Masai Ujiri is easily the best and most well-known executive in the NBA. Now in his seventh season as the president of the Toronto Raptors, GQ recently spent a day with Masai to gain an insider’s perspective on the drive, strategy, and vision behind Masai’s prolific career, leadership style, and success.
Masai has lived and breathed basketball since his childhood, growing up Zaria, Nigeria. While soccer was his first love, basketball became his passion.
“His walk to school took him past a basketball court, where he’d stop to shoot with a soccer ball,” GQ writes. “I fell in love with the game. I was more talented in soccer, but the game of basketball,” Masai told GQ, “it just blew me away.”
His parents hoped to soften Masai’s obsession by overloading him with basketball content, buying copies of Basketball Digest and Sports Illustrated and showing him video tapes of classic basketball films and games. But Masai could never get enough.
“There’s just something about basketball that kept me going. I didn’t know it was this, but I knew that I wanted to be part of this game in a special way,” Masai told GQ.
Masai played basketball professionally in England, Belgium, Finland, and Denmark, but eventually gave up playing to focus on working within the sport. He started by driving draft prospects to NBA workouts and coaching the junior Nigerian national team, GQ writes. He impressed coaches and personnel directors of the Orlando Magic and managed to get the general manager’s number, whom he called every day for six months until eventually he picked up.
This is how Masai became the Magic’s unpaid international scout. One year later, the Denver Nuggets offered him a paid job and in 2008, he made his Toronto Raptors debut as the director of global scouting.
He eventually returned to Denver Nuggets as the first and only African general manager in the league. GQ writes:
“Denver did a lot for Masai. Sure, the team made him the league’s only African general manager, but also one of its lowest-paid. But Masai didn’t miss the opportunity. ‘That was my foot in. Who am I to stand asking for money?’ he says. ‘This is a position you dream about getting. What are we going to do? Fight over this?’”
It was in Denver that Masai started to build his philosophy of deal-making and teambuilding that has led him to becoming the best at what he does in the world. It’s rooted, he told GQ, from his time abroad. It helped him understand the game from a global level and see it more strategically.
“You grow up out there. You’re out there on your own. There’s so many things you have to figure out: There’s language, cultures, different styles of play, learning how it all translates to the game over here. And you learn to judge specific types of talent,” Masai said to GQ.
Industry insiders credit more than just his knack for finding talent in places no one else is looking for. It’s also his ability to build a winning culture, GQ writes.
“Look at the Sacramento Kings: You can’t tell me they’ve just picked bad players, because they haven’t,” David Thorpe, a TrueHoop writer, said to GQ. “They just have no idea what they’re doing with the talent; they don’t know how to build the culture, pick the right coaches, or do the right player development. They have failed and failed and failed. But Masai can take a player, and if that same player was taken by the Kings, they wouldn’t be the same player they are now, on the Raptors. That’s where his sphere of influence has been the most profound.”
Masai was named Executive of the Year in 2013, becoming the only non-American recipient to date and the third Black person to do so this century. This, along with many other signs, pointed out the obvious inequities within the game to Masai. GQ writes:
“The fact that there aren’t enough Black folks on NBA sidelines and in C-suites, let alone taking home those awards? Well, that pissed him off. ‘We just don’t get the chance. That’s the honest truth. Why is that?’ he asks, beginning to heat up. ‘If you really wanted to hire a Black coach or scout, be intentional! Go and find the best ones! Do the homework!’
He starts slamming his hand on a table. ‘Don’t just say these are the five candidates, and there are no Black people there!… It’s embarrassing when people say that I was the only Black president in all of sports. There were a few GMs, but the only Black president in all of sports? That’s disgraceful! Sports are dominated by Black people. It shouldn’t be this way. We should be given a chance.’”
Read more about Masai and his journey to leading the Raptors through its most successful period in franchise history and its first NBA championship.
As a keynote speaker, Masai Ujiri shares insight into leadership, social justice, building strong business cultures, and more. He draws on his NBA experience as well as his work as the founder of Giants of Africa.
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