Inspired Route to Success
By Ayo Kayode, Sarnia, Canada
Basketball is not such a popular sports in Africa, it thus is amazing to see one of Africa’s sportsmen excel in the sport. Masai Ujiri was voted the most influential figure in Canadian Sports in 2014. Ujiri is a native of Nigeria who became the first African-born GM of a major North American pro sports team before joining the Raptors in May 2013. Masai did not get the job because he had connections (he grew up in Zaria), he got the job because he worked hard at what he wanted to become. He is a man that started out as a scout for a team without pay. He travelled all over Europe scouting for an NBA team on his own money, he inconvenienced himself and others along the ride, but he was focused and worked hard! What more can you say but to celebrate such an icon. Not only is he a successful sports icon, he also is motivated to share this grace with young African talents thus helping to grow the sports in his native, Nigeria and across Africa as a whole.
“I feel humbled, very, very humbled, I really appreciate it,” Ujiri told CBC at his unveiling as the Most influential figure in Canadian sports. “I think there’s so many other people to look at in front of me but you know what, I’m humbled that this has happened.” That was the icing on the cake, for a man who started from zero to become a hero! Born in Zaria to a doctor mother and a hospital administrator/nursing educationist father, Ujiri originally played soccer as a youth before focusing on basketball. His interest with basketball started as a 13-year old playing with friends on outdoor basketball courts in northern Nigeria. This interest would be fed by American sports magazines and VHS tapes of NBA games or basketball movies.He admired Hakeem Olajuwon, an NBA star who was also born in Nigeria.
Ujiri grew to be 6-foot-4 and emigrated to the United States to play two years of basketball at Bismarck State College, then transferred to Montana State University-Billings, though he left the latter school after one semester. He spent six years playing professionally in Europe. After ending a professional playing career in 2002, Ujiri worked as a youth coach in Nigeria. During an NBA summer league game in Boston, he met David Thorpe, who eventually introduced him to college coaches. In 2002, Ujiri was accompanying a young Nigerian player to a draft tryout in Orlando when he impressed Magic scouting director Gary Brokaw, who then introduced Ujiri to coach Doc Rivers and GM John Gabriel. Ujiri then became an unpaid scout for the NBA’s Orlando Magic, paying his own way when he had to and sharing rooms with scouts or players when he could.
Jeff Weltman, then a young Nuggets executive, introduced Ujiri to Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe, who then hired Ujiri on salary as an international scout. After four seasons there, he was hired away by Bryan Colangelo of the Toronto Raptors as their Director of Global Scouting. Ujiri became the Raptors’ assistant general manager in 2008, and returned to the Nuggets in 2010, when he accepted his position as executive vice president in charge of basketball operations. He became the first African-born general manager for a North American major league sports team. In 2013, he was named the NBA Executive of the Year, the only non-American to ever win the award. On May 31, 2013, Ujiri signed a 5 year, 15 million dollar deal to become GM of the Toronto Raptors, the only non USA based team in the NBA valued at about $550 million
He bucked conventional wisdom by electing not to diminish his roster for a better shot at drafting Canadian phenom Andrew Wiggins. Instead, Ujiri kept the Raptors’ key players together. They went on to win a surprise division title last season, and this season are one of the top teams in the NBA, along the way capturing the attention of fans in Canada’s largest city and throughout the country. “I always try to do my best, not only for the team organization, the fans, the city, the country…it is a special circumstance here where it’s one team and one country, one following, the only NBA team outside the U.S.A. and we’re proud of it,” said Ujiri.
Masai has continued to follow his passion in helping grow the sports in Africa, ‘as an NBA executive, I’m always looking for untapped potential. As a proud native of Nigeria, I believe that Africa is one of the world’s greatest resources in that area. From Angola and Tunisia to Senegal and South Sudan, there is so much size and athletic ability across the continent. Some tribes in Sudan and Senegal have an average height of 6-foot-6, which also happens to be the size of the average NBA player. People in Nigeria, Mali and Congo tend to be very big and physical. We need to build a strategy to go into these regions and cultivate the talent through infrastructure and instruction’. For a man who has spent his personal savings to develop himself and the sports, succour came with sponsorship deals for his dream projects from international organizations, Ujiri says, ‘with a tremendous assist from the NBA, Nike and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), we have been trying to provide opportunities for the next generation of African basketball players. Every year, we conduct the Giants of Africa camp, sponsored by Nestlé Milo and Nike, as well as the NBA Basketball Without Borders Africa elite camp. Nearly 100 campers have gone on to play college basketball in the United States, including Luc Mbah a Moute, who now plays for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Through the Sprite clinics and Basketball Without Borders, Masai has taken basketball to Congo, Guinea, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Senegal, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. On a continent with more than a billion people, he knows there’s lot more ground to cover, and he summarizes thus, ‘we need more companies to help build courts and gymnasiums for kids to play. Nestle Milo paid for a world-class floor made in the United States. That’s what we use for my Giants of Africa camp. For years, Nike has generously provided shoes and equipment for the players. That is the kind of support we need from influential investors in Africa’.
Convinced and motivated on this laudable dream of seeing Africa talents excel in basketball, he says, I grew up there. I played there. I know how much talent there is. We have to concentrate on building facilities, establishing successful leagues and finding investors to help young players. America gave me the opportunity, but I truly believe Africa is going to be the next big thing. It is going to be prominent in tapping basketball talent. I really hope I’m alive to see it happen. This much is certain: I will die trying.