Masai Ujiri continues to embrace Basketball Without Borders
Denver Nuggets exec sits down for an interview during visit to Africa
Nigeria’s Masai Ujiri may be the Denver Nuggets General Manager, but he has never forgotten where he came from. Every August Ujiri embarks on a journey throughout Africa participating in various basketball camps and coaching clinics. The culmination of such usually comes at the end of the month when he heads to Johannesburg for the annual Basketball without Borders. This year will see the tenth anniversary of the BWB camp and Masai Ujiri will lead it once again as Camp Director. NBA Africa caught up with this busy man when he touched down briefly in Johannesburg after attending the Top 50 camp in Nigeria and the Sprite Slam NBA Development Camp in Rwanda.
Pawel Weszka, NBA Africa: You have just come off two successful camps in Nigeria and Rwanda. How has your African basketball experience been so far this year?
Masai Ujiri: The camps have gone great. They always go well because you know how much it affects the kids. I always say it, and I know I sound like a broken record, but I was once a kid like these guys, Amadou (Fall) was once a kid like these guys, so it’s fun for us to do all this stuff. The talent is growing, the game is growing and I think the coaches are slowly getting better. There is so much more awareness of the NBA and basketball globally, so I think there is good movement and excitement for the kids and once you get that, it’s in every country. Just the first couple of stops in Nigeria and Rwanda have been very fulfilling.
NBA Africa: Did the Olympics in London play a role in the growing popularity of basketball in Nigeria?
Ujiri: No question. There is no doubt that there is huge excitement. Nigeria had a very good buzz in Venezuela when they won the Olympic qualifier, hit the wall a little bit in the Olympics, but they won a game and there is a great momentum now so it all keeps gravitating towards that. Basketball is growing so much in Nigeria and on the continent. It doesn’t matter what’s going on as long as they (kids) see the NBA on TV, they are ready to play. There is a lot of motivation and they love to play the game.
NBA Africa: You have traveled the continent extensively. What do you look forward to the most when you come back to Africa?
Ujiri: I have almost made an agreement with my owners and have made an agreement with my wife, and with my whole family, that when the month of August comes, it is the month for me to give back and to really kind of ‘attack’ my roots. I’m African. I grew up in Africa, so it always means so much to me to come back at this time of the year. It is a special time of the year that I don’t think will ever be taken away from me. That time I dedicate to help and give back while growing the game here in Africa and it’s so much fun. It’s hectic as well and people often ask me when I take vacations. Well, this is almost like a vacation to me. Yes, it’s a working vacation, but for me it’s just so exciting. I just came from Rwanda and it was fantastic.
NBA Africa: The tenth Basketball without Borders camp tips off in Johannesburg in less than two weeks where you will take on the role of Camp Director again. What are some of your expectations this year?
Ujiri: It’s funny, we were talking about it with Amadou on the plane from Rwanda last night. Ten years. We cannot even believe it when we start talking about all the stories and all the things we have gone through. It means so much to see how much it has grown. I think the NBA has done a fantastic job, not only with starting this kind of a programme, but sustaining it over the years. It’s not easy, it costs money, but there is huge dedication on their part. For me it’s home. Basketball without Borders made me who I am and it’s just something that is such a huge part of my life. If my wife could have given me permission to come to BWB last year, a couple of days before our wedding, then I can say there isn’t anything else that can stop me.
NBA Africa: Is there any special moment from the previous Basketball without Border camps that particularly sticks out in your mind?
Ujiri: There are so many. I cannot even begin to think where I can start. It’s amazing. I am still in touch with tons of the campers, like hundreds, especially after I came to Denver. I still receive thousands of emails from these guys and I am like ‘you know how busy I am right now? Leave me alone’ (laughing). But they are great kids, they are fantastic and a lot of them have moved on to really good things. It’s our responsibility and Amadou and I have talked about how we want to pay attention to that and see how these kids can benefit using basketball as a tool to growing education and to growing as people to know that there’s hope and we need to try to achieve our dreams no matter where we are. Basketball is one way to go about it.
NBA Africa: Your team the Denver Nuggets had a good season last year. What is Denver’s goal for next season?
Ujiri: When you talk about goals, you look at your team last year and you want to move the meter a little bit. You don’t want to go back and be the same team that you were last year, so we have tried to get better in some ways. We lost a couple guys, but we gained a couple also. We have built defensively. We led the league in scoring in the NBA last year. We feel scoring is always a George Karl thing and his teams are always going to score. We talked about it and how we can get better defensively and we feel that with the Iguodala trade we maybe got a little bit better defensively and maybe we could be more infectious. JaVale McGee and Mozgov, those guys are supposed to protect the rim a little bit better. (With) Anthony Randolph and Faried, hopefully our parameter defense becomes a little bit better. Hopefully we can move the meter a little bit from last year to this year for this upcoming season.
NBA Africa: Lastly, being a general manager of the Denver Nuggets, please share with NBA Africa fans what your day at work looks like during the regular season.
Ujiri: It varies from day to day. Every day is different. There’s always, as we call it in the NBA, a ‘drama’, a team’s drama, there’s always something. We’ve got a pretty good and stable team now. Last year we were very busy unfortunately because of the work stoppage and signing players and trading and everything and now we just want to try some stability and some continuity going forward. That being said, I did a lot of interviews and said that and then the Olympics came and we did a trade. So in the end, you don’t know. I have responsibilities to my owners and to Josh Kroenke, my President, who is great and has done a great job really leading our team. Coach Karl does a great job on the coaching side, so I try to bring everything together and manage the best way I can. We have really good people working with us in Denver.