In a country saturated with soccer, Masai Ujiri tried to immerse himself in basketball after being introduced to the American game as a teenager in northern Nigeria.
His passion for hoops and tireless work ethic started him down a career path that reached another milestone Friday when he was officially named executive vice president of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets.
Ujiri, pronounced ma-SIGH u-JEER-e, spent four seasons as a scout for the Nuggets from 2003-07, and he returns after three years working as an assistant general manager with the Toronto Raptors. He also has served as the director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program since 2002.
Nuggets.com caught up with Ujiri to get his thoughts on his new job and what lies ahead for the 2010-11 season.
Q: I read a quote from you when you left Denver in 2007, saying maybe you’d be back someday. Is that true, and did you ever think it would be as the executive VP of basketball operations?A: I did say that. You never know when these things happen. I had a great time there and a great working experience. It made me grow in the business. I just thought one day we might unite again. I remember saying that to a lot of people and here it is.
Q: The Nuggets have been in the news quite a bit this summer. What is your take on the team?A: First of all, we have the whole Melo (Carmelo Anthony) situation. I’m excited to meet with Melo and just go over everything. I don’t know what difference I’m going to make, but I’m excited. This has been Melo’s team and Melo’s city almost, basketball-wise. He’s built a legacy here. The players who have played in one city and stayed in one city have done pretty well.
I know last year there was a challenge with George Karl and his illness. But I’ve talked to him and he’s in full spirits. He’s pumped up about the season. That’s positive. I think I can bring a general positive vibe into everything, from the front office to the team. I’m blessed and honored to be in this situation and I’m going to make the best out of it and make a difference in any way I can by working hard.
Q: Regarding Carmelo, do you think it helps that you already have a relationship with him from your first time in Denver?A: With this thing, you don’t know. I know Melo. I’m not going to try to use anything on him. I’m just going to go there and be myself. I know Melo knows I’m a loyal person. Melo is a loyal guy. Different things have occurred within the last couple years and he’s feeling a certain way. Sometimes it takes time to think about it some more and breathe. Melo’s a positive guy. I’ve always known him to be like that.
Q: You have an extensive background in international scouting. How will that influence the Nuggets' roster in the years to come?A: I started off with that background, but this is the NBA and you have to expand a little bit. I’ve studied the game in every different aspect that I can. You go for the best talent available, wherever it is. You fish it out. That’s how I’ve scouted all my career. Doesn’t matter where it is – international, domestic, college, anywhere. We’ll get the best talent to Denver and we’ll manage it. There’s no preference.
You want to have unique ways in which you scout. You have thoughts in your head. Scouting is like CIA work and investigative work. You create a lot of stuff and try a lot of stuff. Some works and some doesn’t. I try to get creative.
Q: Josh Kroenke figures to take a more prominent role in the front office this season. What do you think your working relationship with him will be like?A: It’s going to be great. I think I’ve talked to Josh three times already today and what time is it? (1 p.m.) I have a great feeling for this. I love it. He’s young, he’s vibrant. He wants to succeed and he’s a good person. He’s got a great business mind and I think he’s going to be tremendous.
Q: As far as I can tell, you are the first native of Africa to hold the title of executive vice president of basketball operations for an NBA team. Do you consider yourself a pioneer?A: It’s just an unbelievable opportunity for me. I carry the continent of Africa on my shoulders proudly. To be given this opportunity, it is a blessing.
Q: In talking to you, it sounds like one of your strengths is never taking your job or your position in life for granted.A: Never. I don’t believe in that. I believe in hard work. I believe in honesty. I believe in treating people how you want to be treated yourself. That’s why I have a great relationship with the Kroenkes. The opportunity’s so big, I cannot afford in any way to not work hard or not give my best.
Q: As an assistant GM in Toronto, you were able to work with well-respected NBA executive Bryan Colangelo. What did you learn during your time with the Raptors that will help you now that you’re back in Denver?A: I learned more about scouting. I learned more about player negotiations. I learned more about working trades from Bryan Colangelo. I learned about how to run a front office. Toronto is a class organization. Sometimes it doesn’t translate into wins and championships but it’s top-class. It’s been great for me to learn that way. Also, working close in hand with the NBA and Basketball Without Borders and all the camps and related events, it makes you grow in your mind and your thoughts. It makes you deal with people better and have more respect for the game.
Q: Considering that Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon is from Nigeria, was he someone you considered as a role model?A: Charles Barkley always used to say, ‘My idol is my dad.’ It’s the same for me. My dad worked hard. He was honest. He told me I should never look back. He told me I should be the best person and the best at what you do. He was my role model. I have a lot of people who I look up to and who helped me with my career.
Q: You played college basketball in Montana and professionally overseas, but when were you first introduced to the game.A: I started playing when I was 13 years old. Oliver Johnson, a coach from the United States, came over and tried to grow the game in northern Nigeria. He’s the one that taught us how to play. He ran the program. I loved the game. I spent every hour on the court. It’s an unbelievable sport. There’s not much opportunity over there (in Africa). That’s my frame of mind with providing coaching and infrastructure and opening up the dream.
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