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The man calling the shots.
RUNNING THINGS

The low-key Nigerian executive who just led an NBA franchise to a historic finals appearance

By Yomi Kazeem

A Nigerian will be involved in the NBA Finals this year after all—and it’s not the Greek-Nigerian superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For much of the season, NBA fans have witnessed a season of coming-of-age performances from Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks star of Nigerian heritage who seemed set to lead his franchise to a first NBA championship in 48 years. Such has been Antetokounmpo’s form that he’s marked as a favorite for the NBA’s coveted Most Valuable Player award and is already ranked by some as the game’s best player—ahead of all-time great, LeBron James.

But Antetokounmpo’s dream was halted by a Toronto Raptors team with another Nigerian in the driving seat: Masai Ujiri, the Nigerian executive who runs the franchise.

Reuters/ Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Giannis Antetokounmpo, “the Greek Freak,” fell short of the NBA finals.

As Raptors’ president of basketball operations, Ujiri’s contributions to the franchise have come off the court. Perhaps none has been more pivotal than engineering the blockbuster trade which brought San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, an NBA champion and three-time NBA All-Star, to Toronto last summer. The move has paid off remarkably with Leonard leading the team in postseason scoring and bringing his experience to bear at crucial times during the Raptors’ run—including an iconic series-winning, buzzer beater in game seven in the second round.

Going into the Finals, the Raptors are marked underdogs against a Golden State Warriors team that have won three of the last four championships. But whatever happens, Toronto Raptors, with Ujiri at the helm, have already made history with the franchise’s first ever appearance in the NBA Finals.

Reuters/ Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Ujiri pulled off a major coup by bringing superstar Kawhi Leonard to Toronto Raptors.

“Started from the bottom”

Before he began making franchise-defining deals, Ujiri, 48, first cut his teeth at the bottom of the power pyramid. Born in England to a Nigerian father and Kenyan mother—which explains his first name, Ujiri was raised in northern Nigeria until he moved to the United States in high school with ambition of playing college basketball.

After a nomadic playing career across Europe, he retired from playing and took up his first NBA gig as an unpaid scout with Orlando Magic in 2002. His talents were spotted within a year, landing him a paid scouting role with the Denver Nuggets which later promoted him to director of international scouting.

AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez
In Denver

In 2007, Ujiri was first hired by the Raptors as director of global scouting after which he was promoted to assistant general manager a year later. Ujiri was rehired by the Denver Nuggets in 2010 as executive vice president in charge of basketball operations where his work saw him named the NBA executive of the year in 2013—the only non-American ever to win the award. He then rejoined Toronto Raptors in 2013 as general manager and has served as president of basketball operations since 2016, a role in which he prefers to keep a low profile.

Ujiri also lends his wealth of international experience and influence to promoting basketball development across Africa. As director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, Ujiri plays a major role in driving the NBA’s annual coaching clinics and camps across the continent. Those efforts have culminated in the NBA opening an official Africa academy and backing a regional African league as the league’s appeal and popularity continues to grow on the continent.

Ujiri’s faith in African talent also goes beyond coaching clinics: his Toronto Raptors roster boasts two of the NBA’s biggest African stars in Serge Ibaka (Congo) and Pascal Siakam (Cameroon).

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