It started on the outdoor basketball courts in northern Nigeria where 13-year-old Masai Ujiri and his friends began to play for as long as their parents would allow. On Saturdays his mother bought him a copy of Sports Illustrated or Basketball Digest or any American magazine that could help fill his need for basketball. He and his friends watched VHS tapes of NBA games or basketball movies.
“All of the films,” said Ujiri, who is now the 40-year-old general manager of the Denver Nuggets. “Come Fly With Me, with Michael Jordan, and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, we watched that too.”
“Dr. J? For sure we watched that,” he said. “For sure.”
We were talking in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday, and Ujiri was accounting for his reasons to be thankful. His mother, a doctor, and his father, a nursing educationist in the university city of Zaria, raised him to be optimistic and outgoing. He grew to be 6-foot-4 and emigrated to the United States to play two years of basketball for a junior college in Bismarck, N.D. He later moved to Europe for six years of professional basketball where he earned as much as $5,000 per month.
“I wasn’t good enough to continue a pro career in terms of making money,” he said. “I saw that it wasn’t going anywhere. So a couple of times I decided to start attending some tournaments.”
His far-fetched goal was to become an NBA scout who traveled Africa in search of neglected talents. There were all kinds of reasons to doubt whether an African immigrant with little basketball pedigree could work in the front office of an NBA team, but he charged on all the same. He attended games in America and abroad to study the players and meet the coaches and administrators. Anytime he met anyone of interest he took down contact information in his black address book, and in the weeks ahead he reached out to them. He made friends easily because he worked hard at maintaining relationships, and also because he had information to share.
During an NBA summer league game in Boston, he met an American scout named David Thorpe, who eventually introduced him to college coaches.
“Now I was talking to Thad Matta, Billy Donovan and Leonard Hamilton,” Ujiri said. “I started having contact with Jim Calhoun and Roy Williams, and all of a sudden a lot of these coaches are calling me about players and I’m giving them information and telling them how good this kid is or whether he is good enough to play for them. I started placing kids in high schools. That is how we started building relationships with each other.”
In 2002, Ujiri was accompanying a young Nigerian player to a draft tryout in Orlando. Magic scouting director Gary Brokaw was impressed with his understanding of international players, and he introduced Ujiri to coach Doc Rivers and GM John Gabriel, who “hired” Ujiri as an unpaid scout for the next year. It may have been the most expensive job opportunity in NBA history — expensive for the employee.
“I used all my savings and miles to travel to tournaments around the world,” he said.
He paid his own way when he had to, or roomed with scouts or players when he could. He spent two months in Belgrade with his friend Obinna Ekezie, a Nigerian center who was playing for the club Red Star. One night Ujiri returned to the apartment but could not open the door. Ekezie, exhausted by two hard practices that day, had fallen asleep after accidentally leaving his key in the lock. Ujiri knocked and telephoned again and again before submitting to a long night on the cold tile floor. In the morning, when he knew his friend would be leaving for practice, Ujiri acted as if he was just now arriving back at the apartment in order to spare Ekezie from the guilt.
“I told the story in my camp last year when Obinna came to speak to the kids,” Ujiri said. “Obinna is a a big businessman in Nigeria — he’s doing really, really well — and I brought him to show the kids there are opportunities outside basketball, and that he used his money from the NBA and Europe to come back and start a travel business in Nigeria. When I told that story, Obinna was shocked. He had no idea.”
During that unpaid year Ujiri met Jeff Weltman, a young Nuggets executive. Weltman introduced Ujiri to GM Kiki Vandeweghe, who hired Ujiri on salary as an international scout. Ujiri would be hired away by Toronto’s Bryan Colangelo, and then hired back last year by the Nuggets as executive vice president in charge of basketball operations.
Within eight years of his unpaid introduction to the Magic, Ujiri had become the first native of Africa to oversee a major American sports franchise. As de facto GM, he had also inherited the headache of Carmelo Anthony’s public trade demand. But Ujiri never gave the appearance of being overwhelmed by the months of negotiations. He had spent a lifetime reaching for this challenge. In February, he sent Anthony to the Knicks in a midseason deal that launched the Nuggets’ sprint into the playoffs and spotlighted Ujiri for turning a position of weakness into strength for his franchise, much as he had done for himself.
There is less NBA work to be done at the moment, as the league awaits resolution of the lockout that threatens the entire 2011-12 season. So Ujiri seeks to assert another kind of leverage. Now that he has earned a position of NBA authority that has surpassed his expectations, he finds himself focusing his attentions on Africa. For the moment he is not allowed to have contact with NBA players, but he can continue to help the young players at home.
He has seen the expedited improvement of soccer coaching and facilities throughout Africa, where academies have been built to develop players who are now playing for the major clubs of Europe. Ujiri dreams of similar development for basketball in Africa. Every year he helps lead a Basketball Without Borders camp in Africa alongside colleagues from the NBA — players, coaches and league officials — who work with the best players on the continent. He also conducts two camps of his own making, one for the top 50 players of Nigeria, which is sponsored by Nestle Milo, and another for African big men, for which Ujiri himself is the sponsor with help from Nike.
“I see these kids coming here to play for Georgetown, Miami, St. John’s, Davidson, Pittsburgh, UConn, Virginia, Florida State, Loyola Marymount, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Wyoming, Harvard, Syracuse, Quinnipiac,” he said, running out of breath. “They are all over the place, they are everywhere, including the big American high schools.
“Now, why aren’t they becoming more prominent players? Why aren’t more of them in the NBA? The problem is that they all started playing basketball at a very late age. The natural thing in Africa is to start playing soccer at 8 or 9. You go outside and you play like kids play basketball here, and you grow a feel for the game. In Africa, the kids start playing basketball at 16 or 17 or 18, and when they get an opportunity to come here, they have been playing for only one or two years.”
Ujiri dined in New York last week with NBA colleagues who share his ambition — Amadou Fall (who heads the NBA office in Johannesburg), Kim Bohuny (the NBA’s international ambassador) and Heidi Ueberroth (president of NBA International) — and they agreed a breakthrough in Africa is on the way.
“We all know it’s going to happen,” Ujiri said. “It’s just how long is it going to take?”
Consider the career path of the Nuggets’ GM, who grew up far away believing in a mythical fish that saved Pittsburgh. His desire to become part of the larger basketball world inspired him to reach out to those who could extend his reach. What he didn’t realize is that his helpers could also benefit from that reach. He became a means for them to understand and grasp the faraway places that are no longer beyond them.
It is through people like Masai Ujiri that the world shrinks and distant strangers become close friends.
“I really do believe the reason God has put me in the place I am is to tell this story and to give an opportunity to these kids in Africa,” he said. “The moment they start to play at a young age in Africa, it’s over. The moment somebody figures it out to put facilities up in Nigeria, the Congo, South Africa, so that the kids can play all day, it’s over. There is not even a question about the talent you are going to see coming from Africa.”
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