The name of Hakeem Olajuwon readily comes to mind whenever basketball is being discussed in the United States of America and beyond, especially after his successes with the Houston Rockets. But beyond ‘The Dream’, another Nigerian – Masai Ujiri, has broken the barriers and rose to the position of the General Manager of NBA Club – Toronto Raptors, the first by an African.
In 2012-13 season, he was voted the NBA Executive of the Year.
Ujiri was in the country to organise his yearly Giant of Africa/Nestle Top-50 Basketball Camp for boys and girls, which has been on now for over a decade. In an interview with Kunle Adewale he gave an insight into some of the achievements of the camp so far.
After ending a professional playing career in 2002, Masai Ujiri worked as a youth coach in Nigeria. But it was during a National Basketball Association summer league game in Boston that he met David Thorpe, who introduced him to college coaches. He started accompanying young Nigerian players to draft tryout in Orlando when he impressed scouting director, Gary Brokaw, who then introduced him to Coach Doc Rivers and General Manager, John Gabriel.
He then became an unpaid scout for Orlando Margic paying his own way when he had to and sharing rooms with scouts or players when he could.
Later Jeff Weltman, then a young Nuggets executive, introduced him to Nuggets General Manager, Kiki Vandewehe, who then hired Ujiri on salary as an international scout.
“Denver Nuggets took a chance on me and it thus came a time when this opportunity was so big and it put me on some form of a stage, where I can affect basketball a little bit more, especially on the continent here. I had a great run in Nuggets; they gave me an unbelievable opportunity to be a first time General Manager,” he recalled.
After four seasons with the Nuggets, he was hired by Bryan Colangelo of the Toronto Raptors as their director of global scouting. Ujiri became the Raptors’ assistant general manager in 2008, and returned to the Nuggets in 2010, when he accepted his position as executive vice president in charge of basketball operations.
On May 31, last year, Ujiri signed a five-year, $15 million deal to become general manager of the Toronto Raptors: “It was a difficult decision leaving Denver Nuggets, but because I had worked in Toronto, I’m familiar with the organisation, ownership and I was happy to go back,” he said.
Though his pet Africa Top 50 basketball is now in its 12th year, for him every home-coming is always great: “To come and be part of the camp we started several years ago is always great. The Top Fifty and Giant of Africa Camp mean a lot to me. It’s something that will always be close to my heart and I’ll always be close to home through this. I’d like to thank Nestle Milo for being a strong supper of the project and also Nike for their continuous support. It’s not only with what they have provided but the sustenance over the years; it’s always good to have sponsors that will continue to stay by you. Other than that, I’m glad to be here and we hope to always help these kids,” the first African-born general manager for an American major league sports team emphasized.
Continuing he said: “Obtaining a camp and giving young kids opportunity to better their lives gives me pleasure and I really want to thank all the coaches, especially the Proprietor of Dodan Warriors Basketball Club, Colonel Sam Amedu (rtd) and all the people that have really helped in keeping this camp going. I think the ground is the most special thing in the camp before finding and selecting players. The bottom line of this camp is for the kids to go to America but I have always told the kids that if they are good enough, they will end up doing something good with their life. I just wanted to create an opportunity for kids and now that I am back with a better opportunity.
I think we are going to broaden some of the things that we can do and one of the things we are going to really look at is developing out-do or courts and trying to make an impact with the facilities for these kids to play. That’s what on our minds and we are going to discuss this extensively obviously with my guys on ground. With Amedu and the coaches, we’ll try and put our resources together to see what we can do.”
On how Nigerian players can get into NBA through his influence and camp, the NBA Executive of the Year said: “I don’t think there has been any young Nigerian basketball player that is really good that hasn’t left the country.
If you are good enough, you will be found. However, our emphasis is on education and being prepared for what life is all about, that is what we are trying to teach these kids. The NBA has only 400 players and only a few players are going to make it. We are proud that a lot of them have gone through universities in the US. I have been a big influence on these kids in a big way, showing them that it is not only through basketball that they can make it.
One can also do other things outside basketball using the game as a tool and basketball can create that avenue just like what I’m doing now. We stressed the need for the participants to take their education seriously, as it was not possible for all of them to be drafted into the NBA league even if they play at colleges in the US.”