Toronto Raptors fans may never have heard of one of the newest talent seekers shaping the basketball team’s future, because her work largely takes place on the other side of the world. But as the manager of scouting in Africa, Sarah Chan’s mission is to unearth the next Pascal Siakam.
When Chan, from South Sudan, volunteered to help out at a basketball camp in Kenya in 2017, she had no idea she was about to meet an NBA team executive named Masai Ujiri, and that it would lead to her dream job. Ujiri took quick notice of this well-spoken 6-foot-3 woman with obvious high-level basketball training, as she coached and related so authentically with the teens at his Giants of Africa camp.
The Nigerian-raised Raptors president eventually asked Chan about her background. Her life story involved leaving war-stricken Sudan for Kenya, finding basketball, and playing it in the United States and around the world. It included a tryout with a WNBA team and a master’s degree in international relations.
After their 2017 conversation, Ujiri was so impressed, he hired Chan to help organize, coach and scout talent for the growing series of Giants of Africa camps he holds each summer across the continent as part of the foundation he started in 2003. This past fall, Ujiri promoted her to a newly created position. Now she also co-ordinates the Raptors’ three other scouts in Africa to scour the continent to find talent.
“It’s so exciting for me, because if I go to Guinea, Botswana, Senegal or Angola – the least-likely places that people expect – and I find a kid that needs that opportunity, there’s nothing more gratifying than that,” Chan, 33, said recently in an interview at the Raptors Toronto practice facility, where she was meeting with front-office staff. “The trajectory of that player’s life will change, and in turn that player’s community, country and Africa all rise.”
The Raptors pride themselves on having a league-leading presence in Africa.
“There are many Pascals out there, they just need the opportunity,” said Chan, referring to Toronto’s Cameroon-born all-star. “That’s why it’s a huge responsibility to set the stage right for them. Using basketball as a tool to change lives can be an incredible thing.”
“I just thought it would be an opportunity for me to help people and learn something,”
Chan, who speaks English, Swahili, Arabic and Dinka, sees herself in the young people she scouts. She grew up in the 1990s during a time of intense conflict between the north and south in Sudan. She, her parents, two brothers and sister lived among large groups of families. Often there were upward of 35 inhabiting a small mud-and-brick homestead, with latrines outside and compound walls surrounding them. She babysat younger kids. Her family often woke in the night to the harsh lights of pickup trucks outside, and men banging on their gates, demanding her father come outside.
“If you’re going to take a family down, you first try to take out the head of the household – that’s what they did to the people from the south,” recalled Chan, who said her father was taken many times, but survived. “My mom learned to mediate. I remember us kids would be hiding under our blankets. She would stand between the door and the family and say – with all kindness, strength and courage – ‘he is not here.’”
Chan’s family eventually got a precious opportunity – academic sponsorship for their parents to study theology at an evangelical university in Kenya. They moved in August of 1998, when Chan was 12. The scholarship included the girls’ schooling, too. Chan’s parents saved up so they could afford to include the two teenage boys as well, saving them from being enlisted as young soldiers.
The move to Nairobi was not smooth. Her father was detained at the airport for a long period before being released to go join the family in Kenya. They arrived just days before the U.S. embassy there was bombed, an event that killed 213 people.
They settled into a multicultural community in Nairobi, and her parents did odd jobs on campus to make money while studying. They cut grass, broke up stones to use as construction materials, and worked as night security. Their mother insisted they interact with other kids so they could practise their English.
Chan experienced sports for the first time in 2004 when she got to Laiser Hill High School, an international school where joining a team was mandatory for all students. Chan, a tall girl, tried and hated swimming and tennis, before eventually trying basketball. The game was a perfect fit for her and she improved quickly. Any time she heard bad news about the raging civil war back home in South Sudan, Chan would use basketball as a distraction.
A talented boy from her high school earned a basketball scholarship to Union University, in Jackson, Tenn. Once there, he told Union women’s coach Mark Campbell about the tall and gifted Chan. After watching her on video, Campbell offered her a scholarship to his Division II program – one with a history of recruiting African centres.
“It was going to be my first time out of Africa, my first time going anywhere on my own,” Chan said. “I remember my dad saying ‘My daughter, I want you to never change for anybody. When you go there, you’re representing you, our family, our nation and Africa.’”
So in 2007, Chan went to the United States to play for the Lady Bulldogs at this private evangelical Christian university, where she studied history and political science. She experienced for the first time how it felt to be stared at for being a tall woman with dark skin. School and basketball pushed the limits of her body and mind.
“She’s the fastest player I ever had, north-south, no doubt, and at that height, that’s really saying something,” Campbell said. “She had good hands, she was really instinctual and she used her quickness.”
In her four seasons at Union, playing power forward and centre, she tallied 1,892 points and 1,112 rebounds. She was an NAIA All-American and helped spearhead two Division II national titles.
“There is an awesome thing about the kids I’ve had from Africa on my teams when it comes to respect for authority, value of education and a very strong family mindset,” Campbell said. “Most choose to stay in America and make money to send to their families back home. Sarah wanted to take the education she acquired here and put it to work back home, making a difference in Africa.”
Chan got a tryout for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, but she didn’t make the team. She played professionally for a while in Europe and then across Africa, too. Troubling reports about the continuing conflict in South Sudan had Chan longing to become an agent of change on her home continent.
So she returned to Nairobi to get a master’s degree at United States International University Africa, majoring in peace and conflict studies. She also played basketball for the university and competed in two FIBA Africa Women’s Club Championships in 2015 and 2017. At the 2015 edition, she was the top scorer and rebounder and made the all-tournament team.
As she was finishing her studies in 2017, Chan was eager to be a difference-maker. That’s when she heard about the local Giants of Africa (GOA) camp where she would eventually met Ujiri. That day, she was just hoping to volunteer with the kids. She called up someone she knew from school who was helping organizing it, Abel Nson, (who as it turns out is a scout and GOA camp organizer who worked for Ujiri).
“I just thought it would be an opportunity for me to help people and learn something,” Chan said.
Chan noticed lots of cameras documenting the camp but didn’t realize they were there to report on this passion project by Ujiri, the first African general manager of a North American sports club. She didn’t know who Ujiri was.
“From the first day, there was no … showboating, just her pure interactions with the boys and the girls,” Ujiri said. “You saw it from the first minute, and I noticed but I didn’t say anything to her at first.”
Ujiri followed Chan’s career thereafter, and noticed her strong eye for young talent. She impressed him with her diplomacy while working with African politicians, venue operators, and sports organizations to create opportunities for players to showcase their basketball skills. She has built a robust network of contacts within Africa.
Ujiri credits Chan with convincing him to hold GOA camps this past summer in Juba, South Sudan and Mogadishu, Somalia – places affected by great conflict. The inclusion of girls, and helping them experience basketball – especially those at risk of being teen brides – is close to Chan’s heart and Ujiri’s, too. Chan also has her own foundation that helps women and girls in war-torn countries.
“Sarah has an eye for basketball talent, which for me selfishly that’s the first thing I’m looking for in a scout. I’m not just going to hire someone because they are nice,” Ujiri said. “Juba and Mogadishu, those are not easy places to hold camps, but we have to visit those places and help girls there, too, and she was instrumental in taking us there. Those to me are the powerful things we also have to do.”
Ujiri invited Chan – an engaging public speaker – to share her story at two recent events in Toronto. She joined Ujiri on stage at a GOA Youth Summit for Toronto high schoolers, and at a panel for the group Women In Sports Events.
Emotional GOA videos played at those events show Chan in a vocal leadership role with male and female campers. She is coaching girls in Mogadishu, wearing a hijab just as they are and yelling out to them. ‘‘Be proud to be girls. We love you. You are so respected and so valued.” She tells the boys in South Sudan to look around the court and consider all their fellow players as brothers:.”I don’t care what tribe they’re from and nobody should.”
Patrick Engelbrecht, the Raptors director of global scouting and international affairs, said watching Chan with campers in South Sudan was just one example of her value in Africa. She noticed things in the way the players communicated with one another that represented their tribal differences – things the Raptors coaches at the camp might not have. The players see Chan playing one-on-one with the male coaches (“she’s one of us,” Engelbrecht says), and they learn about respect for women.
“Sarah is a child of the soil of East Africa,” Engelbrecht said. “She knows what those kids have gone through, especially those displaced because of civil war. She is extremely passionate about making the kids feel special. So, when she spoke to the boys at camp in South Sudan, many of us there coaching felt tears come to our eyes. When she talks to young African players, it’s like she is talking to her younger self.”
Engelbrecht, who was born in South Africa, describes the challenges of scouting in Africa, where most players don’t have the access to gyms, equipment, coaching and programs that they would in North America. Basketball’s popularity is just budding. A scout there has to help create opportunities for young players to show their skills, then imagine what that player could become someday if given the right resources.
“You have to have relationships, and Sarah does because she’s played in Africa and people respect her, and they give her information,” Engelbrecht said. “She is really special. She knows what questions to ask to learn about a kid’s background and his desire to play – like maybe he took 10 buses and borrowed money to get to the practice, but he didn’t have any shoes to play in.”
Chan is on the lookout for specific things when she’s meeting young African players.
“First thing I look at is his intelligence, and character,” Chan said. “And then the talent is the last thing and within that talent, how athletic is he? How strong is he, how is his vertical, how is his work ethic, how would he fit with the Raptors? I watch closely when they’re warming up because that’s when most people think it doesn’t matter, but it really does matter, because you’re preparing. How does he go to war?”