Raptors GM Masai Ujiri learns best on the road

Former Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri returned to Toronto and made a fast start restructuring the Raptors. Ron Turenne/Getty Images

LONDON, U.K. -- It's been a long and winding road for Masai Ujiri.

That road to the NBA took this child of Africa from crashing on couches to sleeping on trains, working as an unpaid scout for the Orlando Magic to rising up the ranks to become an Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets to establishing the Toronto Raptors as one of the Eastern Conference's best teams.

On the side of the court at London’s 02 Arena, Ujiri -- a relentless networker on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond -- was greeted by contacts from all over, including from his native Nigeria. But his team’s midseason swing to the United Kingdom, where the Raps face the Orlando Magic on Thursday, has finally taken his life full circle.

Because it was some 100 miles from here that he was born, on the southern coastal town of Bournemouth. And it was also on British shores that his basketball career first took shape -- a player paid for the first time to practice his trade.

“My parents went to school in Bournemouth but I left when I was 9 months old,” Ujiri said. “I came back when I played for Derby Storm from 1996-98. The games were on TV. So it was pretty exciting. I then played for a team called Solent Stars, then played in Europe (in Belgium and Denmark among others), and then came back.

“I played one game for Hemel Royals before I left. That was after college. I had a British passport. I wasn’t very good, but it made it easier for me to get on a team. When playing professional basketball is your dream, I had a little 'so-called in.'”

Ujiri has famously made the most of even the smallest opportunities to kick open doors many would have assumed bolted shut. His spells on court overseas paid little beyond food and lodging, far from the monied superclubs that, in that era, occasionally swiped a prospect from the NBA’s hands.

Yet, he says, the odyssey offered other generous compensations.

“It is so much of a great experience. You can’t even imagine," Ujiri said. "It’s the best experience you can ever have, you meet people. You network. You stay in touch with these people and the contacts you make.

“It’s almost been my way of learning. These people help you in other areas of the game, whether I was gathering information as a scout which was my background.”

It has been barely two months since Ujiri last travelled to the British capitol for a conference on leadership in sport in tandem with his San Antonio Spurs counterpart R.C. Buford. It brought together storied and successful figures from across the spectrum, from Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, to Olympic cycling guru Dave Brailsford to Arsenal’s professorial soccer sage, Arsene Wenger.

From diversity comes depth of insight, the Raptors GM says. Looking outside the basketball bubble should be a mandatory exercise for all those looking for a competitive edge.

“You take different things. You’re trying to figure out if it translates from your sport. A lot of the things we deal with, whether it’s how you deal with superstars, practice facilities, what your style of building analytics, sports science and injuries, media, how you deal with the pressure of homecourt advantage, we discussed so many things. I read my notes every day because I took so much from it.”

He can digest and review much on the road. The NBA trade deadline is approaching. The college basketball season is nearing the point where draft prospects will flourish or wilt under the pressure to perform. Around the globe, from Lagos to Liverpool, there is always a game available to analyze.

There is no option, Ujiri has long understood, but to pack up and move onto the next destination.

“There is plenty to juggle,” he said. “You have to figure it out. There is so much, with college, with trade deadlines, all the information you’re gathering. There’s managing your team, your coaches, everything. There’s a lot in the NBA these days but that’s your job. We get paid to do it and we have to figure it out.

“I was on a five-day scouting trip and then came home and went over on this. Then in a week or so I’m going back to Europe to scout. It’s a difficult part of a job. But you have to figure it out.

“Because everybody’s trying to win.”