Toronto Raptors GM honors Nelson Mandela and stresses the NBA’s influence in Africa
Masai Ujiri opens up about his work in Africa, the presidential election and his team’s promising season
Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri smiled brightly when his eyes met his hero Nelson Mandela for the first time in the mid-2000s. It was a smile that the South African revolutionary, politician and philanthropist acknowledged with approval.
“It was just incredible. I remember the first time I met him,” Ujiri, 46, told The Undefeated. “I was standing with [former NBA star] Dikembe Mutombo. He came to me and Mutombo and he said to Mutombo that it’s unbelievable what you are doing for the continent of Africa and don’t ever stop your great work. He obviously knew that Dikembe was building a hospital and the other work that he does.
“Then he stopped, paused and looked at me and I was grinning in awe. He looked at me and said, ‘That’s a beautiful smile you have, young man.’ This was many years ago. I was just a scout for the Denver Nuggets at the time. It just inspired me with what they were doing and had done in Africa, Dikembe Mutombo and the great Nelson Mandela. I had to do my part for my continent and it really, really inspired.”
Mandela was the face of South Africa’s struggle against racial oppression as a freedom fighter, prisoner and moral barometer. The former South African president’s message of nonviolent reconciliation was felt worldwide after he negotiated a peaceful end to apartheid and urged forgiveness for the white South African government that sent him to jail for 27 years. The Nobel Peace Prize winner died on Dec. 5, 2013, at the age of 95.
Ujiri is celebrating Mandela for the third straight year Monday in Toronto on the anniversary of his death. The proceeds from the program at the Art Gallery of Ontario go to support Sick Kids Hospital, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital and Ujiri’s nonprofit organization, Giants of Africa. Canadian Olympian cyclist, speed skater and humanitarian Clara Hughes is the keynote speaker. Mandela’s grandson, Out of Africa president Kweku Mandela, will also be there.
Ujiri, a native of Nigeria, said the main reasons for the event were to raise money for charity and to “make sure Mandela is never forgotten.”
“He’s the father of Africa. He’s the father that wasn’t your father,” Ujiri said. “His desire to help people, his selflessness, his passion for life, that means sacrifice. He was respectful to all people, women, children, everything you want to think of. He fought for the freedom for black people in South Africa and all people. Mandela spoke for everyone.
“That is what made him a special person. He passed away on Dec. 5 and I thought it was proper that we remember this great man every year. I just try to do as much as I can to make people talk about him and we try to raise money with this event.”
Along with speaking about Mandela, Ujiri spoke about the future of basketball in Africa, meeting President Barack Obama, the U.S. presidential election, respect for women, racism, the Raptors and more while giving motivational words of wisdom in an interview with The Undefeated.
There has been a lot of talk this year about the lack of black general managers in the NBA. How much pride do you have as the only African NBA GM, and are you concerned about being one of only three black GMs in the league?
I don’t look at it like that. I might be Nigerian, but I think we’re all the same. We all come from different backgrounds. And we’re all put in unique situations and have unique opportunities sometimes. I’ve been put in a unique place with a unique opportunity. I’ve been blessed to be around all kinds of people and all kinds of people helped me get to this position. And I’m appreciative about that.
The only thing I’ll say is that now that I am in this position, we have to be voices. We have to help others. We have to give back to the community and help. We have to bring others along so we’re not the only ones. It would be a failure for me if you cannot bring others along. That’s why it’s so important to me with what we’re doing, Giants of Africa, and stuff like that. Basically, being a voice.
How much pressure and responsibility do you have helping out and being a role model for Africans who want to work in the NBA?
It’s an obligation. I have to do it. And, I take a huge pride in doing it because I come from one of the most remarkable continents in the world. And I feel I need to affect these people in some way or the other, especially with the youth. I emphasize on the youth because I always say there’s not many 40- or 50-year-olds that are going to change.
But you can help the youth that can change the world. They are the future. They are aware of what is going on with all that is happening around the world. And we have to put them in the position where they think well and they think freely.
What’s your message to the young African kids you speak to and mentor through the Giants of Africa program?
Dream big. What we’re saying with Giants of Africa is you have to dream big. We get lost sometimes in teaching these kids the basic life skills. In life, be honest. In life be on time. Respect women, which is very, very important. All over the world we have to have respect for women. And whether it’s your sister, your mother, we are all connected to women. The last I checked, nobody came from anything different from a woman. So, your wife, your girlfriend, you have to treat women with respect.
Whether it’s respecting cultures, respecting people, the youth need to know that. Those are things we try to create outside of the basketball part. I’m teaching skills. And, these are the things I want to teach the kids.
The most international players in the NBA entering this season came from Europe with 61, Africa was second with 14. Can you envision a day when Africa brings the NBA the most international players?
The NBA has done an unbelievable job of going into Africa and building infrastructure, whether it’s in the NBA office, whether it’s putting [NBA Africa director] Amadou Fall in that great position, when I do camps in the NBA, the clinics, all the things that we’ve done. And doing business so businesspeople know and understand how to build. We need to build on coaching, infrastructure, all those things.
Ten years ago, we were at a certain place and now you can say so many NBA players from Africa, players that have been drafted. We have Africans in great positions, we have African assistant coaches like [San Antonio Spurs’] Ime Udoka, [Raptors assistant coach] Patrick Mutombo and others. You didn’t find this five to 10 years ago.
Look at my position, an NBA general manager from the continent. Now it’s left to us. These guys come back every summer, and then Amadou is there all year around. I think the NBA has given us a huge opportunity. And to be honest, [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver, [NBA senior vice president of basketball operations] Kim Bohuny, these people they really put us on a platform because they have paid attention to us. It’s not only paying attention by saying it, it’s paying attention by going back there and doing it … It’s going to help raise coaching. It’s going to help people start thinking about infrastructure and facilities. It’s all going to start growing. And that’s where we will see what the next 10 years will be.
What was your introduction to basketball in Nigeria?
I was walking to the football field, going to play soccer. In the town I grew up in, you had to pass the basketball court. [My friends and I] were walking through the basketball court with a soccer ball, and we stopped sometimes to shoot it before going on to play soccer. And, as we continued to stop on that basketball court before we got on to the soccer field, the stops kept getting longer and longer.
So, when did you fall in love with basketball?
I was 12-13 years old. The game just captivated me to see athletes run, jump. And I just start figuring out my own body: I’m actually tall. I’m a little bit athletic. And the game is so dynamic. We started trying to build these things in our minds … And, we were watching the [Los Angeles] Lakers on VHS tapes. And all my friends were trying to put gum on their hands to hold the ball like how James Worthy used to hold it.
You came to the United States as an exchange student who ended up playing junior college and college basketball before playing professionally overseas. How did you get into the NBA?
I played basketball overseas in six or seven different countries. I wasn’t very good. I didn’t make a lot of money. But I built a network. It’s where I started to meet people, know players and figure out the game around the world. That’s how I figured out that there was something about scouting and coaching that I actually liked. I was able to land an opportunity to get a job with the Orlando Magic as a part-time scout.
And [then-Magic general manager] John Gabriel, [then-Magic director of player personnel] Gary Brokaw and [then-Magic coach Doc Rivers] gave me an unbelievable opportunity and believed in me. They listened to me even though I was at a very, very low level. And then just traveling around the world and meeting [then-Nuggets assistant general manager] Jeff Weltman and [then-Nuggets general manager] Kiki Vandeweghe, who gave me a chance in Denver with a full-time job.
I came home and I couldn’t believe it. I had a full-time job in the NBA. It is remarkable all the chances these people have given me. I always tell people once you have that chance, you have to show more passion than ambition. Sometimes we show ambition too much. I want to be this. I want to be that. And you haven’t learned to be this, you haven’t learned to be that. Show them your passion by keep going and going and working as you can. And, those little things will start to come. People will notice when you do that rather than show too much ambition.
And I learned as I started growing and growing in the NBA. I learned from great people with great styles. When I was with Jeff and Kiki, their styles. Then working with [former Nuggets assistant general manager] Mark Warkentien with his style. And then Bryan Colangelo, coming to Toronto, working with him. For me it was remarkable working with these people.
President Barack Obama’s administration is coming to a close in the United States. Can you talk about what it was like to meet him and his impact during his presidency?
Eventually, he will turn out to be one of the best presidents we ever had. He was the first black president. But the class, the dignity, everything that man has shown, I’m just proud that in my lifetime this happened. You don’t know when it is going to happen again. He’s just a special, special man and very respectable. He is just a good person and he means well. That’s where it starts.
When he took over, it was a little tough. But slowly, he began to impact America as much as anyone could probably have. To me, character beats all. His character has shown us what a remarkable human being he is. He will affect people around the world when he is no longer president. Whatever he does he will be impactful.
Meeting him was incredible and knowing him is incredible. He’s a basketball fan. When he tells me that I’m doing an incredible job, it makes you feel so good coming from a person like him, because he follows sports, he follows basketball. He absolutely loves basketball. I first met him when I worked in Toronto the first time there, and then when he came to Denver to work on his campaign and do programs. My gut tells me he will be involved in basketball one way or the other.
Any reaction to the 2016 United States presidential election from watching it in Canada?
I suddenly feel strongly that everybody should be given a chance. Everybody should be given a platform to perform and prove themselves. That’s only fair. The world should be like that. America has proven that it’s the No. 1 country to give opportunities. The new president should be given an opportunity.
Throughout the campaign and pre-election, I don’t know if that was America. To me, it was just different seeing a side where there is racism in places. But I’m not somebody who thinks that way. Racism is barbaric. Making fun of people, what they do and who they are and taking advantage of people is not who we should be. I feel strongly that we give a platform and see what that presents and then maybe we can make judgment from there. But to me, all that stuff wasn’t America. Everybody knows that, that is not America.
You unveiled your Giants of Africa documentary during the 2016 NBA All-Star weekend in Toronto. It chronicles your offseason basketball camps that are now in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda with 50-60 campers in each country and how important it was for each kid to be a part of it. It was also in the Toronto Film Festival. For those that haven’t seen it, how would you describe it?
We go back to Africa and do basketball camps. We try and uplift the youth, and build them using basketball as a tool. And, how do you teach these kids? Basketball, the game. And, we use this platform to teach them the basic life skills and how to become men. We talked about being on time, respect for women, working hard, dreaming big, helping others. That’s what Giants of Africa is all about. The more we give, the more we grow.
What is the most rewarding thing from doing your camp? And on the flip side, what’s the most heartbreaking thing that has happened over the years?
I’ll start with the heartbreak. I don’t believe in that. I try to focus on the positive. And, all these things are going to happen you know. But is there one moment or thing? Yeah, you want facilities to be built faster. You go back home and you want people to be more responsive. You want people to be taken more seriously … But, you know what? That’s the way it is and we have to affect change. We have to bring that change.
The most gratifying is seeing the kids’ eyes. It’s incredible. You know how they look. You look at them and we just want them to be great. We want them to have an option. You want to figure out a way to make life great for them.
How do you feel about the way the Raptors (14-6) are playing?
We’re trying to be steady as we can. We are a young team that is growing and learning. We might be third in the NBA in offense. As the season goes, we have to get better defensively, and this is the time to get better. We went through the rough patch where our schedule was really tough. It’s the NBA and everyone is coming to get you. We have to stay consistent out there.
DeMar [DeRozan] and Kyle [Lowry] are playing really well and leading the team well. DeMarre Carroll is coming along well and is slowly recovering from his injuries last season. But our young players are trying to get better and keep up. In the NBA, you have to compete every day. That’s what we are trying to do.
Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan is off to a fast start, averaging 27.9 points per game after signing a five-year, $139 million contract extension last summer. He recently told The Undefeated he wants to play his entire career with the franchise. How do you feel about his start and his commitment to the Raptors?
It means a lot coming from a player like him. When DeMar came here, he dedicated himself to Toronto. He’s giving it his all. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, when DeMar makes all that money,’ and blah, blah, blah. It’s not like it’s going to change that guy. All that guy knows is basketball. DeMar got his contract in the summer and he is performing and playing even better than before. But that is who DeMar is. We all know he is a phenomenal person and basketball player.