Toronto Raptors became the 2019 NBA champions on Thursday, the first team outside the US to do it, and they have a Nigerian to thank for their feat.
Masai Ujiri, Raptors’ president of basketball operations, changed the face of the team when he brought the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, an NBA champion and three-time NBA All-Star, to Toronto last summer.
It was no surprise that Leonard was named Finals MVP for the second time despite being stifled by Warriors defence.
The Raptors overcame the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA finals 114-110 to take the best-of-seven series 4-2, despite Golden State coming close to forcing a seventh game.
Ujiri was born in England on July 7, 1970 to a Nigerian father and Kenyan mother. He was raised in Zaria, Kaduna State until he moved to the United States in high school with ambition of playing college basketball.
After a rather quiet playing career across Europe, he retired from playing and took up his first NBA gig as an unpaid scout with Orlando Magic in 2002. In less than a year, he was given a paid scouting role with the Denver Nuggets which later promoted him to director of international scouting.
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.
The 48-year-old rejoined Toronto Raptors in 2013 as general manager. In 2016, he was named president of basketball operations.
He also promotes basketball development across Africa as director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program.
Through his role, Ujiri has successfully held annual NBA coaching clinics and camps across the continent. His faith in African talent has seen his Toronto team boast of NBA’s biggest African stars in Serge Ibaka (Congo) and Pascal Siakam (Cameroon).