Masai Ujiri got Toronto Raptors to the NBA Finals while also focusing on Africa

Creating opportunities for more African players like Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka has become his passion.

By William Rhoden

Toronto Raptors team president Masai Ujiri takes pains to keep himself out of the limelight. This was an easy task a decade ago when Ujiri was early in his career as a globe-trotting scout and aspiring front-office executive.

Today, Ujiri, 48, has become one of the shrewdest front-office minds in the business of basketball, one known for fearless, forward-thinking moves and blockbuster trades.

In 2010, Ujiri became the first NBA general manager to grow up in Africa when he was hired to run the Denver Nuggets’ basketball operations department. When we first met in 2011, Ujiri, then the vice president of basketball operation for the Nuggets, had orchestrated a blockbuster 12-player trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York in exchange for a group of promising young players.

Today, Raptors fans are enjoying the fruits of another bold Ujiri trade that sent fan favorite DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio in exchange for San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard. It’s generally accepted in Toronto that the Raptors would not be one victory from the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance had Ujiri not made the trade.

He made clear earlier this week that he wasn’t going to discuss any of that. During a brief conversation in his office at the Raptors’ training complex, Ujiri said this Raptors playoff run was about the players, not him, and he was going to keep it that way.

What Ujiri will talk about is Africa, specifically the dramatic, widening impact of Africa in the NBA. As the NBA continues to expand its borders, the road from Africa to the United States has become a well-paved superhighway, thanks in large part to people such as Ujiri and Amadou Fall, the godfather of African basketball.

This has been the good news of the current NBA season and a point of pride for Ujiri. “I’m proud of where the game is going and the impact it’s having on the continent,” Ujiri said before Game 5 between Toronto and Milwaukee. “African players continue to grow and perform on the big stage. The NBA has taken huge steps to make progress on the continent.”

Beginning in 2003, when he hosted his first camp in Nigeria, Ujiri has played a pivotal role in inspiring young Africans in Nigeria and beyond to use basketball as a catapult to achieving great things. While players such as Serge Ibaka from the Republic of Congo and Pascal Siakam and Joel Embiid from Cameroon have become well-known stars, thousands of young African men and women you won’t see in big-time college programs or in the NBA have traveled the road Ujiri helped pave.

They attend U.S. prep schools, community colleges and universities. They work in jobs within and around the massive sports industry, not necessarily on the court. Ujiri preaches to aspiring young players the importance of using the game to create opportunities, and not letting the game use them.

“We have to give the youth a chance,” he said, “and that’s by building infrastructure, facilities and improving the coaching.”

As much as building the Raptors into a championship team is a goal for Ujiri, facilitating opportunity for young Africans has become his life’s mission and passion.

Fall, the NBA Africa vice president and managing director for Africa, said Ujiri is a living example of using the game. “You can be in the NBA in other ways, and I think Masai in the NBA is the biggest of all those,” Fall said from his office in Johannesburg. “He is running one of the best franchises in the league and coming back every summer to give back, inspiring the next generation.”

Fall added, “The stage and the platform Masai has is so special. I’m proud that he’s really doing his absolute best to give back and to grow the game, and to contribute to the efforts to grow Africa beyond just basketball.”

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