Toronto Raptors President is thriving in his position.
Masai Ujiri was born in Zaria, Nigeria in 1970. He was an avid soccer player until his teen years, where his harkening towards basketball took place. He admired Hakeem Olajuwon, a fellow Nigerian and two-time NBA champion with the Houston Rockets.
After getting the opportunity to travel to the USA to pursue his basketball dream, Masai, along with his family decided to emigrate. He played at Bismarck State College, in North Dakota for two years.
He has the distinction of being the first African executive in the NBA. On what it means to him:
“It absolutely means zero, I hate it. The longer I do it, the more embarrassing it gets for me. Being from the continent of Africa I put the weight of all African youth and athletes on my shoulders and try to get them to be in a position like I am in today."
The beginning of Ujiri’s professional basketball management career was mainly international scouting, focusing on African players. Now, for his conference leading raptors, the payoff with his own international players is exceptional.
Toronto acquired their current starting power forward Serge Ibaka, whom the raptors acquired for Terrence Ross at last year’s trade deadline. Born in Congo, the nine year veteran has greatly helped the young players acclimate to the NBA both on and off the court.
He drafted Cameroon-born Pascal Siakam in the 2016 NBA draft (27th overall). Siakam has become a vital bench presence for the team, relieving Ibaka at the end of quarters and averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists.
Reserve seven footer and Brazilian Lucas ‘Bebe’ Nogueira, was also drafted by the Raps, in 2013.
The Denver Nuggets hired Masai as an international scout, after being an unpaid one and paying one’s dues down in the ranks of the league. After hard work and consistent commitment to the game, the Raptors hired him as their Director of Global Scouting. He was then promoted to Assistant General Manager in 2008. In 2010, the Nuggets snatched him back to become their executive vice president in charge of basketball operations. Finally, Masai was given the job as GM (and eventually president) of the Toronto Raptors, where he has been ever since.
Masai’s support for his native country, and continent as a whole has greatly enhanced the basketball scene there. He is the director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Africa program, which brings together young teen basketball players for a skill camp that not only teaches basketball, but strives to deliver leadership and personal relation skills within each individual.
In terms of his success on the court, his excellence has paralleled the teams. He was honored with the NBA Executive of the Year award in 2013, during his time with the Denver Nuggets. Since being hired in 2013, the Raptors have averaged at least 50 wins every year, as well as consecutive playoff appearances. He was vital in figuring out how Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan , the teams now two all-star players,could coalesce together. Their chemistry today is akin to BFFs, a far cry from Lowry’s first year in Toronto, where he reportedly didn’t speak at all to Demar the whole season. Having a whole organization all aligned on achieving one goal is imperative, and it is something Masai is very proud of.
He has loved his second home, Toronto. Saying to National Post: “I love the people—all kinds, from everywhere. It is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I’ve been all over.”
For the immediate future, he is happily watching his team tear through the Eastern Conference and with the number one seed currently, dreams of a finals appearance is certainly within reason. And for Masai Ujiri, whom was a young kid in an over-populous country that dreamed big, a lofty goal like even a championship, isn’t quite so far-fetched.