In Toronto, he is beloved as the architect behind the Raptors’ first NBA championship title. But well before he became the trailblazing president of a major-league basketball team, Masai Ujiri was known as a passionate advocate for the role of sport to educate and enrich the lives of African youth.
Today, for his achievements as an NBA team president and a humanitarian committed to meaningful social change, Ujiri is being awarded a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from the University of Toronto.
Born in the U.K., Ujiri spent his childhood in Nigeria. He and his peers played soccer, but Ujiri used to pass a basketball court on the way to school and would often stop to shoot a few hoops – with a soccer ball. “I fell in love with the game,” he told GQ magazine. “I was more talented in soccer, but the game of basketball – it just blew me away.”
He moved to the U.S. when he was 13 to attend high school in the hopes of one day playing basketball for a living. He attended college in Montana and then spent his 20s playing professionally in Europe.
By the early 2000s, Ujiri decided he wanted to stay in basketball, but not as a player. He coached the junior Nigerian national team and caught the eye of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, becoming an (unpaid) international scout.
He was lured to the Denver Nuggets with a paid position and, over the next several years, worked in increasingly senior jobs for Denver and the Toronto Raptors before being named the Raptors’ president and general manager in 2013. He was the first African to lead a North American major-league sports team – a distinction that Ujiri struggles with. “I don’t want to be the only one. I hate that,” he told CNN. “It’s fine, being the first – I have a problem with being the only one.”
In his senior role, Ujiri says it’s his responsibility to promote diversity. “We have to give more Black people opportunity in our own institutions and organizations,” he said in the CNN interview. “It's not only ‘hire an intern’ or ‘hire a diversity and inclusion officer.’ We have to be in positions where decisions are being made.” He has also advocated for a more prominent management role for women in professional basketball and the business world.
As a leader, Ujiri is known for his exceptional ability to spot talent. In Toronto, he took a team not known for winning and turned it into a playoff contender. In 2019, the Raptors earned their first NBA championship title in their 24-year franchise history – a testament to Ujiri’s skills as president, but also to his passion for the game. “We all want to be ambitious, but passion will lead you to incredible places,” he said in the GQ interview. “I will serve [the game] with every last breath in my body, with all the blood in my body. I believe in [it] that much.”
In 2003, Ujiri founded Giants of Africa, a non-profit basketball camp active in 10 African countries that aims to give young players – both boys and girls – the skills to compete at an international level.
“There are millions of kids on the continent who are better than I ever was at basketball, and there are millions who are smarter than I ever was,” he told Sports Illustrated. “People hear ‘Africa’, and they think about [charity] commercials, or safari tours and animals. It’s our responsibility to help change that perspective.”
Since the camp’s launch, more than 80 attendees have graduated to play in high school or university in the U.S.; 20 now play professionally in Europe.
It’s important to Ujiri that the camps welcome girls. “We want to give these girls the opportunity to build confidence. We want them to learn how to work together,” he said in the same article. “We always say, ‘Oh, my wife runs my home,’ or, "Oh, my daughter, she’s so great.’ Then when it comes to real life, in the workplace, we don't give them the same opportunities. We have to start sending a different message at a young age.”
Giants of Africa also teaches youth about opportunities for other careers in sport – in management, for example, journalism, medicine and psychology. Life skills are an important part of the program, too. “We try to teach camaraderie and working together,” Ujiri said in Sports Illustrated. “Being on time. Being honest … [Being] confident in who you are and where you come from.”