Giving back to the society was always upper most in his mind, hence the idea of the Giant of Africa/Top 50 Camp Basketball where young Africans could develop their basketball skills and also prepare for the future. The camp which is now in its 12th year in Nigeria has also been taken to three other African countries - Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda. Masai Ujiri, who just returned from South Africa where he was the team Manager of Team Africa in their encounter with Team World in the historic first NBA in Africa in this interview with Kunle Adewale revealed some of the challenges facing the camp, saying Nigeria must focus on building and developing facilities if she is dreaming of catching up with the rest of the world in sports
Whenever basketball is being discussed in the United States of America and beyond, Hakeem Olajuwon readily comes to mind especially after his successes with the Houston Rockets. But beyond Olajuwon is another Nigerian - Masai Ujiri, who broke the barriers and rose to become the General Manager of NBA Club - Toronto Raptors, the first by an African. In 2012/13 season, he was voted the NBA Executive of the Year. In what has become a yearly ritual, Ujiri was in the country to organise his yearly Top-50 Basketball Camp.
After ending a professional playing career in 2002, Masai Ujiri worked as a youth coach in Nigeria. But it was during a National Basketball Association summer league game in Boston that he met David Thorpe, who introduced him to college coaches. He started accompanying young Nigerian players to draft tryout in Orlando when he impressed scouting director, Gary Brokaw, who then introduced him to Coach Doc Rivers and General Manager, John Gabriel. He then became an unpaid scout for Orlando Margic paying his own way when he had to and sharing rooms with scouts or players when he could.
Later Jeff Weltman, then a young Nuggets executive, introduced him to Nuggets General Manager, Kiki Vandewehe, who then hired Ujiri on salary as an international scout.
"Denver Nuggets took a chance on me and it thus came a time when this opportunity was so big and it put me on some form of a stage, where I can affect basketball a little bit more, especially on the continent here. I had a great run in Nuggets; they gave me an unbelievable opportunity to be a first time General Manager," he recalled.
After four seasons with the Nuggets, he was hired by Bryan Colangelo of the Toronto Raptors as their director of global scouting. Ujiri became the Raptors' assistant general manager in 2008, and returned to the Nuggets in 2010, when he accepted his position as executive vice president in charge of basketball operations.
On May 31, 2011, Ujiri signed a five-year, $15 million deal to become general manager of the Toronto Raptors. "It was a difficult decision leaving Denver Nuggets, but because I had worked in Toronto, I'm familiar with the organisation, ownership and I was happy to go back," he said.
Though his pet Africa Top 50 basketball is now in its 12th year, for him every home-coming is always great: "To come and be part of the camp we started several years ago is always great. The Top Fifty and Giant of Africa Camp mean a lot to me. It's something that will always be close to my heart and I'll always be close to home through this. I'd like to thank Nestle Milo for being a strong supporter of the project and also Nike for their continuous support. It's not only with what they have provided but the sustenance over the years; it's always good to have sponsors that will continue to stay by you. Other than that, I'm glad to be here and we hope to always help these kids," the first African-born general manager for an American major league sports team emphasised.
Continuing he said: "Obtaining a camp and giving young kids opportunity to better their lives gives me pleasure and I really want to thank all the coaches, especially the Proprietor of Dodan Warriors Basketball Club, Colonel Sam Amedu (rtd) and all the people that have really helped in keeping this camp going. I think the ground is the most special thing in the camp before finding and selecting players.
The bottom line of this camp is for the kids to go to America but I have always told them that if they are good enough, they will end up doing something good with their life. I just wanted to create an opportunity for kids. I think we are going to broaden some of the things that we can do and one of the things we are going to really look at is developing out-door courts and trying to make an impact with the facilities for these kids to play. That's what on our minds and we are going to discuss this extensively obviously with my guys on ground."
On how Nigerian players can get into NBA through his influence and camp, the NBA Executive of the Year said: "I don't think there has been any young Nigerian basketball player that is really good that hasn't left the country. If you are good enough, you will be found. However, our emphasis is on education and being prepared for what life is all about, that is what we are trying to teach these kids. The NBA has only 400 players and only a few players are going to make it. We are proud that a lot of them have gone through universities in the US. I have been a big influence on these kids in a big way, showing them that it is not only through basketball that they can make it.
One can also do other things outside basketball using the game as a tool and basketball can create that avenue just like what I'm doing now. "We stressed the need for the participants to take their education seriously, as it was not possible for all of them to be drafted into the NBA league even if they play at colleges in the US. Education is one thing that the kids can lean on at any time. Education got me the position that I am now. If a player got injured in the process of playing he can always fall back on education. The 2015 edition of the Giant of Africa/ Top 50 Basketball kicked off on Monday and ended on Wednesday with both foreign and local coaches in attendance, including Raptors coach, Jama Mahlalela.
Ujiri however lamented lack of enough courts as to why the camp had not grown beyond 50. "I would have loved to increase the numbers of kids to 100 and even more, but where are the courts. Not until Nigerian government starts investing in the building and developing of modern facilities we can never catch up with the rest of the world in sports," the Toronto Raptors general manager lamented. Last Saturday, South Africa hosted an NBA game, which was the first on the continent. It pits an NBA team made up of African players against a world team. But Uriji believe Nigeria should have enjoyed such privilege before any African country considering the numbers of Nigerians in the NBA, but lack of facilities had always been the bane.
"Some of the challenges we have is the number of kids that would have loved to participate but had to be turned down because of limited accommodation and facilities. For instance, we have to do with only one basketball court. Maybe after 12 years we will consider expanding it. We are limited in terms of facility and it's not just conducive for you to say that you put 150 kids in that stadium. "So the camp being elite is what makes it good. To get into the camp, be part of it and be selected is something special and we have to continue that way. We don't want to water it down and allow anybody to just come. To keep the camp at a high level we need to keep it at a minimum number and that's what we are doing. To sustain that number as long as we can."
The six-foot-four manager said he could mention about a hundred kids from his camp that are in the United State doing different things. "They are everywhere and we have all the data. I'm creating a website, the Giants of Africa website of which work is already in progress. A website of comprehensive information for people to know more about the camp, the past, the coaches, the history, photos, videos and all those stuffs is being built. It takes time, money and all other things that will be needed but we slowly getting them together.
"We need to start developing young kids. One of my goals is to catch them at a younger age. What we are doing now is between the ages of 15-19 but when we get to what we want to start doing with basket in terms of facilities and outdoor courts; then you get younger players playing. That's why we are so talented in football because the facilities are easier to create. With just four stones which can serve as goal posts, you can get going. When I came to camp on Sunday morning, I see soccer players playing all over. It's easy to build skills that way when you play that way. With the basketball court, it's not easy to build a rim, so kids start playing at a late age, and when you start playing at a late age, your skill is limited," he noted.
Masai however feels fulfilled after 12 years of starting the camp. "Looking back after 12 years when we started, I will say the camp has really grown. I hope it continues to grow. The kids are getting better and better every year and I'm enjoying it. A lot of them aspire to attend the camp which provides them the opportunity to learn the basics of the game, which I think are very important for us. If you go to a lot of college games in the United States and you see a lot of kids that have passed through the camp, it is overwhelming because there are so many of them but my concentration is how to develop the game in this country and I think it's one of the camp that has been sustained over the years and we are proud of that," he said.
Ujiri indeed craves for more basketball camps in the country, which he said will enhance the development of the game in the country. "The more basketball camps we have the better for the game. Other organisations should come up and support basketball. There are not enough competitions in the game in Nigeria. We should also do more in the areas of coaches and facilities development. The country has a lot of talents that could achieve greatness in basketball, but the impediments are inadequate facilities and few numbers of qualified coaches to harness the abundant talents. My desire is to help develop the youths, who are looking for the opportunity to build their careers from the game."
The former Nigerian basketball player said the camp was extended to other African countries two years ago. "We are now in Kenya and we will be starting that of Rwanda and Ghana," he said. On the chances of his Toronto Raptures this season in the NBA, he said: "We have a very good chance like every other team in the NBA and we will keep on fighting till the end."
Ujiri was born in 1970, in Zaria, to a doctor mother and a hospital administrator/nursing educationist father. He originally played football as a youth before focusing on basketball. His interest with basketball started as a 13-year old playing with friends on outdoor basketball courts in northern Nigeria. This interest would be fed by American sports magazines and VHS tapes of NBA games or basketball movies. He immigrated to the United States to play two years of basketball at Bismarck State College, and then transferred to Montana State University, though he left the latter school after one semester. He then spent six years playing professionally in Europe.