Toronto Raptors assistant general manager Masai Ujiri is poised to become the next general manager of the Denver Nuggets. When that becomes official, Ujiri will be the first African-born general manager in NBA history, and there will be no shortage of praise for one of the best-liked people in the NBA.
But who is Masai Ujiri?
Among those best equipped to answer that question is David Thorpe, who told me over the phone about his history with Ujiri:
In 2000, [Nigerian NBA player] Olumide Oyedeji was a rookie for the Sonics. I had worked him out for a day or two and his agents asked me if I'd watch him play and give them some analysis. I went to the Shaw Summer League in Boston, and at one of the first games this guy with a British accent and "Kid 'n Play" fade came up to me and introduced himself. That was Masai. He said he was Nigerian. He said he was here with some Nigerian friends and took me to introduce them, and he said that Olumide had told him how much help I had been to [Oyedeji], and Masai and his friends just wanted to say thanks. It was a very nice gesture. I gave him my e-mail address and never thought about it again.
In I want to say March a year and a half later, he e-mailed me. I had a hard time even remembering who it was. He was in England wrapping up his pro career -- he played in Belgium and later in England -- and was eager to do something else in basketball. He had gone to high school in Seattle, and junior college, and then North Dakota State. His mother is a doctor and his dad is a hospital administrator, and he grew up in both Nigeria and England. But he wanted a job in the states. We talked about things he might be able to do, whether coaching, or scouting.
It sounded like he had a good feel for where the good international players were playing. From Africa, and all over Europe. He knew all kinds of players, it seemed, who could help U.S. high school or college programs. I wasn't even thinking about the pros at that point.
I told him it was a few weeks until the Final Four in Atlanta. I wasn't sure I had room for him to stay with me, but if he could get there I would meet him there and introduce him to everyone I could. He said it was no problem, he could stay with friends. I gave him my cell phone number and we agreed to meet on some street corner.
When he walked up he had a shaved head, he looked pretty different, but he has a great charming smile that I recognized right away. We went to dinner with [Florida State coaches] Leonard Hamilton and Stan Jones. Within minutes he and Leonard Hamilton were good friends. We met all kinds of people all weekend. You know how people talk about videos spreading virally on the Internet? Masai spread virally that weekend. By the time Sunday rolled around, he had meetings set up with all kinds of coaches. People I had never met. Everyone wanted him to help them find good players at every level.
That summer he visited me in Florida. He stayed at our house much of the time. He had no cell phone, no computer, but I gave him my cell whenever he needed it, and my local library had Internet access and Masai spent time there as well.
I was working out players like Udonis Haslem, who was preparing for his rookie year, as well as Kevin Martin, who was a rising sophomore. Masai watched most of our workouts each morning, and played pickup with them every afternoon, and I just tried to immerse him into as much American basketball culture as I could.
Many of his players came to the U.S. Benjamin Eze -- they call him "the helicopter" -- is a high-level European player. Uche Nsonwu-Amadi played at Wyoming. They came to train with me because of Masai.
They rented an apartment right by my house. That summer Uche got one workout, with the Magic, who are nearby, so he could drive. I wanted Masai to go with him to the workout, and he did. When he came back, he said that he had hung out with Doc Rivers and John Gabriel, and they got along well.
We made a document on my computer called "Masai's Sphere of Influence" and basically it made the point that he knew people all over Europe, and could travel for the Magic as a scout without costing them much at all. He needed some airfare, some train tickets ... but he could stay with friends all over. He had friends everywhere.
And that's what he did. Starting in the fall of 2002, he was a Magic scout.
NBA scouts kind of do one of two things. They either go by themselves and work alone, or go where everybody else is and meet all the other scouts and basketball people. Masai did the latter. He met everybody. He became friends with everybody. After a couple of years, Denver came calling [and made him a scout]. Then he got a real job. No more staying with friends. That was the last time I ever helped him get a job. By the time Toronto wanted to hire him, he was far beyond needing my help.
He has always been a valuable guy in the eyes of NBA GMs because he knows how to find good players the rest of the league does not know about.
For instance, [Raptors draftee] Solomon Alabi came from the big man camp Masai holds every summer in Nigeria. He has also been a huge part of "Basketball Without Borders."
He always wanted to be a GM, and he always thought he'd be the second African-born GM, after [former Mavericks executive and current NBA Africa executive] Amadou Fall. This Denver job is one some other people have turned down or shied away from for various reasons. But Masai has always had that ambition.
One value he definitely brings is that he knows everybody and has no enemies. That's how deals get done in the NBA. He's not out late clowning around. He's very classy. He values character. And I'd bet that one of the biggest things he brings to the Nuggets right now comes in how the team relates to Carmelo Anthony. It's interesting that the two finalists for that job -- David Griffin and Masai -- are both from teams that just lost stars in free agency. Going through that is a great learning experience, with tremendous lessons for how to handle the biggest challenge facing the Nuggets in the year ahead. I'm sure Masai will have a very smart approach to convincing Carmelo to stay. He'll be really good at that.