As Canada and Toronto Raptors celebrate a first ever NBA championship, they have a Nigerian-Kenyan basketball executive to thank.
At the very top, Masai Ujiri has gone from being an unpaid NBA scoutwith Orlando Magic to leading the Raptors franchise to a historic NBA championship in 17 years.
As Toronto Raptors’ president of basketball operations, Ujiri’s sharp deal-making helped the Raptors assemble a roster of players capable of making history—playing in a first ever NBA Finals and winning the championship. The most defining move Ujiri pulled came last summer when he engineered a trade to sign Kawhi Leonard, an enigmatic former NBA champion with San Antonio Spurs. Leonard went on to score the most postseason points in the NBA and picked up the Finals MVP award as Raptors defeated Golden State Warriors, the team that has won three of the last four championships and are ranked as one of the greatest of all time.
With his skills as an executive now crowned with a championship win, there’s already evidence that Ujiri’s stock has soared even higher: The Washington Wizards are reportedly set to offer Ujiri their president of basketball operations position with a package that includes a $10 million annual salary and potential equity.
While the championship win with Toronto is Ujiri’s first, there was already evidence of his high-level boardroom prowess: as executive vice president in charge of basketball operations at Denver Nuggets, he was named the NBA executive of the year in 2013—the only non-American ever to win the award. It’s an award he’s likely to win again this year.
Ujiri is not the only African at the heart of Raptors’ fairy-tale win. True to his well-documented commitment to discovering and promoting African talent as director of NBA Basketball Without Borders, Ujiri has signed on two Africans—upstart Pascal Siakam (Cameroon) and veteran Serge Ibaka (Congo)—to the Raptors’ roster. Siakam, the 6′ 9″ Cameroonian forward who didn’t play organized basketball till he turned 17, defied analysts’ expectations to play a stellar role on the way to the championship: he combined with Leonard to score the second most postseason points by teammates in NBA history.