Toronto executive has become ambassador for sport in Africa
POSTED: Jul 31, 2015 3:37 PM ET
Raptors GM Masai Ujiri interacts with the campers during the Basketball Without Borders program at the American International School of Johannesburg in Johannesburg, South Africa.
JOHANNESBURG — There is this man standing before a group of teenaged campers sitting on the basketball court, a man some had never met until just the other day, and for some reason he is not a stranger. They're gathered inside a small but packed gym at the American International School of Johannesburg and they are frozen and quiet, which is nearly impossible for teenagers to pull off in complete unison without somebody slipping a snicker.
But he has their attention. And he is whispering to them, almost like he's sharing a private conversation, a personal message. And then he just yells, not in a scolding way, but blurts out a word that really isn't a word, more like a lyric to a song, or a chant.
It is "Bwe-yay" or something like that. And every camper yells back: "Bwe-yay!"
Then: "Bon bon bon" or something like that, and they repeat: "Bon bon bon!"
And finally, he brings the final verse, and this one is easily decipherable: "NBA we are coming." And right about now these campers are hysterical and hyped, and they give it right back, only harder: "NBA we are coming!"
For anyone who might ask why the general manager of the Toronto Raptors is spending his summer threatening to go hoarse half a world away, well, you must know this about Masai Ujiri. When he's in charge of an NBA franchise, he's in his element, because his peers find him very astute and a few years ago voted him the game's top executive. But when he's developing basketball and teaching life skills to children and young adults in Africa, he's in his homeland and his own skin, and there is no greater reward or satisfaction or privilege. When and if he wins his first NBA title, that might pull equal to this.
He was in Senegal last week, holding basketball clinics through his foundation, Giants of Africa. Next up: Stops in Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and also Nigeria, his birthplace. He'll spend three weeks on this side of the Atlantic with the hope of discovering the next Dikembe Mutombo from these clinics, but would gladly settle for the next surgeon.
I look at these kids and they remind me of me of when I was a young kid. I see me through them. All they need is a chance.
– Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri on why he gives back in Africa.
This weekend is unique and special because here on Saturday the NBA will stage an exhibition game for the first time in Africa, and the participating NBA players and coaches are warming up by serving as clinic counselors.
One is Chris Paul, and the cheers he gets from campers are the loudest, but even an eight-time All-Star knows he's not the star of the home team, not on this soil.
Ujiri ricochets from one group of campers to another like a blind bumblebee, carrying an air horn that blows when one session ends and another begins. After five non-stop hours of this he is asked if he's tired, and no, he's just amused at the question. Who gets tired from doing their passion?
"I look at these kids and they remind me of me of when I was a young kid," he says. "I see me through them. All they need is a chance."
It all runs with precision at this clinic, how the students are disciplined and determined, how their enthusiasm rubs off on the NBA players and coaches, how Ujiri's vision seems so ... right. As Ujiri gave pointers, a Hall of Famer who's also the pioneer of African basketball stood off to the side, shaking his head, astonished at the spectacle and the man in charge.
"Masai has a lot of passion for this, and helping Africa year after year speaks about the person he is," says Hakeem Olajuwon. "He is a prince. That's what he is."
Tim Leiweke, the CEO of the Raptors, had just one name on his wish-list for Toronto's general manager vacancy three summers ago, someone he recently described as "a man amongst men." Leiweke only needed to be convinced, and for Ujiri, who was the Nuggets' GM at the time, that came naturally in the interview.
"I had Masai come to my house in Vail and we didn't even talk about basketball the first hour," said Leiweke. "We talked about life in general, his passion for Africa and his foundation. He spoke about how he wanted to change the world."
Obviously, the subject of the Raptors followed, and Ujiri's vision for reshaping the wayward franchise went just as smooth. Leiweke was sold quickly, like a marked-down Rolex.
"Our talk was supposed to be for a few hours but it lasted the entire day," he said. "I had a bed made up downstairs and pajamas and workout clothes. I had a toothbrush and shaving kit. I wasn't letting him leave until we were done."
The Raptors hadn't had a winning record in six straight years and were floundering when Ujiri replaced Bryan Colangelo in May 2013. His sleeves rolled up, Ujiri somehow squeezed a first-rounder and more from the Knicks for Andrea Bargnani, a former No. 1 overall pick gone stale, and sent inefficient scorer Rudy Gay packing, all in his first five months on the job. Last summer he swapped a six-pack of Molson's for Lou Williams, who wound up winning the NBA's Sixth Man award with the Raptors. Since Ujiri arrived the Raptors have won a pair of Atlantic Division titles and their We The North slogan is catchy and contagious in T-Dot.
Yet the casual basketball fan only knows Ujiri famously for his spicy outbursts the last two years: When he shouted "F-Brooklyn" to energize a Raptors playoff pep-rally, then another bomb last spring in response to Wizards veteran Paul Pierce, who questioned whether the young Raptors had it.
He was socked with $60,000 in fines by the NBA and got a warning from Leiweke, not about the language but about draining his children's trust fund. Ujiri was contrite, kinda: "I apologize for cursing. I got scolded by the commissioner. I got scolded by my wife. I'll tell you what, I'm not going to do it again."
He just can't help himself, though, and just the other day he again dropped salty language in an interview, although this time he's more likely to catch a hallelujah instead of hell from NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Ujiri was describing his reasons why his passion and commitment for developing basketball in African will never drift, and how the next great player or coach or general manager from Africa is just waiting for a chance.
"Look at where I am and how I got here," he said. "Honestly, if my dumb ass can come to the NBA and do it, then someone else can do it so much bigger and better. And you can quote me."
Of course, it's not so simple. For starters, not many people on any continent bring the combination of drive and savvy as Ujiri, now 45. In the sometimes-cutthroat NBA business, he is beloved by those who know him and respected by those who've dealt with him. He didn't get to run two NBA franchises by accident, but he did get to the NBA from Nigeria by a combo of gritty persistence and good fortune.
Growing up in the northern Nigeria town of Zaria, where both parents were in the medical field, Ujiri and friends had to jog past the outdoor basketball courts at Ahmadu Bello University to reach the soccer field. Occasionally, he'd pause and watch pickup games before moving on. Later, he'd toss or kick a soccer ball through the hoop for fun before moving on. One day, after he turned 13, he never moved on, never reached the soccer field.
"All of a sudden," he said, "this game just grabs me."
An exchange program led to a move to Seattle, where he lived with a Nigerian family and briefly played high school ball. He wasn't recruited. But: When boyhood friend Godwin Owinje signed to play at Bismark State College in North Dakota, Ujiri decided to make it a package deal and went on the trip, talking and playing his way onto the team. Already, the seeds of his power of persuasion were being laid; Ujiri's sharp networking skills would eventually grease his journey to the highest executive levels of the NBA.
First African-born GM in Major U.S. Sports
Masai Ujiri built the Nuggets that won an NBA franchise-record 57 games and went an NBA-best 38-3 at home.
As a basketball player in college, Ujiri says he was pretty good at soccer. That's his wisecracking way of saying he was just fair. He grew to 6-4 but was a bundle of tendons bopping around the floor, lacking a skill-set that would make him a star. His basketball smarts were laser-like, however, honed from hours watching video of Jordan and Magic and of course, Olajuwon. He left school to play professionally and hop-scotched Europe on lower-level teams in Denmark, Greece, Belgium, Germany, England and Finland -- "the worst-paying jobs," he said. The cash eventually became secondary to the rich contacts he made that would later make him a player, from a scouting standpoint, on the international scene. Armed with his knowledge of the ropes in Europe and Africa, Ujiri retired from playing and started banging on doors, offering himself as a talent scout.
Around this time, the NBA's global reach was expanding and international scouting began to intensify. The thirst for players on countries that competed favorably against U.S. national teams gripped the league. NBA teams wanted scouts who knew the turf, and Ujiri's timing in this sense was impeccable.
He caught his first NBA break that year, and his African ties were responsible. A seven-foot Nigerian named Uche Nsonwu-Amadi was headed for a tryout with the Magic and needed a guide for this new and unfamiliar country. Ujiri volunteered himself -- but of course -- and once inside the workout he talked up John Gabriel and Doc Rivers, then the GM and coach of the Magic, and left an impression. Ujiri offered to scout internationally pro-bono and was hired. He scoured the world for talent, going to tournaments and camps mostly on his own dime, and saved by sleeping on the sofas of the friends he made while playing professionally. His work ethic and constant hustle caught the attention of the Nuggets, who hired him to scout full-time in 2003.
The Raptors, heavy on foreign-born players, hired him away in 2007 to run their international operation. After Ujiri aced that exam, they made him the assistant GM a year later. His reputation as an up-and-comer soared. He was in Senegal doing clinics for Basketball Without Borders in 2010 when he received a call from Josh Kroenke, the young president of the Nuggets, who had an opening for general manager. The big break.
"Nothing has ever distracted me from Basketball Without Borders," said Ujiri, "but I had to pack and leave the last day of camp. To this day, it's the only day I've ever missed."
His baptism as a GM came quickly; he walked on hot coals almost from the start. Carmelo Anthony was approaching free agency and the Nuggets needed to swing a trade that would bring back enough assets to keep them in contention. Everything seemed to work against Ujiri; he was only working with two New York area teams as options, the Knicks and Nets, Melo's preferred destination. There were many dark days as the trade deadline approached, he said, and times when he simply didn't know what would happen.
"I had this small office in Denver, and during the Melo trade everything seemed to collapse," he said. "Everything is going crazy. And then I just had one of those days where nothing was right. Well, my wife calls, and then right after, my best friend calls. They tell me I'm doing OK. When you hear that from two very important people in your life, nothing else matters."
He never showed his hand or a bead of sweat, and that helped him fetch Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, a 2014 first-rounder and a pair of seconds from the Knicks. Fueled by the bounty from that trade and also helped by Kenneth Faried, drafted 22nd by Ujiri a year later, the Nuggets in 2012-13 won 57 games.
And so: Ujiri got value for Melo and later Bargnani when he had little to no leverage in either deal.
"He took two tough situations where he was perhaps at a disadvantage and actually turned them in his favor," said Spurs GM R.C. Buford. "He handled the Denver situation better than anyone could've imagined. Masai is in an elite group. His ability to read people is probably unmatched."
The Raptors stole him with a hefty payday and the chance to return to a city he loved and where he met his wife. He's not the perfect GM, and there is no such person; they all miss to a degree in drafting and trades and free agency. But under Ujiri the Raptors now play before a full house and are a 50-win caliber team without a clunker on the payroll.
"Every GM will tell you it's an instinct," he said, explaining his thought process. "It's an instinct to be patient, to react, or act, or not to do anything at all. It just comes. What I can say is you must have a plan and a goal and a way to do things. At the end of the day, it's an instinct. Sometimes it's good. Sometimes it's bad."
Ujiri has tutored in Africa in some capacity since 2002, when he coached the Nigerian junior national team to the title. Ujiri and the players on that team trained for two weeks and slept on the gym floor.
He's convinced that an All-Star or three can shake loose someday from a continent of over a billion people, that all Africa needs is better facilities and coaching and role models. Ujiri conducts a pair of elite camps every year. Through his foundation and also Basketball Without Borders, he does development camps for kids and teens, boys and girls. Many get college scholarships. Some play professionally, either the NBA or Europe.
It took six months for organizers to round up African campers for Johannesburg. There were passport challenges and other kinks. But on Wednesday the gym was full and whistles blew. Ujiri gets his greatest satisfaction from preaching life skills and responsibility. Since he has conducted these clinics, there has never been a theft. If a kid wants another pair of sneakers, they only need to do one thing: "Come ask me," said Ujiri.
A planned visit to Soweto is scheduled for Thursday where Nike will donate a new basketball court, and more clinics will be held until Saturday's NBA game. Ujiri and his trusty air horn will stay busy and loud.
"For me in this position that I'm in, I have to give back and think about what got me here," Ujiri said. "I don't know how much of an impact I can have, but you hope you can have some. I want to do more, and for them to achieve more, and do it through sports."
At the end of the clinic on Wednesday, Ujiri gathered the group and began his chant -- "bwe-yay" or something like that -- which begs an explanation. What's this song all about?
"It's a war cry where you get people's attention," he said. "The kids know it's part of the tradition here. It's a command. You do it because you want them to be quiet or you want them to do something."
Well this time, he wanted Chris Paul, Luol Deng and Giannis Antetokounmpo to do something: Help lead the chant for the campers to close out the day. And so three NBA players cupped their mouths and bravely yet hilariously loosened their vocals:
Giannis: "Bon bon bon!"
Paul: "NBA we are coming!"
There was one more verse, and it came from the new savior of basketball in Africa who brought his words from the heart. Judging by what he said and how he said it, Masai Ujiri was giving less of a chant, more like an order:
"Africa, we are happy!" he said, and these kids, the future of Africa, now cheering and whipped into a frothy hype, threw it right back at him. Only harder.
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