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Masai Ujiri: The future of Africa, winning, and Olympism

Toronto Raptors president discusses his upbringing in Nigeria and his hopes for the continent in an exclusive Olympic Channel interview
By ZK Goh

There is one thing close to Masai Ujiri's heart that has yet to be fulfilled: the potential of Africa.

Ujiri has accomplished a lot in his career, from playing basketball for Nigeria to becoming president of the NBA Championship-winning Toronto Raptors.

But seeing his continent left behind in sports development due to mismanagement is something that rankles with Ujiri, who is passionate about making Africa a sporting powerhouse.

"It's so important because we have almost misused that opportunity on the continent," he tells the Olympic Channel's Benny Bonsu in an exclusive interview.

"When you look at raw physical talent, we have the best in the world.

"Whether you're going to the eastern part of Nigeria, or you're going to Congo, or to South Sudan, Senegal, Ghana; whether you are talking about football, basketball; it doesn't matter where you go. The talent is incredible.

"In Africa we have leaders – and I've said this to them, a lot of them are my friends – [who are] starting to be better in how they look at [sports], because before they didn't look at [it] like that.

"Why is it that we have the [Didier] Drogbas and all these guys being the proud African players in leagues all over the world, but we don't have our own league in Africa while we have the players?

"It's becoming like that in basketball, and you saw eight, nine Nigerians get drafted in last year's draft.

"We can make some progress on this continent."

Toronto Raptors' forward Pascal Siakam with team president Masai Ujiri during a Giants of Africa camp in Cameroon in 2019. (Photo: giantsofafrica.org)

Early years for Masai Ujiri

The 50-year-old Ujiri was born in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, where his Nigerian parents were studying at medical school.

The family would move back to Nigeria when Ujiri was just nine months old, and he grew up in the northern part of the country, where football was the main sport.

"When I was in school, I took soccer so seriously," he recalls. "I played for my primary school, which means you are among the best 11 kids out of thousands, so to play for my primary school was a big thing in soccer, in football."

His switch of sports – and the trust of a teacher – gave him his first taste of being in charge.

"Then when I started playing basketball, you know, I was in the forefront of whatever my school was doing. When I was in high school, the [basketball] master made me the game's prefect of the school."

"And so now when I think back, you know, it brings me back to where maybe some of the organisational skills and even leadership skills and even working with people." - Masai Ujiri to Olympic Channel.

That was the start of a long love story with basketball that led him to the United States and all across Europe.

"I was fortunate enough to go as an exchange student to Seattle," Ujiri remembers. "I came back to England first with my sister, and then I went to Seattle, played in a prep school. I wasn't very, very good, you know, like I'm just [barely] good enough.

"I went to a junior college for two years, I was lucky to get into that junior college in Bismarck, went to a junior college for two years, then I went to Montana State Billings, where it was very up and down for me."

NBA breakthrough

Ujiri's professional playing career saw him mostly play for smaller teams in Europe, thanks to his Great Britain passport, which meant he would not be counted as a foreign player.

"When they opened all the rules in Europe that with a British passport you could go play all these countries as an EU [national], in my mind, I was like, 'OK, I'm going to go do this, I'm going to make money doing this, because now I've gained a little experience of college basketball. Let me go and try and be a pro.'

"I went and I'm telling you, I was not very good. I was not very successful and I bounced from place to place. I'm fighting my ego because I'm saying I'm playing professional basketball."

Things were not easy and came to a head for Ujiri in the early part of the 2000s. It would prove to be a catalyst for his future career.

"I was in Denmark when I was playing for a team, they had no money. There was no future there. [So] I said, 'You know what? I'm going to go try to go into something else.'

"Luckily for me, I was made the Nigerian junior national team coach in 2002. I started going into coaching."

"Then the unpaid job for Orlando Magic kind of fell into my lap." - Masai Ujiri

"I worked for them for one year as a scout because one of the international scouts was sick. That's kind of how I got into the business of the NBA."

Despite the difficulties, Ujiri recalls one shining point of his playing days.

"The one thing I'll never forget and I was blessed is in 1997 I had a chance to go play for Nigeria, and to wear that uniform in the African Championships was incredible."

Canada calling for Ujiri

That foot in the door subsequently led Ujiri to Denver as a scout, and later north of the border to Canada, as the Raptors' Director of Global Scouting and assistant general manager.

"I had that experience in Toronto, kind of [learning] what the vibe is, the city, the culture, the people," he says. "I remember living downtown – I had no car – and walking everywhere."

A return to the U.S. and the Nuggets as the team's General Manager (GM) followed – a stint in which Ujiri became the first, and to date still the only, non-American to win the NBA Executive of the Year award. That, in turn, led him back to Canada in 2013 as the Raptors' GM and Executive Vice President.

"It's almost like I had a feel for it already," he says of returning to Toronto. It's clear his affection for the team and city runs deep.

"I always called it a goal that was unknown, because it's the one team in the NBA that's not in the USA.

"I felt that there was something about the place, the diversity, the people, the crowds, the fans, and the opportunity of being a global team. That inspired me, and then you start going deeper into all the things that you could do.

"We were so fond of the new facility we built, a practice facility we were fond of. Working with Drake, [things] like that, that was something that really excited us, bringing him on as an Ambassador," he remembers passionately.

"The 'We the North' campaign. That was incredible, really believing in ourselves and saying, 'You know what? We might be the only team outside the United States, but we are proud to be in the NBA, we are blessed to be an NBA team.'"

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri answers questions during Media Day before the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena. (Photo: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports)
Picture by USA TODAY Sports

Winning and excellence

As Raptors GM, Ujiri ushered in a period of success. The Canadian team reached the playoffs in each of the three years he was in the role, before he was promoted to team president in the summer of 2016.

More triumphs followed, culminating in the team winning their first NBA Championship in 2019. That winning mentality, he says, has been with him since the start.

"At the end of the day, sports is about winning. You play sports to win, nothing else: you win on the court, off the court. Excellence is very simple for me: by any means, winning, and as you do it, you bring people along.

"And as you do it, you have to help people. You have to help youth, you have to help women, you have to help your family. I try to keep it as simple as I possibly can.

"You have to empower people, and at the end of the day, we all have to respect each other. And I think when we do, this world will become such a better place."

That empowerment, he told Olympic Channel, included intentionally hiring more women and increasing gender equality and diversity within the organisation.

Ujiri emphasises winning does not end in the sporting arena, too. "Winning is helping people; winning is having an impact.

"It is bringing people together. It's not just only winning a basketball game. Winning is seeing my daughter smile; watching my son grow up; winning is seeing my friends happy; seeing my wife happy."

The future for Africa

Ujiri is a proud African, although he acknowledges the circumstances of his birth in the United Kingdom and the nine months he spent there opened doors for him when he was younger.

"I was able to get that British passport and it helped me navigate to get to so many places, like come to America, go back to England and all of that.

"If I didn't have it, I always ask [myself], 'what would have happened, why was I chosen?' Every day I drive home, I pinch myself and ask myself that question." This, he says, makes him work doubly hard to improve things for the rest of Africa.

He has been involved with the NBA's efforts on the continent, including its Basketball Without Borders program. Ujiri is also president and founder of the Giants of Africa program which uses basketball to educate young people.

"It's an obligation for me," he says wholeheartedly. "To be in my position, I have to.

"I can't do anything else but to go back and help the youth as much as I can, because I see how smart they are, I see the kind of passion for life that they have. I see how just how vibrant they are.

"I see the limited infrastructure sometimes, and the facilities, and we have to make it grow. We have to build it for them. We have to create that path. You look at that continent and what it has, whether it's youth, whether it's resources, anything that you look at. We have it, right?

"It is an obligation for me to go back and do better and help the youth and the game to grow. I can help through sports as much as I can.

"There's just something about the continent that's different. I hope I'm alive to see it become one of the leading places in the world."

Masai Ujiri at a Giants of Africa camp in 2017 (Photo: giantsofafrica.org)

Olympic Games for Nigeria and Africa

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in 2021 on the horizon, Ujiri is looking forward to cheering on his country's basketball team in Japan.

Nigeria – currently coached by three-time NBA champion assistant coach Mike Brown – have qualified for the men's tournament by virtue of their position as the top African team at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

"I support the Nigerian national team. I'm happy Coach Brown is on that team, and Coach Alex [Nwora]. I think they're going to raise the level a little bit beyond the standard kind of tournament.

"I think with the right preparation, with the right organisation, I think Musa Kida – the [Nigerian basketball federation] president – hopefully is beginning to put things together and understand the big picture. We have a lot of athletes playing in college basketball.

"When we start to understand these things a little bit better, and prepare better, we will do better."

And he hopes, with Nigeria being able to call on an impressive – and growing – number of NBA players either from the country or of Nigerian descent, D'Tigers can make their mark.

"If we want to really take the dream team, you know – are we going to take [Victor] Oladipo? Are we going to take OG Anunoby? Is [Bam] Adebayo going to go?

"We've got the names, we have many tiers of guys that we can get. [Josh] Okogie… there's so many."

One day, Ujiri says, Africa will host the Olympic Games.

"I think we are slowly beginning to understand that we can [host] it. We had the [2010 FIFA] World Cup in South Africa, and the [2026 Summer Youth] Olympics is going to Senegal, if I'm not mistaken.

"That's going to be a good start for us to really measure. We've held many All Africa Games and many tournaments.

"But the Olympics, that's the biggest. To host that, I think will be a really telling moment for the continent."