What Masai Ujiri learned from Mandela


Masai Ujiri first met Nelson Mandela in the summer of 2006 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The future Raptors general manager was there to spread the gospel of the game as an ambassador for Basketball Without Borders, a community outreach program run by FIBA and the NBA, and met Mandela as part of a group that included retired-NBA star Dikembe Mutombo. Though it wasn’t the last encounter between the two men, that first chance meeting had a profound impact on the 44-year-old Ujiri. Recently, I was lucky enough to discuss that impact with him at length for a documentary series for Sportsnet Connected.

Walking into his corner office on Bay Street in downtown Toronto, you are immediately struck by Ujiri’s attention to detail. Everything is pristine; not a single object feels out of place. His desk is meticulously laid out and only three photographs decorate the room: one of his daughter, one of the great Mandela and one with President Barack Obama, a man Ujiri is often compared to in basketball circles.

At first glance, the office seems better suited to a non-profit worker than the general manager of a professional basketball team. But Ujiri runs the Raptors simply and efficiently—the same way he runs his life and his foundation.

Next door is his personal boardroom, acting as a storage place for posters promoting his “Giants of Africa” charity. The charity pairs talented African youth players with elite coaches, giving them a chance to use basketball as a tool for physical, intellectual and spiritual growth, and showcases one of Mandela’s direct influences. It was Ujiri’s mentor and hero who taught the world just how powerful an agent of change sport can be.

As my camera operator sets up for our interview, Ujiri meets with a graphic designer about plans for his charity. With the NBA’s trade deadline approaching, the GM is not just thinking about trades and acquisitions, but also about providing a platform for Africa’s talent to flourish. He tells me that one of his dreams is to build an arena in his native Nigeria not much different from the one below him that the Raptors call home.

Far from running at odds with one another, the two driving forces in Ujiri’s life—the athletic and the philanthropic—seem to work in perfect harmony. When Tim Leiweke pitched Ujiri on coming to the Raptors, one of the key draws was the potential positive impact the corporate arms of MLSE, Bell and Rogers could have on his foundation.

It was the right play. Everything Ujiri does seems to be done with others in mind. His foundation is the foundation of every decision he makes.

Another lesson Ujiri has taken from Mandela is to treat his enemies—opposing GMs—with love, and his example is proof that you get more with honey than vinegar.

Ujiri is beloved around the league by rival executives. As mad as Bryan Colangelo was about being brushed aside by Leiweke, he was genuinely happy for Ujiri. Former Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe ventured to Toronto to support Ujiri even though his successor had made everyone forget about Vandeweghe’s executive exploits in the Mile High City. And newly appointed NBA commissioner Adam Silver not only came to Toronto to support Giants of Africa, he travelled with Ujiri to Africa in order to witness his work first-hand.

Ujiri was in a cab when he learned of Mandela’s passing. The quiet of the back seat gave him time to reflect on his life and Mandela’s, the gravity of the moment and what Mandela’s death meant for the future of Africa. When he got home, his wife greeted him at the door with a big hug.

Though his idol is gone, so much of who Ujiri is and will continue to be he attributes to his meeting with and study of Madiba. The way he carries himself on a day-to-day basis. The way he goes out of his way to thank the people others write off and disregard. The way he relates to fans and makes an effort to maintain good relations with his NBA competition.

I chose February to talk to Ujiri about Mandela because the manner in which Ujiri has woven Mandela’s inspiration into his own meteoric rise is the essence of what Black History Month is about—using the experiences and example of a high-achieving black person who came before you to inform and inspire your own ambitions.

That’s why it’s important to take a month to tell these stories for the next generation of Masai Ujiris and Nelson Mandelas. Because black history is as much about the present and the future as it is the past.

February 14, 2014