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Raptors president Masai Ujiri got Toronto on the verge of NBA Finals while also focusing on Africa

Creating opportunities for more African players like Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka has become his passion

TORONTO — Toronto Raptors team president Masai Ujiri takes pains to keep himself out of the limelight. This was an easy task a decade ago when Ujiri was early in his career as a globe-trotting scout and aspiring front-office executive.

Today, Ujiri, 48, has become one of the shrewdest front-office minds in the business of basketball, one known for fearless, forward-thinking moves and blockbuster trades.

In 2010, Ujiri became the first NBA general manager to grow up in Africa when he was hired to run the Denver Nuggets’ basketball operations department. When we first met in 2011, Ujiri, then the vice president of basketball operation for the Nuggets, had orchestrated a blockbuster 12-player trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York in exchange for a group of promising young players.

Today, Raptors fans are enjoying the fruits of another bold Ujiri trade that sent fan favorite DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio in exchange for San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard. It’s generally accepted in Toronto that the Raptors would not be one victory from the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance had Ujiri not made the trade.

He made clear earlier this week that he wasn’t going to discuss any of that. During a brief conversation in his office at the Raptors’ training complex, Ujiri said this Raptors playoff run was about the players, not him, and he was going to keep it that way.

What Ujiri will talk about is Africa, specifically the dramatic, widening impact of Africa in the NBA. As the NBA continues to expand its borders, the road from Africa to the United States has become a well-paved superhighway, thanks in large part to people such as Ujiri and Amadou Fall, the godfather of African basketball.

This has been the good news of the current NBA season and a point of pride for Ujiri. “I’m proud of where the game is going and the impact it’s having on the continent,” Ujiri said before Game 5 between Toronto and Milwaukee. “African players continue to grow and perform on the big stage. The NBA has taken huge steps to make progress on the continent.”

Beginning in 2003, when he hosted his first camp in Nigeria, Ujiri has played a pivotal role in inspiring young Africans in Nigeria and beyond to use basketball as a catapult to achieving great things. While players such as Serge Ibaka from the Republic of Congo and Pascal Siakam and Joel Embiid from Cameroon have become well-known stars, thousands of young African men and women you won’t see in big-time college programs or in the NBA have traveled the road Ujiri helped pave. They attend U.S. prep schools, community colleges and universities. They work in jobs within and around the massive sports industry, not necessarily on the court. Ujiri preaches to aspiring young players the importance of using the game to create opportunities, and not letting the game use them.

“We have to give the youth a chance,” he said, “and that’s by building infrastructure, facilities and improving the coaching.”

As much as building the Raptors into a championship team is a goal for Ujiri, facilitating opportunity for young Africans has become his life’s mission and passion.

Fall, the NBA Africa vice president and managing director for Africa, said Ujiri is a living example of using the game. “You can be in the NBA in other ways, and I think Masai in the NBA is the biggest of all those,” Fall said from his office in Johannesburg. “He is running one of the best franchises in the league and coming back every summer to give back, inspiring the next generation.”

Fall added, “The stage and the platform Masai has is so special. I’m proud that he’s really doing his absolute best to give back and to grow the game, and to contribute to the efforts to grow Africa beyond just basketball.”

A journey across three continents

Ujiri’s journey from Africa to the executive suite has been well-documented but bears repeating, for it underlines two of the major themes of his life: the dream and the journey.

He was born in Bournemouth, England, where his parents were studying. His mother is a doctor; his father worked as a nurse. The family moved back to Nigeria when Masai was 2. By age 13, he had abandoned soccer and fallen in love with basketball. When it was time for high school, his parents allowed him to come to the United States to pursue his dream of playing college basketball. He left Nigeria for Seattle to play at a prep school while staying with a Nigerian family.

His vision was to play in college and compete with a team in one of Europe’s top leagues.

After prep school, Ujiri enrolled in a junior college, Bismarck State College in North Dakota. After community college, he signed with Montana State in Billings but stayed less than a year. He left Montana and returned to England to begin what he hoped would be a fruitful pro career. It was not.

He played in Derby County in England for a year, then for a second-division team in Belgium and a team in Germany, followed by another stint in England, then back to Belgium, Finland for three months, then Denmark.

It was in Denmark that Ujiri, then 32, took stock of his pursuit of the dream. He realized, “At some point, I started chasing this thing that is not there anymore.”

The experience would serve him well as a front-office executive who would have to make tough decisions, telling players things they didn’t want to hear and making trades that benefited the franchise and not necessarily the player.

After the experience in Denmark, Ujiri jettisoned the dream of playing for a team and began focusing on running a team. That put him on a whole other journey.

He worked as an unpaid scout for the Orlando Magic. Finally in 2003, Kiki VanDeWeghe hired him as an international scout for the Denver Nuggets. He was later promoted to the Nuggets’ director of international scouting.

Ujiri got his NBA front-office start in Toronto in 2007, when he joined the Raptors as director of global scouting. He was promoted to assistant general manager, player personnel, in 2008. Then it was back to Denver, where he spent three seasons as executive vice president of basketball operations for the Nuggets. In May 2013, Ujiri was named president and general manager, basketball operations, of the Raptors.

Ujiri’s tenacious pursuit of his dream is instructive. Too often, well-meaning adults tell young people who aspire to be a professional athlete that the odds are stacked against them. We tell them about the one-in-a-million odds against them.

Ujiri’s approach is: “Somebody has to be that one in a million. It might as well be you. And here’s how.”

He said, “You have to keep growing, keep striving and keep pounding away to get to the level you want to reach.”

The evolution of players, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, has been amazing to watch, from Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon to players such as Ibaka and Siakam.

Former NBA center Dikembe Mutombo (left) and Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri (right) participate in the NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service as part of 2016 All-Star Weekend at NBA Centre Court of the Enercare Centre in Toronto on Feb. 12, 2016.

Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

Olajuwon and Mutombo stumbled into basketball. Mutombo initially played intramural basketball at Georgetown. Olajuwon was a soccer goalie when he was introduced to basketball.

Subsequent generations of players from the continent have been the beneficiaries of expanded programs and infrastructure. The NBA sponsors the NBA Academy Africa, based in Senegal, designed to identify talent and nurture it on the continent. A professional league, Basketball Africa, is scheduled to begin in January.

“The impact has been great,” Siakam said earlier this week.

”What Joel Embiid has done, what I’ve done, just in terms of putting Africa on the map in the United States during these conference finals.

“The more kids who can see us, the better,” he said. “Now they can believe.”

The exploits of Embiid, Siakam, Ibaka and so many others have been a source of inspiration.

“We’re going in the right direction,” Siakam said. Echoing Ujiri’s often-stated line, Siakam pointed out that the goal is not simply to create a pipeline that produces basketball players. “It’s beyond basketball,” he said. “It’s about creating and producing leaders on our continent.”

Thanks to social media and the internet, role models and paths to possibilities are far more abundant that they were when Ujiri began his journey and scores more abundant than when Olajuwon and Mutombo began theirs.

Said Fall: “These aspirational young players can follow the NBA through an authentic African lens because they’re seeing young people who come from their community who are given opportunities and move forward with those opportunities.”

Ujiri wants to lead Toronto to its first NBA title, and he wants the African presence to continue to grow.

“I want to win,” he said. “I want to build pathways from young kids in Africa. I want that continent to grow. I want people to see there is hope, there is a dream.

“I’m the example of the dream.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.