Photo by Reuters / Mark Blinch
- Masai Ujiri is the man who changed the fortunes of an ailing Toronto Raptors team.
- Ujiri returned to the Raptors in 2013, made a series of bold decisions, and helped the team win the 2019 NBA championship.
- He celebrates Toronto as a beautiful and diverse city, something that is reflected in the club as a whole.
- Ujiri believes the Raptors — the only NBA team outside the US — are an NBA team for the world to enjoy.
- Ujiri sat down with Business Insider in London to tell us the moments that led to an iconic, immortal drive to the NBA title.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Masai Ujiri, 49, is the basketball executive who turned a losing Toronto Raptors team into 2019 NBA champions.
Ujiri’s story has been described by CNN as a "rags to riches" tale. Born in Bournemouth, England and raised in northern Nigeria, Ujiri rarely focused on basketball growing up because the national obsession was soccer.
But when he joined his friends for a trip to the university soccer field, instead of walking past the basketball court uninterrupted, they’d shoot into the hoop on their way to play ball. Over time, Ujiri would spend longer on the court, and less time on the field.
His passions changed and he knew he wanted to explore the American sport further. He competed in the European circuit, playing competitively in England, Belgium, and Germany amongst other countries, but told CNN he never felt good enough as a player, and wanted to try coaching instead.
His talent identification skills led him to a scouting role in 2002, but to start this new career path he had to work for free for the Orlando Magic. "Everybody would go up to their five-star hotel and I would sneak to my $20-a-night motel," he told CNN in June.
When I looked at Toronto … I could see the potential of what a good team could look like whether that was the fanbase, the people, the city — it’s beautiful, and has diversity.
But it was not long before he hit the big time, earning more than enough to stay in those hotels himself.
He signed a $3 million, five-year deal as the president of basketball operations at the Raptors in 2013, returning to the franchise after a previous stint as director of global scouting in 2007, where he was swiftly promoted to assistant general manager within one year.
Ujiri has cultivated a winning culture within a team that just won its first ever championship, helping end the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty with a 4-2 winning series in the NBA Finals earlier this summer.
Now one of the most renowned figures in all of basketball, Ujiri sat down with Business Insider in London to tell us how he did it.
Ujiri said the word "luck" 12 times during our conversation, seemingly struggling to accept the fruits of his own labor. Accepting a job at the Raptors in 2013, for example, wouldn’t be regarded as lucky for many, because for 10 of the previous 11 seasons before Ujiri joined the franchise, the Raptors had a win/loss success rate that was sub .500.
Turning those fortunes around was never going to be easy. But Ujiri saw something in the club, the team, and the city.
"When I looked at Toronto … I could see the potential of what a good team could look like there," he told Business Insider. "Whether that was the fanbase, the following, the coverage, the people, the ownership, the city — it’s beautiful, and has diversity.
"The potential was huge, it ticked every single box, but the only thing we didn’t have was winning. So how do you build that brand? How do you win?"
Ujiri had the answer. "You come in with a vision of how to start again," he said. "Of bringing in players and bringing in a team that is going to be attractive to the market. That’s what we tried to do at the time."
Recruiting defensive talent
Ujiri relied upon his own skills as a scout, together with an existing scouting team he oversaw, to bring unheralded, overlooked, and underappreciated athletes to Toronto.
"Scouting is my background," he told Business Insider. "I still do it as much as I can. It was one of the keys to how I grew up in the NBA. It’s something I just take pride in.
"My team of guys are so good at traveling around the world and finding talent. Sometimes it takes luck, and sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time."
One of the more significant talents Ujiri unearthed was the Cameroonian forward Pascal Siakam, who joined the Raptors in 2016 and developed into a potential All-Star player within three years because of his energy and ability at both ends of the court.
The NBA even pointed out at the start of the year that, with him on the team, the Raptors had a far better chance of winning than if he were absent. He became the team’s driving force — which is not bad going considering he was a 27th overall pick in the 2016 Draft.
Photo by AP Photo/Ben Margot
"With Pascal Siakam, obviously the African background helped quite a bit … but it’s all him," Ujiri told Business Insider.
"It’s all him becoming the player he has become. All we did was have a spot and drafted him at 27. Not many people could tell. Did we know his potential was this high? I don’t know … but you could see he had a feel, a passion, and a drive that is different to everybody else.
"The one thing I say about African kids is that sometimes we come and we just want to be role players … he came in and wanted to be a star. That was his goal, to be a star, and to win the league. And that’s what he has shown."
But Siakam wasn’t the only defensive recruit to make a substantial impact in Toronto’s first championship-winning NBA team, as Ujiri also added Marc Gasol, the 7-foot-1 Spanish center, to the roster in the middle of the season.
"I was really wary about mid-season trades because the team needs training camp, you need to prepare, and you need to come together," Ujiri told Business Insider.
The one thing I say about African kids is that sometimes we just want to be role players … he came in and wanted to be a star. That was his goal, to be a star, and to win the league.
"But he is just one of those guys who is smarter than most. He can adapt so easily, is such a selfless person, and an unbelievable human being.
"His basketball skills match almost any style you want to play. We really studied it, and we said, ‘You know what? We’re going to take this chance.’"
Part of the trade that saw Gasol arrive in Toronto placed the previous Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas at the Memphis Grizzlies along with C. J. Miles and Delon Wright.
"Jonas was good … it was hard parting ways with somebody we had been with for a while, taking this chance, but once Marc got there, you could tell he was willing to accomodate everybody, take a backseat or be aggressive when he needed to.
"It was phenomenal for all these guys to play with him, and for all he did for the ball club."
For Ujiri, his eye for talent was vindicated with the trades for Siakam and Gasol. Siakam drove the team on in a crucial Game 1 win over the Warriors in the NBA Finals, 118-109, while Gasol took little time becoming the anchor for the eventual NBA champions.
But they were not Ujiri’s only talent spots.
Ujiri also had the confidence to replace Dwane Casey, the coach who had guided the Raptors to a 59-game winning season in 2018, with an assistant coach at the franchise, Nick Nurse.
Promoting Nick Nurse
Why did Ujiri sack Casey and have so much confidence in Nurse? "To be honest, with all due respect to both of them … it was more just change that was needed. We had done the same thing for so long.
"Casey is a great coach … he won the coach of the year and he was really good for us. But when you repeat the same plays … it was tough. It just seemed to me we had to shift a little bit, make changes.
"Nick Nurse emerged as he fit with everything we were trying to do in the organization. We went through a real in-depth interview process, interviewed a lot of candidates, but he stood out in terms of fit.
"Hopefully that continues to last, he has done well in his first year," he said.
YouTube / Toronto Raptors
Nurse took over in June 2018 after coaching offense as a Raptors assistant for five years. His abilities in camp and training led to increases in passing and three-point attempts during his spell serving Casey, the NBA reported.
Ujiri lauded his basketball intelligence and tactical vision at the time, and speaking one year later, again heralded Nurse for the role he played in a collective outwitting of the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
"For us, the new thing in the NBA is having a two-way player," Ujiri said. "And we had to have as many two-way players as we could.
"So Marc Gasol is good on the defensive end and the offensive end. We really wanted to concentrate on guys who were extremely defensive, and sometimes even over aggressive. Marc is that way.
"The defensive abilities of Kawhi Leonard … he sets the tone. The aggressiveness of Kyle Lowry when he pushes the point guard and presses, and Fred VanVleet, it’s a lot of pressure.
"We felt we could build off that. Then you see guys like Pascal and OG [Anunoby] … they’re so good at switching. They’re big enough, they have quick enough feet to go from guarding point guard to guarding a big guy. It helps with how your team rotates defensively."
Referencing Game 6 in particular, when the Raptors won 100-94 to win the Series 4-2, Ujiri said: "Nick Nurse had a big game — and they executed it pretty good."
Hitting the jackpot with Kawhi Leonard
Photo by AP Photo/Lachlan Cunningham, Poo
Sealing the Kawhi Leonard trade was regarded, at the time, as a gamble. In his last year at the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard had missed almost an entire season with tendinopathy in his left quad.
That moment, we were like, ‘Wow!’ He will be incredible.’
It was unclear whether he could actually return to full fitness at the Raptors, and if he’d even hit top form in Toronto.
But for Ujiri, it was a gamble that paid off. The Raptors hit the jackpot.
"I don’t want to say he was hidden, I think maybe forgotten a little bit because of his injury … but wow, what a great player," Ujiri said.
"I think we got lucky. Lucky to do a trade. We got a fantastic, phenomenal player that came and really lifted our team and all the players we had. Some people say it was a gamble … I don’t really think so. He’d always been a great player, MVP in the league. He was a guy we wanted to take a chance on."
He went on: "I remember in the training camp they have this drill where they play one-on-one, and he just kept winning every single game. You could tell in that stretch the caliber of player he was, obviously coming off a tough year with injury, but that moment, we were like, ‘Wow! He will be incredible’."
And he was.
SBNation.com said Leonard’s dramatic buzzer-beating bucket in in the dying moments of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference semifinals "was definitive proof " that the Raptors made the right call trading for Leonard. "It was beautiful," the Vox Media-owned sports blog said.
Watch it once again right here:
From there, the Raptors beat the Bucks in the Conference Finals. Leonard was then named MVP in the NBA Finals against the Warriors after scoring 30 points in Game 3; 36 points, 12 rebounds, four steals, and two assists in Game 4, and 22 points, six rebounds, three assists, and two steals in Game 6.
It wasn’t all fun and games
Clearly, there were highs with Leonard on the team. But Leonard himself said there were also lows, particularly in the back office.
Ujiri said it was likely to do with the Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who felt "betrayed" that Ujiri ratified the Leonard trade in the first place, as it saw Lowry’s close friend DeMar DeRozan move to the Spurs in Leonard’s place.
"Kyle was very vocal about the trade," Ujiri said. He said it was important for him, and for Nurse, to nurture the gelling of everyone in the team. "Slowly we had to start bringing everybody together, to think one thing — and that’s championship. That takes a while.
"Especially Kawhi coming in, nobody knew him, and his personality is kinda quiet. Kyle had this going on. Then the rest of the team, you have a new coach [Nurse]. We really had to bring things together. To be honest, in sports, winning helps! And … you have to have luck."
As far as whether they’ve made their own luck, he said: "We try. A couple bounces here. The way sports is … every team will win, that’s just the way it works. But for us, it just aligned so well with these guys, these players, and they gelled. There was chemistry.
"A couple years ago we did a trade and got two unbelievable players, PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka, but it just didn’t fit. They were two unbelievable players but when you looked at them it wasn’t what our team needed.
"These guys fit," he said. "And that’s why I say luck."
An altercation with a sheriff
Photo by AP Foto/Tony Avelar
After Game 6 against the Warriors, the match that swung the balance of basketball power away from California and toward Canada — the first time the NBA championship had ever left the US — there was an alleged altercation between Ujiri and a sheriff, preventing Ujiri from getting to the court and celebrating with his team.
The incident went viral and was made into a Twitter moment. CBC Toronto reported that Ujiri was accused of assaulting a sheriff, and the Canadian publication was not the only media outlet to do so. The LA Times said Ujiri could face battery charges. ESPN said there was pushing and shoving between both parties. The fallout lasted weeks.
The Raptors released a statement, saying: "The incident is being looked at and we are cooperating with authorites. We look forward to resolving the situation."
Just days before Business Insider met Ujiri, he broke his silence on the issue and said he respects authority, according to Complex.
Of all the people to rescue Ujiri from the altercation with the sheriff, it appeared to be destiny that it was Lowry, the player he had seemingly had issues with because of the Leonard trade. But Lowry waved Ujiri onto the court, and gave him a heartfelt embrace.
"To me, those moments happen naturally, there’s nothing made up," Ujiri said. "That’s just how it is. It was very genuine. He came to get me. All the stuff I was going through … it was awesome.
"Everybody looks at when Kyle was upset because of the trade, but we have always had a big brother relationship," Ujiri said. "He’s never been a rude or disrespectful person. He is quiet, wanting it to be business-like, and was obviously hurt by that trade. But we’ve always had a bond in some kind of way."
After that, the trophy celebrations got underway.
Photo by AP Photo/Tony Avelar
Ujiri couldn’t join the partying as he had to catch a red-eye-flight to Toronto with his wife to go to his 5-year-old daughter’s graduation.
The players, meanwhile, went to Las Vegas.
"I did not go to Vegas … but, apparently, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," he joked.
Building a dynasty
Photo by AP Photo/Tony Avelar
Winning, if you listen closely to Ujiri, not only helps foster team unity but is something contagious. The Raptors, and Ujiri, of course, want to keep doing it. He even compares his reds team to soccer heavyweights Liverpool FC and Manchester United, two clubs in England who built dynasties at home and abroad, in the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League.
Losing Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers in July dents Ujiri’s dynasty plans somewhat, but as Business Insider reported at the start of the year, it was never really out of the question.
Regardless, Ujiri will want to focus on winning. "To win is 100% on our minds. That’s where we want to go.
"It’s a very simple formula in my opinion. Sports is about bringing people together and winning. That’s where we keep going in our organization."
An NBA team for the world
Photo by AP Photo/Tony Avelar
Ultimately, what appears to make Ujiri feel most proud, is yes, an NBA championship, but an NBA championship with a city and a club he has fallen in love with. One he said was "beautiful and had diversity."
He believes the Raptors are an NBA team for the entire world to enjoy.
"I feel this really helps youth around the world to dream big, to continue to have big dreams that you can achieve, and you can win.
"Look at Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Jeremy Lin, or Fred VanFleet, all these guys … it’s a group of guys from different places that just come together, play, and play to win.
"We’re the only team in the NBA outside the US," he said. "And we represent the NBA in an international way."
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