ON DEC.5 the reconstituted Cavaliers played at Toronto's Air Canada Centre for the first time, and, strangely, LeBron James was not the star of the night. In fact, the best action took place in the adjoining practice facility, which was decked out with a red carpet, ornate chandeliers, sleek black leather couches, a raw bar and a makeshift stage. The Cavs had come to town on the first anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, the lifelong hero of Masai Ujiri, the Raptors' president and general manager. To commemorate the occasion, Ujiri had organized a $2,500-a-ticket pregame fund-raiser for Mandela's eponymous foundation and for Ujiri's own foundation, Giants of Africa. Ujiri was raised in Nigeria, and giving back to his home continent is one of his consuming passions, right up there with winning basketball games. He was a driving force behind the creation of Basketball Without Borders, a 14-year-old initiative by the NBA and FIBA that promotes sport, health and education around the world. Giants of Africa, founded in 2003, conducts camps across the continent that teach life skills as well as hoops fundamentals. Ujiri says nearly 100 campers have received basketball scholarships to U.S. colleges.
The first African man to run a North American professional sports team, Ujiri has already been the NBA's Executive of the Year—in 2013, as GM of the Nuggets, who won 57 games with a roster of team players that he built by trading one-note superstar Carmelo Anthony. In Toronto the 45-year-old Ujiri has, through sheer force of personality, engineered a culture change that turned the Raptors into an Eastern Conference contender (33--15 through Sunday, leading the Atlantic Division by 14 games). "But none of this means anything if I can't give back to the people of Africa," he says. "To create opportunities for the kids back home, to set a positive example, to show the people there a way forward ... that's what drives me."
Apart from uttering a certain oath about Brooklyn at a pep rally during last season's playoffs, Ujiri has tried to avoid the spotlight. A master networker, he talked Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson and Dikembe Mutombo into flying in for the Mandela fund-raiser and participating in a panel discussion about the great man's impact. Raptors staffers placed a chair on the stage for Ujiri, but he ordered it removed and attempted to hide in the crowd—which was pretty much impossible, since the night was as much a testimonial to Ujiri as to Mandela. The 6'4" GM also found it hard to blend in because he cut such a stylish figure (tall collar, tight suit, lots of cuff, shoes with buckles) and was accompanied by his stunning wife, Ramatu, a former model. They're one of the most glamorous couples in Toronto, if not all of Canada.
As the tip-off against Cleveland neared, Johnson finally forced Ujiri onto the stage, to a standing ovation. Ujiri said nothing, merely touched his heart then clasped his hands while bowing to the audience. As the crowd began to clear out, Ujiri's boss, Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, noted that $500,000 had just been raised for charity and said, "You can't buy this kind of goodwill in the community. Masai is the perfect ambassador for what we're trying to accomplish here. In many ways he's become the face of the franchise." And this was before Ujiri surprised a bus full of fans by taking a five-hour ride with them to a game in Detroit on Dec. 19. Along the way he taught them British soccer chants and the appropriate place to sub in Raaap-tors for Liiiv-erpool.
The rise of Ujiri and his team is creating a tectonic shift in Toronto's sporting landscape. The Mandela celebration coincided with an ugly spat between the Maple Leafs (48 years and counting since their last Stanley Cup) and their supporters. The players failed to raise their sticks in a traditional salute at game's end on Nov. 20, and after several games spectators threw Leafs jerseys onto the Air Canada Centre ice—the ultimate sign of disrespect. In stark contrast, a giddy, raucous vibe fills the same arena when the Raptors play. This season, for the first time in 13 years, they sold all their season tickets, and merchandise sales are up nearly 300% over last year. As one Toronto sportswriter puts it, "The Leafs' crowd is one of the worst in sports, and the Raptors' one of the best." Leiweke says that in a few years the Raptors will be the most beloved team in this staunchest of hockey towns, a laughable notion when they were born as an expansion squad in 1995--96.
Ujiri's popularity was evident as he strode the concourse of the Air Canada Centre following the Mandela fund-raiser: B-boys took off their hats in salute, moms corralled him for selfies, kids tugged on his arm asking for autographs. Mutombo, now the NBA's global ambassador, couldn't help but laugh. "Who can resist that beautiful baby face?" he said of Ujiri before turning serious. "Mandela's life becomes more significant when the next generation follows his example. That is Masai. He lifts us all."
Ujiri used to enjoy watching home games from the tunnel near the Raptors' locker room, but the fans in that section paid so much attention to him that he now retreats to a tiny room in the bowels of the arena where his video staff tracks the action on nine TVs and five computers. During the Cavs game, Ujiri slouched on a couch. "I'm sorry I don't seem more excited," he said. "It was a great event for [Mandela], and I know the magnitude of it will hit me at some point. It's just tough for me to feel it now when the team is losing." The Raptors were struggling without the scoring touch of All-Star swingman DeMar DeRozan, 25, who was out with a groin injury. But Ujiri is a consummate pleaser, so he rallied with a few more thoughts on the fund-raiser: "It was amazing just to hear Magic Johnson say my name. As a boy growing up, I never dreamed such a thing would be possible. To imagine.... That's it, Kyle, take over."
The player filling the various screens right then was point guard Kyle Lowry, 28, who despite his immense talent had been considered a locker room cancer during his first six seasons, with the Rockets and the Grizzlies. Ujiri has spent the last two years mentoring Lowry, and it's no accident that he has blossomed into an All-Star starter and team leader. Last summer he was a free agent, and his decision to stay put with a four-year, $48 million deal was another milestone in changing the perception that Toronto is too cold, too remote, too Canadian to attract or keep big-time talent. A $32 million practice center is slated to open by the time Toronto hosts the All-Star Game in 2016. "There are no excuses anymore," says Ujiri.
Still, he understands the box-office value of cultivating an us-against-them mentality. On the eve of the intense first-round playoff series against the Nets last April, the Raptors brought out an ad campaign—"We The North"—that galvanized support across Canada. During a related appearance in front of thousands of crazed fans (and more than a few camera crews), Ujiri famously shouted "F--- Brooklyn!" It was a surprising breach of etiquette from a man known for his gentility. Ujiri has long been close friends with Adam Silver, whom he lured to South Africa for a Basketball Without Borders camp two years ago. "One of my first fines as commissioner," Silver says wistfully, referring to the $25,000 the league docked Ujiri for the vulgarity. "It was a little awkward when I called to tell him, but he wound up trying to put me at ease, which is typical Masai. It's also telling that he personally called nearly every general manager in the league to apologize."
Yet those two words cemented Ujiri's standing as a folk hero in Toronto and energized the entire organization, especially the guys who played their hearts out before falling 104--103 in Game 7. "That got us hyped up, man," says DeRozan. "We watched that tape over and over. For him to rally the team like that, it shows what a great leader he is."
Many players consider their GMs to be crosses between persnickety school principals and overbearing fathers-in-law, but Ujiri is more like a big brother, albeit one not afraid to tell hard truths. "I love him like family," says guard Greivis Vàsquez. "I would go to battle for him any day. The other guys might get to him eventually, but they'd have to take me out first."
I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward.
UJIRI'S LONG walk to the NBA is a tale of hustle, happenstance, friendship and, ultimately, optimism. "I kept going," he says, "because I didn't know any other way."
He grew up the second of four kids in Zaria, in northern Nigeria. His mother was a doctor and his father a hospital administrator, and in Ujiri's telling, his was an ideal childhood defined by sports and friends, in a house full of love that crackled with political conversation. (Back then Mandela was in prison, and the Soweto fires that burned on the Ujiris' black-and-white TV were a reminder of uglier African realities.)
Soccer was a passion for Masai, and after school he would play pickup games on the fields of Ahmadu Bello University. To get there he had to cross a couple of basketball courts. Every now and then he and his pals would shoot around with a soccer ball, but it wasn't until he was 13 that he got serious about hoops. The university's basketball coach was an American, Oliver Johnson, and he provided a portal to a distant world: VHS tapes of NBA All-Star Games, Phi Slamma Jamma games featuring Nigerian hero Akeem Olajuwon, and other exotica. "I memorized every line in Michael Jordan's Come Fly with Me," says Ujiri. "There were quite a few times I got my ear pulled because I was at a friend's house watching the tapes and came home really late." Having grown to 6 feet by age 13, he developed a game heavy on highlights: "I was probably the best cherry picker in the history of African basketball. I got so many dunks, it was crazy."
When he was 20, Ujiri moved to Seattle to live with a Nigerian family as part of an exchange program. He played basketball for Nathan Hale High and tried to sell himself to junior colleges, to little avail. Ujiri is built like a flamingo; his friends love to joke about his skinny legs, but juco coaches seemed less amused. Desperate, in 1993 he invited himself along when his boyhood friend Godwin Owinje went to play at Bismarck (N.D.) State College. "Masai came for a visit and decided to never leave," then Bismarck State coach Buster Gillis says with a chuckle. "He had that great smile, that great charisma. He had a lot of skill, too, though he was always very critical of himself."
Ujiri and Owinje shared an apartment but couldn't afford a car, and the 10-minute walk to campus was often so frigid in winter that they arrived with little feeling in their extremities. (Still, Gillis points out, they weren't late to a single practice in two years.) Ujiri was already displaying some of the qualities that would serve him well in NBA front offices. "He was like a player-coach even back then," says Owinje. "He saw the game differently from the rest of us." Of course that meant Ujiri often called a play springing himself for a backdoor lob. For all his good cheer away from the court, he was "a different beast once the game started," says Owinje. "He didn't take crap from anybody—he would start a fight in a second. If he called a play and you were in the wrong place, he would cuss you out."
Ujiri transferred to Montana State--Billings in 1996 but left after one semester to play professionally in England. Over the next six years he played for B-level teams there and in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Greece. In a typical tale from that era, Ujiri took four months' salary and bonuses in cash (around $30,000) and stuffed it into a small leather bag, which he then left on a luggage cart at London's Waterloo Station while changing trains. He rushed back 20 minutes later to find the bag, and money, undisturbed. "You need some luck in life," says Ujiri, "and I have been lucky with God's help." As for his playing career, he says, "I wasn't a great player, but I got a lot out of the game. I saw the world and made many lifelong friends. Godwin and I had a saying: Use basketball, don't let basketball use you."
In 2002, Ujiri retired—"The market dried up for cherry-picking guards who can't shoot," he says—and set out to find another life in basketball. At a summer league a couple of years earlier he had chatted up David Thorpe, who was just beginning to build his practice as a personal trainer to NBA players. Ujiri had some kind words for Thorpe's work with their friend Olumide Oyedeji, a second-round pick of the SuperSonics in 2000. "You don't hear thank you a lot in this business," says Thorpe, "so I always remembered that. We had exchanged emails, but I assumed I would never hear from him. I was wrong. That's one of Masai's strengths: He reaches out."
Ujiri thought he'd like college coaching but had no clue how to break into that cliquish world, so Thorpe invited him to the 2002 Final Four. The last time they had seen each other Ujiri had "a crazy haircut that made him look like Kid from Kid 'n Play," says Thorpe. When Ujiri arrived in Atlanta, he had a freshly shaved head, a crisp suit and indefatigable energy. What he didn't have was a cellphone, so he started giving out Thorpe's number. "Within a few days I couldn't use my own phone because of all the calls Masai was getting," Thorpe says. "The guy is warm, he's charming, people just like being around him. He networks like no one I've ever seen. And I think that was when he began to understand his value. What coaches at every level care about is access to talent. Masai knew about every 6'10" kid in Africa and Europe."
While in Atlanta, Ujiri caught wind that Uche Nsonwu-Amadi, a 7-foot Nigerian acquaintance who had just completed his junior season at Wyoming, was doing predraft workouts in Orlando. Nsonwu-Amadi needed help navigating this new world, so Ujiri hustled down to Orlando. He wound up driving Nsonwu-Amadi to his workout for the Magic, and while there he ingratiated himself with various team staffers, including GM John Gabriel, who slid Ujiri his business card. "I called John Gabriel almost every day for six months," Ujiri says. "I never got a call back. Finally, and I think it was just to get rid of me, he offered to credential me as their international scout. They couldn't pay me, and they'd only cover a little bit of my expenses, but I didn't care. I just wanted to work as hard as I could to build relationships."
Ujiri cleaned out his savings account and began crisscrossing the globe, calling upon his huge network of friends and acquaintances. If there was a hoops gathering in Johannesburg or Madrid or Rio, chances are Ujiri was in town, sleeping on a couch and typing up his reports late at night at an Internet café. (He also squeezed in a stint as co-coach of the Nigerian junior national team, exposing him to more talent.) In Belgrade he crashed with his old friend Obinna Ekezie, who was playing for Red Star. Returning home to Ekezie's apartment late one night Ujiri found himself locked out and unable to reach his friend. He didn't have the money for a hotel room, so he hunkered down in the doorway for the night. "It was the middle of winter!" says Ekezie. "Masai just shook it off like it was nothing. It was not an easy life, but he kept going because he believed he was destined for great things."
Jeff Weltman of the Nuggets took notice of Ujiri's hustle and insight and helped get him hired in 2003 as a full-time scout, with a salary of $40,000. Four years later Ujiri was promoted to director of scouting. Despite the increasing popularity and availability of quantitative data, he believes player evaluation is more art than science. "It's something you feel," he says. "It's an instinct. Our business is competitive, and information is key, but you can't measure a guy's heart. That's why you have to go see them play. Tape doesn't tell you everything."
In 2007, with the Denver front office in disarray, Ujiri was hired by the Raptors as director of global scouting. A year later he earned a promotion to assistant general manger. His boss at the time, Bryan Colangelo, ascribed Ujiri's success in large part to his "feel for the players."
Ujiri's discerning eye also spotted Ramatu Barry, a fashion model who was working at Saks as a sales associate. He claims to have tried on 19 pairs of jeans that day just to buy more time to flirt with Ramatu, whose roots are in Guinea and Sierra Leone. They were engaged in early 2010, and that summer Denver offered Ujiri its top front-office job. He was told the absolute highest the team would go in salary was $450,000. "It was a little below market rate, but I had to be smart," Ujiri says. "It was a one-in-a-million opportunity." Yet when then Nuggets CEO Paul Andrews called to talk money, Ujiri showed some steel. "I told him I put $50,000 a year into my camps in Africa, so I needed the number to go to $500,000," says Ujiri. "I felt the cause was worth fighting for. He says, 'O.K., I'll call you back.' I hang up the phone, and I'm thinking, What the hell, man, you just blew this s---. My heart is beating so fast. A few minutes later Paul Andrews calls back and says, 'Congratulations, you are the new vice president of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets.' I was overwhelmed. It had been a long, hard road, and so many people had helped me along the way. I felt so humbled and so proud—but not for myself so much as for all the people in Africa. I knew this would mean something to them."
The honeymoon was over before it began. Anthony, an impending free agent, had already asked to be traded.
If you want to go quickly, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.
UJIRI HOSTS two annual weeklong camps in Nigeria, one for the country's top 50 prospects and one for big men, 6'8" and up. They are must-sees for savvy college recruiters and pro scouts. "Those camps can literally change your life," says Augustine Okosun, who didn't take up basketball until he was 17. He was 6'10" and had the quick feet of a former soccer player. He caught wind of Ujiri's camp and decided to go. There were a few problems: It's invitation-only, and he hadn't been invited; the camp had started two days earlier; and it was in Zaria, 14 hours away, and he had no car. "Didn't matter," says Okosun. "It was my destiny." Okosun is from southern Nigeria, which is predominantly English-speaking and Christian. He took three long bus rides north, but the end of the line was still two hours from Zaria, a heavily Muslim city. It was around midnight, and the language of the area was Hausa, in which he is not fluent. "People said I was risking my life for this camp," says Okosun. "I tried not to think about it, but for sure there was some fear." He hitched a ride in the back of a farmer's pickup truck and reached the camp at 2 a.m. With nowhere to sleep, he curled up on the floor of the gym.
Okosun didn't know what Ujiri looked like, but when camp began in the morning, he had no trouble identifying him. "He had a presence," Okosun says. "He was a cool guy, very friendly, but he commanded respect from everyone." Okosun pleaded his case. Ujiri was impressed by his fortitude but said he didn't have an extra jersey to give him. Then, providentially, another player rolled his ankle. Okosun peeled the sweaty jersey from the guy's back and put it on. Ujiri could only laugh and let him play.
Okosun had never had formal coaching, but he displayed just enough raw promise to get invited to an ensuing Basketball Without Borders camp. There he caught the eye of a coach at Marist College, who helped arrange a guardianship for him in the U.S. Okosun eventually matriculated at Seton Hall and spent two seasons there before transferring to NAIA Northwood University in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he played for Rollie Massimino and earned a degree in business management. Okosun has been climbing the ranks of international basketball ever since. In 2013--14 he played for a Romanian team in the top Euro league and last summer won a championship in the Dominican Republic. He now makes good money playing in Egypt.
"I'm getting better every year," Okosun says. At 28 he still dreams of a shot at the NBA, and it's easy to imagine him as a productive backup; he's a tremendous athlete with good footwork and a soft shooting touch. He says he is "humbled and honored" that Ujiri remembers him. "What he has done, it means everything to us Africans," says Okosun. "It means that any of us can do anything."
Silver saw Ujiri's influence during his visit to Basketball Without Borders. When Ujiri wants the attention of the campers, he does a singsong chant that the players repeat, call-and-response style. "There's something kind of magical about that melody," says Silver. "He's the Pied Piper for a whole continent." The commissioner can imagine Ujiri going into politics someday. Behind the desk of Ujiri's office in Toronto, not far from a large Mandela poster, is a picture of Ujiri with Barack Obama. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is a friend and mentor; Ujiri has been a guest at his home and was invited by Kagame to speak at a Pan-African leadership conference last year.
Ujiri has also become a graceful voice on the op-ed page of Toronto's Globe and Mail. After nearly 300 schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria, he wrote a passionate column pleading for help, linking his own daughter, Zahara, with the plight of the nameless girls. "I am speaking because sport has given me a voice that rings out in North America," Ujiri wrote. "I want to do whatever is in my power to help end this tragedy." When it came to light that Hawks general manager Danny Ferry had disparaged free-agent forward Luol Deng as having "some African in him," Ujiri's conciliatory column urged a greater understanding and empathy for different cultures. "We are all human," he wrote. "We all make mistakes.... My hope is that we will soon see Danny Ferry at a Basketball Without Borders camp as well, so that he may come to know us. Because when we know better, we do better."
Ujiri loves to talk politics but adamantly denies any interest in seeking office. Politicians are constrained by lines on a map and the limits of others' vision. Ujiri knows firsthand that basketball can be a powerful agent of change. "I dream bigger than politics," he says. "I have to keep figuring out how to use my voice and platform to help and guide more youth in Africa."
A leader ... is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.
ONCE ANTHONY demanded to be traded, the Nuggets seemed to lose all leverage, because if a deal didn't happen, he would surely walk as a free agent at the end of the 2010--11 season. Ujiri saw the situation differently. He knew that the Knicks badly wanted a marquee player and that the Nets were craving a star to help them open their new arena in Brooklyn. He believed that the longer he waited, the itchier each team would become. Day after day the Nuggets' brain trust—Ujiri, president Josh Kroenke, vice president Pete D'Alessandro—sat tight while the basketball world obsessed over what they would do. "When you're in that position there is tremendous pressure internally and externally to make a deal, because not doing so can be seen as a sign that you're not decisive," says Wayne Embry, 77, the NBA's first African-American general manager, who is a longtime mentor to Ujiri and is now a senior adviser to the Raptors. "It's easy to get pushed into a mistake. Especially for a rookie GM."
Eventually the Nets dropped out of the bidding, but Ujiri held firm. "Sometimes," says Kroenke, "you have to put your balls on the table. The pressure was going up and up, but Masai was fearless." The Nets came back a few weeks later, though only the Nuggets knew about it. At the All-Star break, as the trade deadline loomed, a secret late-night meeting was convened at the hotel suite of Knicks owner James Dolan, bringing together Ujiri and Kroenke with Anthony and his representatives. It was the first time Dolan knew the Nets were back in the picture. "The energy in the room," Ujiri says, "was off the charts."
A couple of days later the Knicks made the deal. The Nuggets got everything they wanted, and more than most observers had thought possible. In all, 10 players on Denver's 2012--13 roster were there as a result of the trade. Recently there has been some revisionist history about the deal, centered largely on the regrettable four-year, $42million extension Ujiri gave to small forward Danilo Gallinari. "The criticism is fair," says Ujiri. "No GM ever gets 100% of his decisions right. You do your best and hope you can live with the mistakes."
It was a sense of unfinished business that led Ujiri back to Toronto in May 2013; he felt he had left before he'd had a chance to significantly reshape the team. In the first recruitment meeting with Leiweke, Ujiri spent the opening hour talking about Africa and what he hopes to accomplish there. Leiweke pledged institutional support, and Ujiri knew the international flair of Toronto would give him a more receptive audience than he could find in the Rocky Mountains. Getting out of the cutthroat Western Conference was undeniably attractive too. Ujiri was made copresident of the team alongside his longtime advocate, Bryan Colangelo. It was an unwieldy arrangement, complicated by friction between Colangelo and Leiweke. Colangelo stepped down only a month after Ujiri arrived, and some Toronto sportswriters see Ujiri having a hand in the resignation of his mentor. Both men strongly deny it, but it was not unhelpful to Ujiri for people to think he has a ruthless side.
One of his first acts was to unload forward Andrea Bargnani and his bloated $11.5 million salary on the Knicks—do they ever learn?—for cash, three players, a first- and two second-round picks, which all by itself might be worth another Executive of the Year award. When the Raptors lost 12 of their first 19 games, Ujiri struck again, dumping leading scorer Rudy Gay (and his $17.9 million salary) and two benchwarmers for a quartet of hungry role players: Vàsquez, forward-center Chuck Hayes, forward Patrick Patterson and swingman John Salmons. Gay was a ball-stopper offensively and displayed minimal interest in defense. His departure allowed a callow core to come together, producing a special alchemy. Says DeRozan, "There might be teams that are more talented than us, but I guarantee you can't find a team that's closer than we are. That definitely goes a long way."
Trading a pair of talented but flawed stars had allowed Ujiri to rebuild two teams in his image. "Masai is old-school," says Raptors coach Dwane Casey. "He believes in playing defense. He believes in playing hard. He believes in sharing the ball. Don't be fooled by his good manners; there's strength and toughness there. No one ever doubts he's the boss."
UJIRI ALSO believes that culture change is accomplished through deeds, not words. He seems to rarely sleep, and Raptors staffers long ago grew accustomed to his middle-of-the night emails. He is secure enough to hire top people and let them do their jobs. ("I also overpay them," Ujiri says, "so the only way they'll leave is for a much bigger title.") Another core belief is in treating people at every level of the organization with respect and honesty. "It sounds simple," Ujiri says, "but many in positions of power don't seem to do it. When you do, your people feel valued, and naturally they work harder and perform better."
Lowry is the perfect case study. DeRozan calls him "a headstrong, pit bull type of dude, just like Masai." Ujiri began reaching out to his point guard as soon as he took the job, culminating in a meeting during the 2013 preseason in which he brought Lowry together with Embry, Leiweke and Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Raptors. "Masai laid it out to Kyle that he was very important to the franchise, and this is what was expected of him, and we were all there to support him," says Embry. "Kyle listened intently and seemed very moved. Over the years not enough attention has been given to understanding who players are and what their needs may be, but Masai has that innate gift. It was a powerful meeting."
Says Lowry, "The number one thing was that Masai treated me like a man. I walked out feeling like I didn't want to let those guys down." He's been a different player ever since.
DeRozan tore a muscle in his groin on Nov. 28. In the Raptors' first game without him they lost to the lowly Lakers in overtime. At 1:43 a.m., Lowry texted Ujiri: I've got to shoot the ball better. Just wanted to let you know I'll play better. We are going to be fine without DeMar.
UJIRI: Thanks, Kyle. I'm not worried at all. I trust you. It sometimes takes time to get into a rhythm with a key player missing.
LOWRY: I will do my job and make sure we stay on top.
The Raptors went 12--9 in DeRozan's absence and remain in good position to attain the East's No. 2 playoff seed, largely because Lowry was the conference's player of the month in December, averaging 22.3 points and 8.9 assists.
"That's leadership," Ujiri says. The topic has long fascinated him. He likes to read about the lives of basketball greats and figures in U.S. and African history, but he always comes back to Mandela. "I just love that he was a normal guy, and that he made many mistakes in his life," Ujiri says. "Before he was taken away to prison, he had an almost ordinary life. But inside of him was something incredible waiting to come out. How do you mix being so fierce and fearless with so much love and compassion for others? Even now it amazes me."
Ujiri's unique life has informed his leadership style. One day when he was 10, he and his family were enjoying a picnic on Baguada Lake, north of Zaria, when they heard screams coming from the water. A young boy had disappeared while playing with friends. Masai's father, Michael, dived to the bottom of the lake over and over, frantically trying to find the boy. After an hour he finally gave up, devastated by the loss of a child he had never known. "My dad was always telling me you can affect other people in little ways," Ujiri says. "That day affected me. I saw that we have a responsibility to each other. I saw that every life has value. I've never forgotten that."
"NONE OF THIS MEANS ANYTHING IF I CAN'T GIVE BACK TO AFRICA," SAYS UJIRI. "TO SHOW PEOPLE THERE'S A WAY FORWARD ... THAT'S WHAT DRIVES ME."
"THE GUY IS WARM, HE'S CHARMING, PEOPLE JUST LIKE BEING AROUND HIM," THORPE SAYS OF UJIRI. "HE NETWORKS LIKE NO ONE I'VE EVER SEEN."
AS THE TRADE DEADLINE NEARED, UJIRI HELD FIRM. "THE PRESSURE WAS GOING UP AND UP," SAYS KROENKE, "BUT MASAI WAS FEARLESS."
Photograph by Jonathan Bielaski For Sports Illustrated
NORTH STAR In piloting the Raptors toward the top of the Eastern Conference, the Nigeria-raised Ujiri has become beloved in Canada.
JONATHAN BIELASKI FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
GLOBAL VIEW Ujiri shares his story at Basketball Without Borders (above), but he lies low when Toronto plays (left).
NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
RON TURENNE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
MAGIC TOUCH While Johnson (above) paid Ujiri a compliment, his deals involving Anthony (15) and Lowry (7) gained his peers' respect.
DAVE SANDFORD/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (LOWRY)
[See caption above]
JOHN BIEVER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ANTHONY)
[See caption above]
COURTESY OF MASAI UJURI
LOOKING OUT As co-coach of the Nigerian juniors, Ujiri won an African title—and got a close-up peek at new talent.
JONATHAN BIELASKI FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SEEING IS BELIEVING With Zahara in his arms, Ujiri took in what he has built in a season and a half in Toronto: sellouts and a title contender.