Feb 22, 2019
- Anthony Olivieri
IT'S APRIL 2018 and Masai Ujiri sits high above downtown Toronto. The offices are all glass doors and leather chairs. His corner is without clutter — the team has just renovated the floor — and the Raptors team president sinks into a seat that faces his barren desk. It's a lofty perch.
It's here where Ujiri, the first African top executive in the history of the four major North American sports, has his day job. At the moment, his 2017-18 Raptors are in the midst of the best regular season in franchise history. Ujiri, a former NBA Executive of the Year, is considered one of the game's shrewdest decision-makers. He's at the top of his profession. He has made it.
Ujiri, who was raised in Nigeria, has a second job: to care for and cultivate those from his home continent who have not. He believes that their success, in basketball and life, is dependent upon access to opportunity.
"Outside of maybe LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, there are two freak types in the NBA now," he says. "Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo." (Bucks star Antetokounmpo, of course, hails from Greece but is the son of two Nigerian immigrants.)
"He's African. I don't care what anybody says," Ujiri continues. "So, you mean to tell me with the development of basketball on the continent, and what's to come, you're telling me there aren't two guys like that walking around on the continent?
"There's a lot of them. It's just, how do you develop courts? How do you develop leagues? How do you develop programs? How do you encourage youth? The NBA is doing a magnificent job. We need to do even more."
Ujiri has been a part of all that. His Giants of Africa camps, which gain attention through basketball so they can teach life lessons, have been around for 15 years. GOA has funded courts. Ujiri has inspired kids. Now, that commitment has contributed to, well, even more.
During All-Star Weekend, nearly a year after Ujiri pledged to continue his push, the NBA and FIBA announced a joint venture: a new 12-team league based in Africa. It will be called the Basketball Africa League (BAL) and will tip off in January 2020.
"This was the next step," Ujiri says now, sinking into another leather chair, this one in a tiny greenroom. He had just spoken at an event in celebration of Black History Month.
Ujiri doesn't have an official position with the new league but says that he's involved and helps when and where he can. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has kept him abreast of developments, and Ujiri's boss, Raptors co-owner Larry Tanenbaum, has been part of it all as the president of the NBA's board of governors.
The NBA is wise to mine Ujiri's experiences. His grassroots approach started when he was director of Basketball Without Borders in 2002, which inspired him to start GOA with friend Godwin Owinje a year later. That began in Nigeria and has since spread to 10 countries throughout the continent. From there, we've seen coaches clinics and, eventually, the NBA Africa exhibition games that have been littered with stars.
But this new league, according to Ujiri, is lower level and, just like his outreach on the continent, its goal is gradual progression.
"A beginning," Ujiri says. "It's not all of the sudden we have NBA teams in Africa."
What about those who dream of that ultimate pie in the sky?
"Maybe … one day," Ujiri says. "You can't look past those things. That's just how life works."
IT WAS SILVER who wasn't ready to look past this opportunity any longer.
Silver and Ujiri were at Basketball Without Borders in August when the NBA commissioner turned to Toronto's president and had a succinct but powerful message.
"This is the time to do it," Ujiri says of what Silver told him. Silver, along with deputy commissioner Mark Tatum and NBA Africa managing director Amadou Gallo Fall, has been a champion of growing basketball in Africa for years. He has seen the strides that have been made.
Silver decided to announce the plans for a league immediately at a press conference in Pretoria, South Africa. He used the words "early stages" and "exploring." He stressed that everything was not yet in place.
In September, Silver and Ujiri were among those who met with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta in New York. The dignitaries had arrived for a discussion on growing the sport in Africa, both at the youth level and as a bigger business.
Ujiri stood in front of the group. He spoke. But mostly, he listened.
"We got their support and their input and advice on things that we're doing in their countries and how it will be done," Ujiri says. "And slowly, you begin to make progress and you get to this point."
Some believed that the continent's travel difficulties — "Africa is not a country," Ujiri says. "There are different rules, regulations, governances that you have to navigate." — were too big a hurdle. But the Raptors boss said it was time to move past that. If you keep making excuses for something, you'll never do it.
"When you look at a league like the NBA, there's the West Coast, there's the East Coast, there's time difference," he says. "Now, how was that navigated?"
According to Ujiri, other logistics — like where and when games will be played and how the teams will be formed — are still being figured out.
What we do know: There will be a qualification tournament in 2019 to determine the dozen clubs that will make up the inaugural league; and the teams will come from Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia, with no more than two teams from each.
The possibilities are endless. Could an NBA team, one day, have a financial interest in an African team? You never know. Will there be more African teams in an expanded league? Maybe.
For now, Ujiri says that it's like the G League, which started from scratch and has built both a usefulness and a reputation. In the end, you'll need viable arenas, significant fan bases and even a merchandise plan. That's down the road; it starts with an investment.
"From the beginning, we have to think of putting money in there rather than getting out," he says.
Ujiri, for his part, has put more than money into Africa. He has put time. He knows of its great potential. That's why Thon Maker, now with the Detroit Pistons, admits Ujiri's work makes him proud, and why LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers, a close friend, says that basketball is Ujiri's love but that Africa is his passion.
But Ujiri doesn't want to talk about himself. He's just another cog in the machine. He cites Silver, Tatum and Fall, along with behind-the-scenes folks such as NBA senior vice president of basketball operations Kim Bohuny, as the power players behind the monumental moment.
You can be certain, though, that he'll make sure none of them ever stops dreaming big.
"You have to be ambitious," Ujiri says, "because the talent is there. The talent is one of the most difficult things to get. If you don't have it, then it's a different story, then you're just trying to make something out of nothing. But the talent is walking all over, and I think that's special."