Masai Ujiri's Remarkable Journey To The NBA

Jun 13, 2019
Originally published on June 13, 2019 8:10 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Toronto Raptors are making their first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history. And going into tonight's Game 6, they lead the series 3-2. That puts them one win away from the title. Masai Ujiri is behind Toronto's big season. He's the Raptors general manager and one of basketball's most-revered GMs. Growing up, the NBA seemed far away when he was watching old footage of All-Star Games shipped to Nigeria on VHS tapes.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Dikembe Mutombo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mutombo is leading all the statistics for the rookies this year.

CORNISH: Masai Ujiri is the first African general manager in the NBA. He's spreading love for the game back where he grew up with his Giants of Africa charity. I spoke to Bill Rhoden, sports writer for The Undefeated, about the journey Ujiri took from Nigeria to the front office in Toronto.

BILL RHODEN: He got bitten by the basketball bug. And I think the wildest thing about the story is that his parents then allowed him to come to the United States and begin this incredible basketball journey. They allowed him to go to Seattle. There was a Nigerian family in Seattle. And he attended a prep school.

You know, that's where he began - you know, he started playing. And he wanted to either make it to the NBA or some level of college basketball. So he went to a junior college. From the outside, it looked like it was not - this was not the road to the NBA.

CORNISH: What kind of player was he? How did people describe him?

RHODEN: They didn't (laughter). He was self-described as this tall, skinny kid that had much more ambition than for the Division 1 skills. He was intellectual. He was smart. And he just had this - just this tenacity. But at that point, the light had not gone on yet that it wasn't going to happen for you.

CORNISH: What was his first foray into the NBA on any level in terms of management?

RHODEN: The first big opportunity he got was with the Orlando Magic. And he impressed them with, again, his tenacity. And they said, OK, we'll give you a shot, though not a pay. And he became sort of an international scout. Kiki VanDeWeghe, who at the time was in Denver, hired Masai as an international scout. And the kind of rest, as they say, is - became history.

CORNISH: Now, Ujiri wants to lead Toronto to its first NBA title. How significant would that moment be?

RHODEN: Yeah, for Toronto, for sure. But I think for Masai - and, again, he will not necessarily talk about it - but he feels that his actions speak louder than words. But we don't have to say anything. Here you've got this person who's made this tremendous journey from, you know, from England to Nigeria to the United States, Seattle, North - and who's now a game away from standing on top of the world. And even if he doesn't, he's already acknowledged as probably one of the best team presidents in the NBA.

CORNISH: I want to talk about how you describe him in your story. You say that he has become one of the shrewdest front office minds in the business of basketball. You say that he's known for being fearless, for forward-thinking moves for blockbuster trades. He's also quite humble. I want to play for you a clip of him speaking to Vice Sports last year.

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MASAI UJIRI: The longer I do it, the more embarrassing it is for me because when is the next person coming along? Who have I helped? How many African kids, how many African youth have I helped to be in a position like this one day? That's what you put on your shoulder, like being from the continent of Africa right there. That's the weight that I put.

RHODEN: What he's done in Africa is created hundreds of young African players - not just Nigeria. These kids are getting opportunities to go to college using their basketball skills, but not necessarily to be in the NBA, just using basketball as a vehicle. And that's where his passion is and his lane.

You know, he said, I can't change the entire world, but my lane and my opportunity has been basketball, and I could maximize that. And he'd really preached on all the African players who come over to the United States and who play in the NBA, it's your duty to help me give back. I mean, it's really been amazing.

CORNISH: That's Bill Rhoden of The Undefeated. Thank you so much for speaking with us, for sharing your story.

RHODEN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.