Toronto Raptors President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri is taking Canadian basketball to new levels
Like many NBA executives, Masai Ujiri's journey from a Nigerian kid who admired Hakeem Olajuwon to the President of Basketball Operations for the Toronto Raptors is one filled with interesting twists, turns, and plenty of luck. Just five seasons into Masai's tenure atop the Raptors, Canada's team has become a relevant and consistent top three seed in the East with a win now and build for the future mentality. But what sets Ujiri apart is not just his journey, but his impact on the game of basketball in Canada for years to come.
When the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies joined the NBA in 1995 as part of the NBA's expansion into Canada, expectations for the teams were low, but the potential to grow the sport in Canada was huge. Unfortunately, the beginning of the Raptors franchise is not one to look back on fondly. Sure, the Raptors had memorable (but short lived) playoff appearances on the backs of Vince Carter and Chris Bosh, but more often than not the Raptors had unfortunate moments like when Jose Calderon was their best player or when Kobe Bryant torched them for 81 points. The relationship between Canadians and basketball was weak and hit a low point when the Grizzlies were forced to move from Vancouver to Memphis in 2001. That relocation marked the Raptors becoming Canada's only professional basketball team for the first time in history, but it wasn't until Ujiri that they became Canada's team.
Ujiri began his hike up the NBA hierarchy as an unpaid scout with the Orlando Magic. But as he explained on The Bill Simmons Podcast, just getting to that position required immense luck and determination. Firstly, Ujiri only got to meet with the Magic after driving an African prospect he knew to his pre-draft workout with the Magic. After the workout, Ujiri impressed Magic scouting director Gary Brokaw with his knowledge of international prospects, and when a different prospect cancelled his workout with the Magic, Ujiri and the prospect were invited back for another workout. Secondly, the Magic's European scout at the time had an issue so the team was looking for help, so after calling Magic General Manager John Gabriel every day for six months, Ujiri finally got in.
Several promotions allowed Ujiri to climb the NBA latter, eventually becoming the Raptors' assistant general manger in 2008, but even then Ujiri's future in the NBA was uncertain. In 2010, Ujiri was extremely close to leaving the Raptors to move back to Africa to work for the NBA office there to expand the game in his home continent. But after being swayed by friends in the industry, including Commissioner Adam Silver, Ujiri decided to stay the course and just one month later got the General Manager job in Denver. In 2013, Ujiri signed a five year deal as GM of the Raptors, enabling him to finally grow the game in Canada the way people hoped ever since the Raptors entered the NBA.
Since Ujiri took over in 2013, the Raptors have been one of the most successful NBA teams at competing now while simultaneously building for the future through the draft and player development. As Eric Koreen outlines, when the Raptors signed DeMar DeRozan to a five-year max contract in 2016, Ujiri had officially signed, drafted, or traded for every player on Raptors roster, officially making it his team. That includes the big-three of Lowry, DeRozen, and Ibaka along with a promising young bench of Ujiri draftee's including Delon Wright, Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo, and OG Anunoby.
Although the Raptors have never been able to beat LeBron James's Cleveland Cavaliers to make it to the NBA finals, what Ujiri has done is put his team in a position to succeed when the opportunity arises. With this year's Cavs off to a miserable start and Gordon Hayward's gruesome injury dropping the Boston Celtics out of the contender conversation, maybe the opportunity to win the East is now. Maybe it's in the future when promising young players like Delon Wright, Norman Powell, and OG Anunoby form the core of the team. Regardless, Ujiri's winning culture and successful drafting and player development has turned the Raptors into a franchise that's relevant now and for the foreseeable future, and his work is paying huge dividends for the growth of basketball in Canada.
Basketball has overtaken hockey and soccer as the most popular youth sport in Canada. Although there are many reasons for the game's rise in popularity, including relaxed immigration laws allowing in kids from Asia and Africa where the game is already popular, the Raptors are largely responsible.
When the NBA expanded into Canada, the idea was that locating the teams in two of the most populated cities would give people a team to get behind and Canada's young men the ability to grow up watching players they would strive to emulate. But it wasn't until Ujiri turned the Raptors into a competitive team with more than one all-star that the Raptors really developed a following and became Canada's team.
"What you are seeing now with the growth of the sport, is the first generation of kids who have grown up with the NBA being a strong element in their lives," NBA Canada's general manager Dan MacKenzie explained. "A lot of the growth is related to the increased number of NBA games these children have seen on television... With the advent of teams in Canada, it's a lot easier for Canadians to experience the NBA in a way that they couldn't have 20-years ago."
The 2017 season saw 12 Canadians on opening night rosters, marking the forth consecutive year of Canada carrying the distinct honour of featuring the most international-born players in the NBA. And as much as Ujiri's Raptors have played a part in developing these Canadian talents, this is just the start. Ujiri has built the Raptors to last, which is to say he has built a passion for basketball in Canada to last. Now Canadian kids might be growing up emulating the footwork of DeMar DeRozan, but in five years they could be mimicking how Norman Powell attacks the rim or the intelligence of Delon Wright.
Basketball is growing in Canada, and thanks to Masai Ujiri's succesful managment of the Toronto Raptors, it looks like it will stay that way.