Giants Of Africa Celebrates Its 20th Anniversary With An Impactful Camp

At first, they were nervous. When their coaches for the day introduced themselves over breakfast, campers dropped their eyes and just a few offered answers to introductory questions. By the time they were ready to break for lunch it was hard to have a conversation without stepping into the gym’s hallway, so loud were the young athletes on the floor for their first scrimmage and their teammates on either bench, cheering them on.

“We had four groups and by my fourth group, they were loud,” Mery Andrade, former WNBA athlete, new assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors, and one of the camp’s coaches told Dime. “For them to come today and do something out of their ordinary day, it’s already a growth for them. Already striving to do something different in their lives. And I’m pretty sure that every kid that was here today was impacted by this event.”

The event was a half-day basketball clinic put on by Masai Ujiri’s Giants of Africa organization, in tandem with the Muslim Women’s Summer Basketball League, as part of a “Dream Big Weekend” slate of programming celebrating GOA’s 20th anniversary. Under the guidance of a mix of former pros, including Kia Nurse, Miranda Ayim, Geraldine Robert, and Andrade, 40 girls between 11 and 18 took part in drills meant to foster their on court skills and off court confidence. Groups rotated through stations focused on blocking, passing, dribble drills, guarding, shooting, and teamwork, while a DJ played throughout. The point of the music was multi-purpose: to further emphasize the event as an occasion — underscored by the media-day style photos taken of the athletes and full kits, with uniforms and shoes, they received — distill any nerves, and push participants to raise their voices whether communicating with each other or the coaches.

The coaches, meanwhile, interacted with the young athletes like peers. Subbing in to help demonstrate or participate in drills — Robert, at 6’1, makes for an imposing interceptor in the middle of a passing circle — and offer one-on-one help with form. Andrade, who made a few of her drills just a little harder — like flashing number signs down low, two at a time, or behind her back in a drill about keeping eyes up while dribbling — offered some of the loudest and playful encouragement. She also shared with her group a study on Steve Nash that found the more touches shared by a team, in high-fives or affirmative taps on the body, the better they did. The bottom line that good relationships and teamwork fuel wins.

“Steve Nash was a master at that,” Andrade says smiling. “I think the average was 19 and he has 53 or something like that. So they liked that, they were like,” she pauses to pantomime high-fives and shout, “One! Two! Three! Four! They want to win, you know?”

Team staff for the Raptors who were at the event confirmed that Andrade, an effusive mix of energy, kind teasing, and robust encouragement, is exactly the same with her players. Asked why it was important for her to show up for the campers the same way, and Andrade said it was all about representation.

“We are what we see. If we don’t see it, it’s hard for us to imagine ourselves becoming. Me, I love basketball, I like to coach, but I never knew that a woman could coach in the NBA until I saw Becky Hammon,” Andrade says. “I hope my presence in the league can do the same that she did for me, and today was more in-line for that. If I can do it, and I’m an ordinary person, I started paying basketball late in my life, I was almost 15 — some of these girls are 11. I said to them, you’re already steps ahead of me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Andrade was born in the small West African country of Cabo Verde and later moved with her family to Portugal. She remembers growing up surrounded by men’s soccer, eventually finding the NBA and favorites in Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, but that pro role models in women’s sports were much harder to come by. It’s why she says events like the Dream Big camp are great for the teaching it offers, but also a reminder for its young athletes.

“It’s important for them to know what they have and how blessed they are. I know we’re not at the level we want to be at in term of equality, but at least we’re moving towards it,” Andrade says, noting how many examples of women pro athletes the campers have to follow, eight of who have been working directly with them all morning.

Masai Ujiri
Giants of Africa

Nurse, who plays for the Seattle Storm and is an analyst for TSN during the NBA season, echoed Andrade, when asked why it’s important for her to take part in camps like GoA offers.

“I think it’s great in terms of representation, especially for women athletes,” Nurse told Dime, as the girls first scrimmage got enthusiastically underway. “Because we don’t always get that representation in the mainstream media so I take these opportunities, to come to these in-person situations and see everybody, meet everybody, to have fun but also help them to have fun. And also see their role models as very human. That you can be me, and better than me, in the future. I think that’s the best part about it.”

When Nurse was at UConn, her thesis project was research determined to figure out why the dropout rate for young women in sports was so high compared to men. For a semester, she worked with a group of 8th graders, learning firsthand from them as well as compiling her own research. A big part of it is confidence, and the hits girls start taking to their own sense of it starting in puberty and beyond. Though there are plenty of underlying causes and external pressures that lead to those knocks, varying from person to person, participating in sports has shown to offer common remedies.

“Each week we’d go in, we’d talk about communication, we’d talk about leadership, if there was someone in the group who was quiet, they’d be the leader for the week. Those skills are massive for whatever career you want to go to,” Nurse stresses. “And the big piece of it was, I don’t care if you guys play professional basketball from this point on, if you learn something from the sport, then I’ve done my job.”

While the rates are still staggeringly higher for girls than boys (in Canada, 1 in 3 girls leave sport by late adolescence, and the U.S. reports similar rates, with 43% of girls who considered themselves athletic disengaging from sports after primary school), Nurse has noticed a shift in mindset with the girls and young women she works with because of camps like Dream Big.

“There’s a new kind of wave that’s coming though. For me, one of the things I really enjoyed growing up is I played for Hamilton Transway my whole life, and it’s an all girls program. So when I was there, I never had to deal with anybody saying, ‘Oh, you’re good for a girl’, or compare me to the boys,” Nurse says, noting many athletes of her generation competed in boys leagues since no girls leagues were as competitive, or in some cases existed at all.

“I think that’s something that’s changing,” Nurse continues. “We’re creating these grassroot level programs in camps like this, and opportunities for young women to be around people that they can resonate with, learn the same life-skills that everybody should be able to learn from sport, and it gives you confidence when you’re around people you feel comfortable with. I think that’s a big piece of it.”

That confidence and sense of identity doesn’t fall away if, at some point, sports like basketball don’t wind up being the path girls and young women want to take into their future. Nurse notes that of the friends she grew up playing alongside, some as early as the 2nd grade, she’s the only one that still plays.

“We’ve got veterinarians, teachers, nurses, and all the skills they learned in our games when we were playing they use in life today. That’s a massive piece of it, understanding this doesn’t have to be your dream,” she says. “This was my dream and that’s great, I’m just here to give you the tools and opportunity, and see what you can take from basketball outside of the wins and losses and use that for your dreams.”

“There is no life that doesn’t have adversity, but for athletes that’s their everyday,” Andrade says, echoing Nurse for the takeaways sports offers. “You don’t always win. And some sports, you don’t tie either. But more than the win or lose, what do you do when you lose? What do you do when you have an injury? When things aren’t going your way? You find a way. To be active, to be sharp. And I think at any level, at any job, you need those skills.”

Youth leader and former camper, Myrah Oloo, can personally attest to what basketball’s given her. Growing up in London, Oloo said she never felt British enough, and when her parents returned to Kenya when she was 13, she didn’t feel Kenyan enough. Sports, she says, gave her comfort. Through a local camp, Oloo was invited to a GoA camp in Tanzania. When she got there she was immediately floored by the energy, and the talent on display.

“I had to recalibrate,” Oloo chuckles.

Shy up to then, Oloo was encouraged by her coaches and other campers to use her voice, to participate, and to lead. She’s been an ambassador for GoA ever since and knows even if her future isn’t going to be on the court competing, she wants to work alongside the game and the people pushing it forward.

Asked what she thinks it was that flipped the internal switch for her, that made her step into her confidence, and Oloo points out the subtle ways GoA does things.

“You don’t have to shout that we need women to stand up and be proud, we just see the women there,” she says, recalling Lindsey Harding, Brittni Donaldson, and Sarah Chan “in all their glory”, playing major roles at her first camp. “That’s something in the African context that we don’t see. We see our mothers in the homes, in the kitchen, and that’s it. [Masai] makes sure that even boys are involved in the fight to empower women. You never feel singled out, it’s such a subtle progression.”

It was around that time that Ujiri, dressed down for the weekend in a crewneck and puffy vest, made a quiet entrance into camp. He stepped in alongside Nurse, Andrade and the other coaches as they spoke to the girls, who were taking a break and sitting with their groups on the gym floor. He gave a small, almost shy wave as he was introduced and noted how much they all reminded him of his daughter because of their energy and though he didn’t say it in so many words, that clear-eyed quality teenagers have about assessing the new adult in the room.

After offering an earnest pep talk on their potential, stressing how each one of them needed to be heard, Ujiri led the group in a call and response game he said they did at all GoA camps. So much is reported on Ujiri as astute, keen-eyed executive, but in that moment he was just a dad trying to get 40 teenagers to sing snippets of ‘Who Let The Dogs Out’ back to him, quelling any lingering nerves while tying the small camp to a much greater cause.

By the end of the morning, that conduit was clear. Not just to confidence gained through basketball, running high as the campers broke for lunch and cornered their coaches for selfies, but the viable roads it opens for young women.

“Sports are something people need to start using more as a tool,” Oloo told Dime. “Sports give people an opportunity to talk about things that may seem taboo, but is done in a way that’s so effortless and brings people together. If we can tap into how sports influences people, influences societies, and study sports more deeply than just a game, I think we can take our nations and our people very far.”