be her tomorrow. I can be Kayla [Grey], I can be so-and-so tomorrow.’ It's an incredible position to be in. But with privilege like this comes a lot of responsibility.” 

That responsibility is something that drives Chan each day.

“Sports have the power to inspire,” she said. “It has the power. It is a tool that can change the lives of individuals. One person's life changing changes their family's lives, the community, the country, the continent. The world is a better place. I think it's very vital that women continue to carry that torch and keep inspiring the next generation.”

Chan credits her mother for inspiring her own steadfast work ethic. Within the Raptors organization, Chan says she has been supported and uplifted by many, though she singles out Ujiri, senior basketball advisor Wayne Embry, assistant coach Patrick Mutombo, director of international scouting Patrick Engelbrecht, and former WNBA star and Raptors assistant Lindsey Harding for their leadership along the way.

“It's amazing that I had these incredibly amazing leaders that were already ahead of me and that I could ask questions,” Chand said. “ And they led me without judgment and corrected me in the most constructive ways. Also getting immense knowledge from Wayne Embry. I'm not in Canada as often, but whenever I get the chance and he's around the gym, I would ask him questions. There’s so much that you learn from him. He's like a moving library.”

One of the most amazing things about sports is how it immediately equals the playing field. Whether someone is a player, a coach or something in between, when the game begins, the only thing that matters until the final buzzer sounds is the game itself. Chan has always found this truth to be comforting.

“When I used to play, for the two hours I was on the court, my coaches never [treated] me any different,” Chan said. “You are not a guy. You are not a woman. There's no gender when you're playing sports. you just play your game. I had so enjoyed that before and I never really came into anything thinking of myself, that I'm contributing as a gender.”

“It's amazing that I'm a woman,” Chan said. “I tell people my superpower is being a woman. But at the end of the day, we're all capable human beings that are contributing towards a higher goal. When we win the championship it’s not so and so [who won the championship]. It’s not this person and that other person. It’s everybody’s effort that came together and you finally see this result and it's so beautiful to behold.”

Chan encourages young women who may not know where to begin in their own sports journeys to start wherever they are. 

“Pursue it,” she said. “No matter where you start, whatever industry, whatever sports industry, I'd say first start with passion. Pursue your passion and let your passion lead the way. Acquire the knowledge along the way and continue to seek it  There's nothing that you can’t do. Ask people in whatever field you're in, for advice, humbly taking positive criticism and keep growing as a person, as a professional.”

This advice was just the beginning from Chan who then chose to address the youth who may be reading this piece directly.

“Young girls, look, if I can do it, if I can do it, you can do it,” she said. “Put your mind to it. Invest your time into it, and you keep moving no matter what when you feel like giving up. That's not an option. So intentionally, do what's right, no matter how you feel. They say women are emotional, but you know what? Put that emotion in the right place. Start that engine. And no matter what you come across on your journey, that is only but a bump. You'll get over it, you'll keep moving, you'll get better, you'll gain the experience and you will have opportunity and passion meet one day and [then] you'll be unstoppable.”

After giving this message directly to the younger women who may be reading this piece, Chan also wanted to leave every reader with the following as the world continues to adapt more than a year into this global pandemic.

“During this time, I know that we're going through a whole lot in different parts of the world, but we're all in this together,” she said. “Stay safe. Make sure that you're following the government directives. Make sure that you're checking on your loved ones and keep a positive energy out there, take care of yourself and especially your mental health. 

Make sure that you're focusing. Make sure that you're setting goals. Make sure that once you're out on the other side that you're a better person because it's not the adversities that we go through, but how we handle them that make us better people, that builds our character. Let it be a character building where you come out on the other end and you hit the ground running. But first, take care of your mental health.

I want you and everybody else that's reading to know that it's possible to come out a better person on the other end. We're all in this together. Don’t give up. Keep pushing.” 

These inspiring words are just a glimpse into Chan’s spirit and deep commitment to bettering the world around her, on and off the court. 

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