|Intro||American sports executive|
United States of America
|Birth||7 July 1970, Zaria, Kaduna State, Nigeria; Bournemouth, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, Dorset, United Kingdom|
Masai Ujiri (born 7 July 1970) is a Nigerian-Canadian professional basketball executive and former player, and is the president of basketball operations of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
After a modest playing career, Ujiri became a scout in 2002, first for the Orlando Magic and then the Denver Nuggets. In 2008, he joined the backroom staff of the Toronto Raptors. Ujiri returned to the Nuggets in 2010 as general manager and executive vice president of basketball operations, and helped turn the team’s fortunes around, returning them to the playoffs. As a result, he was named the NBA Executive of the Year in 2013. The following season, Ujiri returned to the Raptors as general manager. In the summer of 2018, Masai Ujiri relinquished his title as general manager to Bobby Webster, and accepted the position of president of basketball operations. As president, Ujiri worked to usher in a period of sustained success, helping the team win its first NBA championship in 2019.
Ujiri was born in Bournemouth, England, to a Nigerian family. His parents were foreign students in England. With the family moving back to Nigeria when he was two years old, he grew up in Zaria, Nigeria. Ujiri’s father, a hospital administrator and nursing educator, is an Isoko from Aviara in Delta state, while his mother, a doctor, is a Kenyan from Machakos County. He originally played association football as a youth before stating his interest in basketball as a 13-year-old playing with friends on outdoor basketball courts in northern Nigeria. This interest would be fed by American sports magazines and VHS tapes of NBA games or basketball movies. He admired Hakeem Olajuwon, an NBA star who was also Nigerian.
Entering high school, his parents allowed him to pursue his dream of playing college basketball and join a team in one of Europe’s top leagues. He left Nigeria to play for Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, WA while staying with a Nigerian family. After a stint overseas, Ujiri enrolled and played two years of basketball at Bismarck State College, a junior college in North Dakota. After community college, he transferred to Montana State University Billings but left after one semester. He left Montana and returned to England to begin a pro career.
Ujiri spent his entire professional playing career in Europe. Before attending college, Ujiri played one season with the Solent Stars in the National Basketball League Division 3, then the fourth tier of English basketball. Ujiri and his team won the title that season with a 20–2 record.
Following his collegiate career, Ujiri played a season for the Derby Rams in England. He then returned to Solent Stars, playing two seasons either side of a short stint with Belgian side Tournai-Estaimpuis, followed by just one appearance with Hemel Royals. Ujiri later spent three months in Finland with BC Nokia, where he played two preseason games before being waived. He last played in Denmark.
After ending a professional playing career in 2002, Ujiri worked as a youth coach in Nigeria. During an NBA summer league game in Boston, he met David Thorpe, who eventually introduced him to college coaches. In 2002, Ujiri was accompanying a young Nigerian player to a draft tryout in Orlando when he impressed Magic scouting director Gary Brokaw, who then introduced Ujiri to coach Doc Rivers and GM John Gabriel. Ujiri then became an unpaid scout for the NBA’s Orlando Magic, paying his own way when he had to and sharing rooms with scouts or players when he could.
Jeff Weltman, then a young executive with the Denver Nuggets, introduced Ujiri to Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe, who then hired Ujiri on salary as an international scout. After four seasons there, he was hired away 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 general manager and executive vice president in charge of basketball operations. In 2013, Ujiri was named the NBA Executive of the Year for his work with the Nuggets, the only non-American ever to win the award.
On May 31, 2013, Ujiri signed a 5-year, $15 million deal to become executive vice president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors, replacing Colangelo in that capacity. One of his first moves as Raptors GM was to trade away Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks. During Ujiri’s tenure as general manager, the Raptors, led by the backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, returned to the playoffs in 2014 and became a consistent playoff team every year, winning five Division titles and finishing the 2017-18 regular season with the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference. He also helped the team reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history in 2016, where his contract was extended to act as the team’s president. His title as general manager was then transferred to Jeff Weltman. After Weltman left the organization to join the Orlando Magic in 2017, Bobby Webster was named as the team’s new general manager, and began reshaping the Raptors roster after suffering consecutive second-round eliminations in 2017 and 2018 (both four-game sweeps), all three playoff defeats at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James.
Ujiri fired head coach Dwane Casey shortly after their 2018 2nd round exit to Lebron James and the Cavs (despite Casey being named Coach of the Year), promoting assistant Nick Nurse to head coach, conducted the high-profile trade of DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green later that summer, and acquired Marc Gasol before the trade deadline. The DeRozan-for-Leonard trade was initially controversial since DeRozan was the longest-tenured Raptor and fan favourite while Leonard had spent most of the 2017-18 season injured, along with his demand to be traded to a Los Angeles-based team only. However, the move paid off as the Raptors went on to win the 2019 NBA championship, their first title in the history of their franchise, and Leonard was named NBA Finals MVP.
Ujiri, then a scout for the Nuggets, founded Giants of Africa in 2003 with a goal to discover talent. The first camp was held in Nigeria.
Ujiri has also been the director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Africa program, which promotes basketball throughout the continent. He also conducts two camps, one for the top 50 players of Nigeria, which is sponsored by Nestle Milo, and another for African big men, which Ujiri sponsors himself with help from Nike.
Ujiri and Basketball Without Borders are profiled in Hubert Davis’s 2016 documentary film Giants of Africa.
Ujiri has taken personal offense to President Donald Trump’s alleged comments about immigrants from places like Haiti and his homeland Nigeria, which Trump allegedly referred to as “shitholes”. He noted that he didn’t see how what President Trump said would be considered inspiring leadership, as well as it being unfair to those places and people that are there wanting to improve their life situations.
On November 28, 2018, Ujiri received the first-ever President’s Peace Medal presented by the YMCA of Greater Toronto during Peace Week , alongside YMCA Peace Medal honourees, Toronto police constable Dale Swift and mental health activist Loizza Aquino .
In February 2020, Ujiri accompanied Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on an official visit to various African nations, including Ethiopia and Senegal. Ujiri appeared on behalf of sport charity Right To Play at an event in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
Ujiri has confirmed that he does hold Canadian citizenship, and has a valid Canadian passport.
Swearing during 2014 Eastern Conference Playoffs
On April 19, 2014, at a fan rally prior to Game 1 of the first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, Ujiri shouted, “F— Brooklyn!” to the gathered crowd from the stage. During the halftime break of Game 1, Ujiri apologized for his comment while speaking with reporters. “Wrong choice of words out there,” he said. “It is really not about me. It is about the players and the playoffs. Just trying to get the crowd out there rattled — wrong choice of words. I apologize to kids out there and to the Brooklyn guys. Nothing against them. Just trying to get our fans going. That’s it. I apologize for not taking any questions, but you know how I feel. I don’t like ’em. I apologize.” After early reports that Ujiri would only be issued a formal warning by the NBA, Commissioner Adam Silver, who attended Game 1, reconsidered and fined Ujiri $25,000.
Swearing during 2015 Eastern Conference Playoffs
Prior to the first-round Eastern Conference playoff series between the Washington Wizards and the Raptors, Wizards guard Paul Pierce stated in an interview with ESPN, “We haven’t done particularly well against Toronto, but I don’t feel they have the ‘It’ that makes you worried.” On April 18, 2015, at a fan rally prior to Game 1, in response to Paul’s comments, Ujiri shouted to the gathered crowd, “We don’t give a s–t about ‘it!’” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who was in attendance and acknowledged by Ujiri moments before the comment, fined Ujiri $35,000 and the Raptors organization another $25,000 for “for using obscene language in a public setting.” Ujiri later apologized in a statement for his comments saying, “I have the deepest respect for Commissioner Silver and the NBA, and while showing passion for our team and fans I will choose my words more carefully in the future so as not to indicate otherwise. I apologize and have acknowledged the fine with the Commissioner. I consider the matter closed and our sole focus is on the playoffs.”
Altercation with Alameda County Sheriff’s Office
On June 13, 2019, just after the Toronto Raptors had clinched a 4-2 series win over the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals, Ujiri was captured on video in an altercation with an Alameda County Sheriff deputy. Sgt. Ray Kelly alleged that Ujiri failed to show proper credentials for access to the floor, and when stopped by the deputy, shoved him, saying that he made contact in response and that at which point Ujiri shoved him back also making contact with his face. Several bystanders and Oracle Arena security personnel intervened to separate the two. After a tense staredown between the men, which resulted in Ujiri being restrained from approaching the deputy, Kyle Lowry could be seen coming over to Ujiri and bringing him on to the court to celebrate with the team. Alternate angles of the incident show what appears to be Ujiri shouting in the direction of the deputy with his arm around Lowry after making his way onto the court. The department did not release footage depicting the start of the incident and furthermore announced that the body cam footage had happened to “switch off” when Ujiri allegedly struck the officer.. Bodycam footage of the altercation was released by Uriji’s legal team in August 2020.
The sergeant in question had also come under fire earlier in the year for retweeting American neo-nazi Richard Spencer to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office official Twitter account, but stated that it was “accidental” and done while doing research on Spencer. Warriors season ticket holder Greg Wiener, who was seated near the altercation, alleged that the police officer used excessive force and put his hands on Ujiri first, while two other fans, Ben Baller and Lucas Abrenica, both sitting within 10 feet of the incident, also disputed the officer’s version of events. In the videos, Ujiri can be seen with game credentials in his hand. However, the NBA had released a media advisory prior to the conclusion of the game stating that only personnel with gold armbands would be allowed on the court due to a visiting team winning. Many of the gold armbands were visible on photographers and executives on the court including members of the Raptors ownership but not in any angles of Ujiri during the incident.
Following the altercation, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office stated that it would be recommending charges of battery against Ujiri. The deputy involved has claimed to have suffered a concussion from the incident. The office has declined to release full videos of the incident. If a report is filed, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley will decide whether to bring charges. The NBA and the Raptors organization said they are both gathering information on the incident. The investigation ended on September 21. Following a private meeting on October 21, 2019 with Ujiri, his attorneys and Assistant District Attorney Terry Wiley, which was held at the Sheriff’s Department, Assistant District Attorney Teresa Drenick wrote in an email to The Toronto Star that the District Attorney’s office would not be “taking any further action”.
Deputy Alan Strickland’s body cam footage was released in August 2020, showing Ujiri had his credentials out and the deputy clearly shoving Ujiri twice in the chest.