In Toronto last month, five Africans were among the recipients of what are reportedly the most expensive championship rings ever made. Each ring is a thick 14-karat gold band studded with 17 rubies and 650 diamonds. They were forged to celebrate the Toronto Raptors’ first-ever NBA title, secured in June this year, and awarded to the victorious players, coaching staff and executives.
Although the team is Canadian, and the league is American, the Raptors’ success has a distinctly pan-African feel. One of the players is Congolese, another is Nigerian and another is Cameroonian. And, on the executive/coaching and scouting staff, there are representatives from Nigeria, Eswatini, Egypt and South Africa. This high proportion of Africans is no mistake.
On Monday this week, in Johannesburg, a tall Nigerian man in a buba-style shirt and a colourfully-beaded bracelet spelling out the word “Masai” on his right wrist walked into a boardroom.
“I’m sorry for keeping you waiting, guys,” he said.
Masai Ujiri is a busy man. He is a high-level international sports executive in a multibillion dollar American industry, and the mastermind of the Raptors’ championship season: the first time a non-American team has won the championship in its history.
When asked by the Mail & Guardian about whether he felt it was important to have African presence in his organisation, Ujiri admitted that he may be biased towards his continent but that he genuinely believes it’s about expertise.
“I want excellence. I don’t just put people to put people. We look for people all over the world. The Africans I have there are the best … I think about this continent and it opens my mind, but it boils down to talent and being smart.”
For the same reason, Ujiri says he has made an effort to make his team more gender-balanced — the organisation has gone from employing one woman to 15.
“To me, it’s just [about] equal opportunity. It’s very simple. Again, I don’t hire women just to hire women. They help the organisation in a big way.”
Ujiri played basketball at college level in the United States and later professionally all over Europe for six years. His official NBA journey began in 2002 when he landed a job as an unpaid scout for Orlando Magic. He was eventually hired as an international scout by the Denver Nuggets, where he stayed for about four years before moving to the Raptors as a director of scouting. He became assistant general manager in 2008.
In 2010 he moved back to the Nuggets as general manager and executive vice-president of basketball operations. He won NBA executive of the year in 2013 before returning to Toronto the next year as president of basketball operations. He has been pivotal to the success of the team ever since — as has the strong contingent from his home continent.
This week, he was in Johannesburg participating in the African Investment Forum’s panel discussions and pushing his “sports is the next big thing in Africa” agenda. He implored governments not to appoint arbitrary politicians to sports leadership positions, encouraged them to support sports in general and to continue to build arenas on the continent.
While at the forum, Ujiri presented Toronto Raptors jerseys to Rwandan President Paul Kagame (who frequently attends NBA events) and African Development Bank president Akinwumi Adesina. A jersey for Cyril Ramaphosa was accepted by Gauteng Premier David Makhura on the South African president’s behalf.
This is not Ujiri’s first brush with politics. In 2018, he donated a basketball court to a community centre in Alego, Kenya, alongside Barack Obama. The facility was created at the urging of the former US president’s half-sister, Auma Obama.
Both Ujiri and Barack have been touted to be a part of the upcoming pan-African Basketball Africa League (BAL), although no official word or titles have been confirmed. When asked about his role in the BAL at the closed media session on Monday, Ujiri said he would “do everything he can to make this league work” and “whatever he is asked to do” by the new league and its supporters.
Ujiri’s rise to executive prominence is particularly noteworthy when one considers that the NBA is ranked fourth in professional international sports leagues when it comes to revenue.
His successes are drawing envious glances from the Raptors’ competitors. Recently, reports have been circulating that the New York Knicks, the NBA’s most lucrative team despite perennial lacklustre performances in recent years, are looking to lure Ujiri away from Toronto.
Regardless of whether he moves or not, Ujiri said that he will always share his victories with Africa: “Winning [the championship] on the global stage, that’s big because now we’re saying to ourselves, ‘Yes, we can. We can do it.’ And others can do it.”