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How Masai Ujiri rose to prominence as the ultimate NBA executive

Toroto Raptors president Masai Ujiri holds his fist in the air during the Toronto Raptors Championship parade on June 13, 2019 in Toronto, ON, Canada.

Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When mulling the “quintessential roots” of a prototypical executive in any professional sport, including the NBA, someone with the pedigree of Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who recently cunningly helped guide the Raptors to a championship, might not leap off the page.

Which seems to suggest that’s one ridiculously archaic dime store paperback and that it’s glaringly past time to shelve stale thinking and assumptions.

A little blunt?

Well, here’s his story: born in England to Nigerian students who returned to their homeland when their son was all of two years old, Ujiri played football as a child, according to Yahoo Sports. But a defining moment arrived when, as a teen, he discovered basketball. His idol? Hakeem Olajuwon.

Say it ain’t so, Joe, um, Montana.

Later, after calling it a day on his professional playing career in 2002, Ujiri became a youth coach in Nigeria. That’s when fate, as it tends to, chimed in, when Ujiri met David Thorpe at an NBA summer league in Boston. Thorpe introduced him to college coaches. That same year, Ujiri, who was accompanying a Nigerian player to a draft tryout in Orlando, made an impression on Magic director of scouting Gary Brokaw. Through Brokaw, Ujiri became acquainted with coach Doc Rivers and GM John Gabriel. Soon enough, Ujiri became an unpaid scout for the Magic. You might say he was on a roll, huh?

But he was just getting started. After being introduced to Denver Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe, Ujiri was brought onboard as a salaried international scout, the site reported. A few years later, he was hired as director of Global Scouting for the Toronto Raptors and became the team’s assistant GM in 2008, before staging a repeat appearance with the Nuggets a couple of years later, this time as GM and executive vice president, heading basketball operations.

In Denver, he initially worked as an international scout, before leaving in 2008 to become part of the backroom staff of the Toronto Raptors, stated the site. Ujiri headed back to the Nuggets in 2010 as general manager and executive vice president of basketball operations. He helped reverse the team’s fortunes as they were back in the playoffs. In 2013, he was tabbed as NBA Executive of the Year, the same year he inked a five year, $15 million deal to become the Raptors’ executive vice president and general manager.

President of Toronto Raptors Masai Ujiri attends the 'Giants of Africa' premiere during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival at Ryerson Theatre

Photo by Sonia Recchia/Getty Images

Woo. Pretty dizzying.

In fact, he was the first African executive in the NBA, according to Xaveria. However, suffice to say Ujiri doesn’t dwell on the accomplishment. “It absolutely means zero, I hate it,” the magazine reported. “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 apparent message: be a pal and don’t mention that again.

Noted.

Meantime, looking every bit the poster child for the generous act of paying it forward, Ujiri’s served as director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Africa program. The program promotes basketball throughout the continent and conducts two camps, one for the top 50 players of Nigeria, sponsored by Nestle Milo, and another for African big men. Ujiri sponsors that one, with an assist from Nike.

What’s more, in light of Ujiri’s success, with the launch of its NBA Africa YouTube channel in March, the NBA now has a presence across Africa, according to The Guardian. By the end of May, the digital platform boasted more than 20,000 subscribers and screened all the live games in the Eastern and Western Conferences, as well as the Finals. Its also now offering independent programming, with content like the NBA Africa Game Time, a 15 minutes interview show hosted by South African rapper Sho Madjozi along with guests like Nigerian singers Niniola, Mr. Eazi, and South African singers Loyiso Gola and Da L.E.S.

“If you don’t want to dream big, then there’s no dream at all,” Ujiri noted, according to the site. He also told Forbes Africa: “As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway.”

So, in light of Ujiri’s success, what’s the pathway for making a ‘great GM’?

“The GM does so many things, yet his or her role is wildly different depending on the franchise, and what the owner allows,” said David Aldridge on NBA.com. Aldridge, former reporter for Turner Sports, contributing to their NBA and MLB coverage, and now a writer for The Athletic, added that “some teams have a distinct separation of church and state between the GM and the coach: the GM and his staff, including the analytics group, handle everything off the floor, from scouting to trades to the draft, and the coach works with the players they give them,” NBA.com also reported.

Ujiri said it’s vital to ensure players mesh, along with a great team chemistry, reported Fortune. “We can say potential all we want, but at the end of the day, sports is about winning,” he said. “You have to figure out that balance between younger players and veteran players, star players, and All-Star players, really a team effort. And then you have to be lucky.”

But hasn’t been all luck and candy canes for Ujiri. The site reported that with no champions despite four otherwise highly successful seasons, he dealt DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for fellow All-Star Kawhi Leonard, reported the site. What’s more, Leonard was on the mend from a severe foot injury.

Yeah; like wow.

Compounding matters, not only was it a high stakes move, DeRozan’s teammate, star guard Kyle Lowry, was so miffed by the deal, he didn’t speak to Ujiri for months.

As in total radio silence. Ouch.

Raptors President Masai Ujiri plays table tennis. The NBA and the Toronto Raptors dedicated a new NBA Cares Learn and Play Centre at Jimmy Simpson Community Centre

Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

However, the transaction was lauded by Jalen Rose, an ex-Raptor and current ESPN personality. Ujiri is simply a “genius for such a boss move,” said Rose, Fortune reported. “I just told Masai that again—he’s a genius. He changed the game and he rolled the dice like nobody we’ve ever seen in his position before.”

However, according to Fortune, Ujiri said that “to call it risks and gambles, that’s our job. We have to do it.”

Now, not to compare apples to apples but, well, comparing apples to apples, how does Ujiri measure up against some of the great GMs of lore?

Aldridge noted that former Celtics GM Red Auerbach forever set the tone for winning at a high level in the NBA. In fact, he described Auerbach as “a barrier breaker in many ways as an NBA GM,” reported NBA.com.

Auerbach snared future Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn in the first round. Other shrewd moves included drafting John Havlicek in 1962, creating the league’s greatest dynasty. That run alone, said Aldridge, would make Auerbach the best executive ever, the site reported.

Meantime, Aldridge noted that with the tandem of GM R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich at the helm, the San Antonio Spurs not only were among the first teams to go around the world for players. “They always manage to see the curve before everyone else,” according to the site.

Not to be overlooked: Pat Riley, who took over as GM of the Miami Heat in 1995. just a couple of months into his tenure in Miami, he acquired All-Star center Alonzo Mourning from Charlotte, and built a contender around the future Hall of Famer, said Aldridge.

Greatness aside, the euphoria accompanying the Raptors’ celebration after clinching the championship against Golden State seemed to be at least somewhat tarnished at the time with Ujiri’s on-court altercation with security.

Ujiri recently told reporters he was “confident about who I am as a person” as law enforcement officials in California continue to investigate an altercation between Ujiri and a sheriff’s deputy after Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

As Ujiri approached the court after the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors, a sheriff’s deputy stopped him for failing to display proper credential for court access, according to a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, the paper reported. There was a brief shoving match, during which Ujiri pushed the deputy twice, one time striking him in the jaw, according to the reporter.

The deputy’s attorney claimed his client incurred a concussion, was on medical leave and considering filing a civil suit against Ujiri. The sheriff’s office indicated it recommended local prosecutors bring charges against Ujiri for battery of a peace officer. That’s a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year imprisonment and a $2,000 fine, according to the Post.

Said Ujiri: “I respect authority.”

Doubtlessly, he has league-wide respect.

 

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