Widely-reported comments from U.S. president Donald Trump referring to Haiti and some African nations as “shithole countries” have sparked a nerve in the NBA, with Toronto Raptors’ president Masai Ujiri (who was born in Nigeria) shooting back in strong terms. In separate interviews with Bruce Arthur of The Toronto Star and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Ujiri had a lot to say about Trump’s remarks. First, from Arthur’s piece, Ujiri questioned Trump’s knowledge of Africa:
“We’re proud,” the Nigerian-born Toronto Raptors president said in a phone interview between scouting meetings. “Everybody’s put in different situations, but we’re proud of where we came from. My wife is from Guinea and Sierra Leone; she just came back from Sierra Leone. My dad is from Nigeria. My mom is from Kenya. I consider myself to be a son of Africa and a person of the world, and I want to raise my kids (to know) that there are no shitholes anywhere. There’s no shitholes anywhere in this world because we were born in different places for a reason.”
“To think of Africa that way, or wherever is called that: Have you ever been? Have you ever visited? Have you ever seen these places? What do you know about these people that you call this? A lot of it to me is noise, and we need to think about who we’re listening to. What kind of leaders are we listening to? What kind of leader are we listening to? What are we following?”
…“This past summer, I was in Kenya, I was in Rwanda, I was in Nigeria, I was in Senegal, I was in Ivory Coast. In all these places, and I didn’t see no shithole. I saw great people with great hope. I saw happiness. I saw proud people. OK, if there are people who live in huts, so what? That’s where God has put them for now. You mean to tell me there are no poor areas in America? In Canada? All over the world? That’s just the opportunity that people have been given, and better opportunity will come to them. But so what? To look down on people because they didn’t grow up with money? It’s so sad that somebody is like this, that this is our leader, the leader of the free world. This is him? This is it? Wow.”
In Wojnarowski’s piece, Ujiri talked about his pride in his upbringing, and about his desire to inspire people wherever they live:
“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?
“…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.
“… 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.”
Those are quite the comments from Ujiri, and he’s well-qualified to speak to this.
He grew up in Nigeria, only coming to the U.S. to play college basketball at Bismarck State and then Montana State-Billings. He then played in Europe for six seasons, worked as a youth coach in Nigeria, accompanied a Nigerian player to a draft tryout with the Orlando Magic, earned an unpaid scouting position with the Magic, and then was hired as a scout by the Denver Nuggets.
He then worked his way up into more senior roles with the Raptors (director of global scouting, then assistant general manager), Nuggets (executive vice-president in charge of basketball operations, where he became the first non-American-born executive to win the NBA’s Executive of the Year in 2013), and Raptors again (president and general manager at first; he gave up the GM title to Jeff Weltman in September 2016 when signing an extension as president, and it’s now held by Bobby Webster).
This isn’t the first time that Ujiri has criticized Trump. After Trump was elected in November 2016, Ujiri said “I want to thank Donald Trump for making Toronto an unbelievable sports destination.”
But he hasn’t been one of the more vocal NBA voices blasting Trump to date; Arthur’s piece says Ujiri “fumed” privately over previous reported Trump comments that Nigerians in the U.S. “would never go back to their huts” after seeing America and that Haitians with U.S. visas “all had AIDS,” but “didn’t know what to say.”
Well, he’s saying what he wants to say now, and adding his voice to the tide of NBA criticism of Trump, which has included everyone from Steve Kerr to Gregg Popovich to Stan Van Gundy to LeBron James and Chris Paul. We’ll see where this goes from here, and if others in the NBA blast these particular remarks from Trump.