Basketball Without Borders a success story for Masai Ujiri
This wasn’t just any basketball camp. It held the potential to create a long-term relationship with the NBA and provide needed exposure for talented young players throughout Africa. As a native of Nigeria and an international scout for the Denver Nuggets, the project was both personal and professional.
Ujiri played a primary role in hand-selecting the players who would take the court. His scouting reputation would be at stake when a large contingent of NBA executives and coaches traveled to Johannesburg to take part in the inaugural Basketball Without Borders Africa camp.
“I was hoping and praying the kids were going to do well enough that we could continue this program,” Ujiri said. “I knew there were a lot of NBA people coming, and I was hoping we selected good enough kids. The NBA has come back every year, so the players must be doing well.”
Ujiri, executive vice president of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets, recently wrapped up his ninth year as co-director for the BWB Africa elite camp in Johannesburg. The camp featured 59 of Africa’s top young players age 18 and under.
“The continent is filled with unbelievable talent,” Ujiri said. “There’s always going to be talent. We just have to grow the game and give these kids a platform to play on. Once we do that, the leagues, infrastructure, coaches and everything else will take care of itself. The players are the least part I’m worried about.”
Ujiri, who fell in love with basketball as a teenager in Nigeria, has always felt a sense of obligation to promote and develop basketball in Africa, where there is a lack of both facilities and coordinated programs. He has coached and managed Nigeria’s senior and junior national teams and served as Basketball Without Borders’ director since 2002.
In addition to basketball instruction, the Basketball Without Borders Africa camp featured seminars focusing on awareness and prevention of HIV/AIDS.
“There is a responsibility for me in the position that I’m in to do well for (Africa),” he said. “I’m going to use this opportunity to spread my knowledge that I have and help these kids and coaches in any way I can.”
For this year’s camp, Ujiri welcomed an NBA contingent that included former greats such as Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. The three big men, who combined to make 26 career All-Star appearances, attended a youth basketball clinic together in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) in 1994.
“It was good to have them back,” Ujiri said. “They’re so well known in the continent. They’re huge giants. You could tell by the look in the kids eyes that they’re special.”
Ujiri also continues to gain recognition and respect in his native continent. Since joining the Orlando Magic as an international scout in 2002, he has risen through the NBA ranks as an international scouting director for the Nuggets and assistant general manager for the Toronto Raptors.
Ujiri is believed to be the first African-born executive vice-president of a major professional U.S. sports team, but his increased responsibilities over the past nine years have not changed his approach to developing basketball in Africa. He made four trips from Denver to Africa this summer as he helped conduct Sprite Slam camps in Kenya and Uganda.
“It’s been a good summer,” he said. “Regardless of the situation, my heart always has been the same way about basketball in Africa. I absolutely love it.”
With his work in Africa complete this week, Ujiri turned to another love story. He will marry his fiancée Ramautu in Washington, D.C. on Saturday.
Based on his accomplishments with Basketball Without Borders, Ujiri’s wedding is sure to mark the beginning of another successful long-term relationship.