A good number of Africans have upheld the hand of our dear continent and have kept her flag flying high to the acclamation of everyone.
Masai Ujiri is one of these great and news making sons of Africa, born 1970 in Zaria, Nigeria. The son of a doctor mother and a hospital administrator/nursing educationist father, Ujiri is the General Manager of the Toronto Raptors of the NBA.
This high flyer originally played soccer as a youth before focusing on basketball. Like most teenagers, he enjoyed playing with his friends on outdoor basketball courts in northern Nigeria. This interest grew stronger as he flipped through pages of sports magazines or watched tapes of NBA games or even basketball movies; this was his pastime, no matter how short. Ujiri was a big fan of Hakeem Olajuwon, an NBA star who was born in Nigeria; he made little but progressive efforts to imitate the NBA star.
Ujiri heard the voice of destiny at a young age and had the grace to recognize it; that was his cue actually. He emigrated to the United States to play two years of basketball at Bismarck State College, and at the time, he had a “not very common height” of 6-foot-4. After a short while, he transferred to Montana State University-Billings; a school he left after one semester.
He spent six years playing professionally in Europe, and was on a monthly salary of 5000 USD. At the end of a professional playing career in 2002, the love for his dear country Nigeria overtook him and drove him to return, but this time as a youth coach in Nigeria. A short while down the line, Ujiri’s career took a nosedive; what I love to call a miracle of discovery. He accompanied a young Nigerian player to a draft tryout in Orlando; and out of the blues, he impressed Magic scouting director Gary Brokaw, who then introduced Ujiri to coach Doc Rivers and General Manager 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; a sacrifice he had to make in pursuit of the one thing that meant so much to him, his destiny.
The season of “work no pay” definitely did not last forever, thanks to Jeff Weltman, then a young Nuggets executive, who introduced Ujiri to Nuggets General Manager Kiki Vandeweghe, who then hired Ujiri on salary as an international scout. After four seasons there, greater doors began to open for the shining star; he was hired 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, where he accepted his position as Executive Vice President in charge of basketball operations.
The first class basketballer also served as the assistant to coach John Lucas for the 2009 African Championship for men in Libya. He became the first African-born General Manager for an American major league sports team. In 2013, he was named the NBA Executive of the Year.
On May 31, 2013, Ujiri signed a 5-year, 15 million dollar deal to become the General Manager of the Toronto Raptors. He had this to say about his new job; “It’s going to take patience, it’s going to take will, we’re going to instill passion — a passion to win.”
Ujiri has also been the director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Africa program, which promotes basketball throughout in Africa. He also conducts two camps, one for the top 50 players of Nigeria, which is sponsored by Nestle Milo, and another for African big men, which Ujiri sponsors himself with help from Nike. According to him, “The NBA has done a great job of spreading the word and giving us a chance to do what we do in Africa and develop the game there, I have to produce (in the NBA). By producing and winning, that will change things over there.”
Despite Ujiri’s long list of accomplishments, the one time NBA scout still remains humble and devoted to the end. It is very obvious that this is just the beginning of greater accolades and international recognition for the first African born General Manager of a major American sport.
© 2013 – 2017, Lovelyn Okafor. All rights reserved.