He helped lead the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA championship, but it might still seem strange that Masai Ujiri is side-by-side with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his trip to Africa.
In fact, Ujiri’s clout and star power could be crucial for Trudeau as he attempts to garner support for landing Canada a seat on the powerful United Nations Security Council.
The pair, along with three other ministers, are attending a weekend session of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The support and votes of the 54 African leaders will be critical when the UN decides on the fate of Canada’s bid in June.
Before becoming a player scout and NBA executive, Ujiri was raised in Nigeria. Outside of the NBA, he’s lent his support for different business initiatives and charities at home and abroad.
Ujiri had initially planned on travelling to the continent to promote his foundation, Giants of Africa, which uses basketball as a way to educate and connect with African youth.
But he switched up his plans after Trudeau asked him to join his delegation to Africa. But he praised Ujiri’s work in the region at a press conference on Sunday.
“Masai is doing incredible work in Africa to empower youth to a sport,” he said, adding that the foundation was “helping countless young people, including many young women, to reach their full potential.”
When asked if he would consider becoming a Canadian citizen, Ujiri simply said: “I do view myself as a Canadian citizen,” as well as a “son of Africa.”
When asked about his relationship with Trudeau earlier this weekend, Ujiri had told reporters “I have relationships with leaders here and anyway we can help, anyway I can help, it’s a big part of making the world better,” He’s already spoken with Trudeau and about how his role as a basketball ambassador could help the government.
“I support Canada and I support the prime minister in what he wants to do here,” Ujiri added. “We have to figure out on the continent how we give youth an opportunity through sports and I think Canada shows a good example, and maybe we can represent that here in some kind of way.”
The theme of the African Union’s summit is “Silencing the Guns,” as the continent works to reduce conflict and violence as well as promote economic growth.
Ujiri was on hand for Trudeau’s meet-and-greet with both Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who recently won a Nobel Peace Prize and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
After Trudeau spends three days in Addis Ababa, where the African Union’s headquarters is located, he’ll travel with Ujiri to Senegal later this week.
Although the prime minister reaching out to Ujiri might seem out of the blue, the two have worked together on a number of projects before.
During the federal election campaign, Ujiri joined Trudeau during a charity campaign event in Toronto to help assemble food boxes for needy families. And before that, in June, the pair embraced during the Raptors’ NBA championship parade in Toronto.
And last April, Ujiri hosted a meeting in Toronto between prominent black business leaders and Trudeau to come up with specialized ways to address different communities.