Masai Ujiri was introduced to basketball by Oliver B. Jonson – known famously, as ‘Coach OBJ’ in the early ‘80s. Jonson, an American who had been in the Peace Corps, disembarked in Nigeria in 1969, built some basketball uprights and began training the kids who came around.
One of those kids was Ujiri. With his interest in the game heightening as well as an insatiable dream to play in the NBA, Ujiri would submerge himself behind a black and white television screen in Zaria, a city in northern Nigeria to watch games in VHS tapes to learn moves.
It was then that the boy began to “feel his dreams,” Toronto Life quoted Jonson as saying.
Born to Kenyan-born mother Paula, who was a doctor and Nigerian-born father Michael, who was a hospital administrator, Ujiri’s dream of playing in the NBA would take him to prep school in Seattle, then junior college in North Dakota.
However, that was a dream too far. “I wasn’t good enough,” he tells Toronto Life. He was effective defensively, but terrible offensively. Simply put, he was a scrappy player in every sense of the word. That notwithstanding, Ujiri still played professionally in Europe for six years, quitting after bouncing his fifth team.
Ujiri’s journey to Toronto’s number one most influential person began with a call to David Thorpe to figure out his future. Ujiri had met Thorpe, a development coach, and ESPN analyst a few years earlier.
On that call, Ujiri told Thorpe he wanted to get involved in the business side of basketball. He spoke of how he knew a lot of African players and thought he could help with recruitment, reports Toronto Life.
“First you have to meet people,” was what Thorpe told him in that call, which was a month away from college basketball’s final four was slated in Atlanta. Thorpe arranged to meet Ujiri there and introduced him around. That was a weekend in 2002.
Ujiri made good use of the opportunity even though he lacked a cellphone. He made do with Thorpe’s who would soon be bombarded with calls from people Ujiri had met. “I was getting lots of phone calls from famous coaches I didn’t know,” Thorpe recounts. “Clearly he had charmed a lot of people and he had something to sell, which was good players in Africa.”
Ujiri made more than 20 connections with coaches that weekend who were interested in the players he knew. He engaged Thorpe and worked on a document they called Masai’s Sphere of Influence, which showed all the countries where Ujiri had played or knew people.
He landed a volunteer international scouting job with the Orlando Magic using the Masai Sphere of Influence and his charm.
The team would give him the credentials to gain access to gyms around the world but promised nothing more, Toronto Life adds. But Ujiri wasn’t perturbed. He grabbed the opportunity, traveling for months across Europe, covering his own costs, borrowing money from his mother and friends to survive.
He also slept on friends’ couches, used Delta Buddy Passes to get cheap flights and at the end of a year, deep in debt. He submitted his expenses to the Magic and received a cheque for $3,000, a fraction of what he’d spent.
“It broke my heart when I got it,” he says. The position may have cost him financially, but he’d built equity in knowledge and connections, meeting people everywhere he went which would prove valuable to him in the future.
A case in point was when before the start of an NBA game at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, he spotted Adam Silver, then the president of NBA Entertainment. He walked up with absolute conviction and started sharing his impressions about the league. After Ujiri’s departure, Silver was said to have turned to a colleague and quizzed in surprise: “Do I know him? Who is he?” Now the NBA commissioner, Silver is one of Ujuri’s closest friends.
The effect of talking to Ujiri, he says, according to Toronto Life was “almost comforting.”
Ujiri won a paid, full-me scouting position with the Denver Nuggets within a year of his encounter with Silver. He is said to be the guy who went everywhere, attended every event and had a fine eye for talented players who were engaged in the game.
He started his Giants of Africa basketball camps in Nigeria, initially as a way to unearth players with NBA potential at about the same time.
At a pre-draft event in Orlando four years later, Ujiri was tapped on the shoulders by someone and when he turned it was Bryan Colangelo, president and GM of the Raptors.
Colangelo wanted to know if Ujiri had any interest in working in Toronto. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is Bryan Colangelo talking to me,’” says Ujiri. He swiftly took a job as director of global scouting in Toronto, and for the first time, he worked in an office every day, wearing a suit, according to Toronto Life.
“I was like a sponge,” he remembers. “I had to learn the salary cap. I had to learn about the business side of the game. I had to learn trading. I had to learn how to talk on the phone to other executives. I learned all that from Bryan Colangelo.”
He left his belongings in Phoenix and zoomed into his new life in Toronto from scratch, living in the SoHo Hotel, Ujiri became GM of the Denver Nuggets in 2010 at a time when Nuggets’ best player, Carmelo Anthony, wanted out.
Without any experience trading in his life, Ujiri’s first challenge was to trade the franchise star. He nailed it right on the head and got a return of players from the New York Knicks that a CBS analyst called “tremendous” and “stunning.” In 2012–13, the Nuggets went 57-25, and Ujiri was named Executive of the Year. That was when Tim Leiweke, then president of MLSE, came calling.
With a history of winning in Los Angeles, Leiweke had recently arrived on a white steed to slay the morose dragons of mediocrity that had settled in at MLSE. Colangelo’s Raptors had missed the playoffs for five straight years and seemed Leafs-like in their acceptance of losing, according to Toronto Life. Leiweke saw Ujiri as an agent of change. “He had the same kind of juice and determination that I did,” says Leiweke. “A desire to be great wherever he went.” Leiweke told Ujiri what he wanted him to do—“Change the culture, win a championship”—and he offered to chop away the deadwood of the existing front office before Ujiri arrived. With his memories of his first stint in Toronto still fresh, Ujiri gave him a list of the people he wanted gone, some of them executives who had been there for years. “I let 14 people go in one day,” Leiweke says. “It was one of the harder days I had there.”
Ujiri hired Jeff Weltman, who’d been his boss in Denver, as his executive VP of basketball operations. He added Bobby Webster and Teresa Resch, who had experience in the league office, and Dan Tolzman, who’d climbed the scouting ladder in Denver. “Those were my guys,” says Ujiri. The only bit of deadwood leftover was Colangelo himself who also left eventually.
For Ujiri, reports Toronto Life, the keys to being an effective leader are simple: hire smart people, let them work and hold them accountable. He ranks the skills of others above his own, and the more he talks about his staff, the more fervent he gets. “I believe in them, and they make me better,” he says. “I pray God I’ve given them opportunity. ’Cause they all deserve it.”
The first five years of the Ujiri era were said to be a dizzying mix of rising hope and crushing disappointment. “He managed to erase the team’s defeatism, but not its defeats,” succinctly captured one report. In 2018, after LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers swept them from the playoffs for the second straight year, Ujiri’s “hold them accountable” principle dictated that head coach Dwane Casey had to go. In May, Ujiri and Webster walked from the executive side of the OVO Centre to Casey’s large office on the coaches’ side. Ujiri, who considered Casey a fatherly figure, says firing him was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
The job was given to assistant coach Nick Nurse. Before becoming an assistant coach with the Raptors in 2013, Nurse had spent 11 years coaching in the British Basketball League and several more in the NBA’s developmental league, winning coach-of-the-year awards just about everywhere he went. He was announced as the head coach in June.
With Nurse installed, attention turned to the roster. It was clear the team needed a heart transplant, and Ujiri’s team saw in San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard a player who embodied talent, drive, professionalism, and fearlessness. To get him, they’d have to trade away their best player, DeMar DeRozan.
The 24 games of the historic playoff run that followed produced countless thrilling moments, but there was one in particular that signaled that this team was different, that it could shake off its demons. That was Leonard’s buzzer-beating bouncing ball in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The game was stuck in a long timeout. There were four seconds left on the clock. Ujiri sat down on the couch and waited. When play resumed, Leonard received the ball, raced to the right corner and sent up his shot just before the buzzer sounded.
Ujiri watched the ball rise and fall. He saw it hit the rim and assumed the shot was missed. “I went, ‘Okay, overtime.’ And I got up.” He demonstrates, rising off the white leather couch of his office. “I’m walking out and I see the second bounce. And it dies a little bit. Then the third one dies almost like completely. And I’m like this.” He stands frozen in his doorway. “And I turn to the screen. And Tolzman is sitting on the couch and he too is getting up. And the fucking ball goes in.”
When Ujiri took over the Raptors, he immediately talked about winning a championship. Six years later, he did it.