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.”
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.