When Nigeria’s basketball is mentioned outside the shores of the country, the name that readily comes to mind is Hakeem Olajuwon. But beyond the ‘Dream’ is a silent Nigerian achiever, who was recently appointed General Manager of Toronto Raptor, Masai Ujiri. He told KUNLE ADEWALE that with the right attitude Nigeria can rule Africa in basketball, the success of his pet Africa Top-50 basketball camp and many more …

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 a 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 away 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, this year, Ujiri signed a five-year, 15 million dollar deal to become general manager of the Toronto Raptors.

“It was a difficult decision to leave Denver Nuggets, but because I have worked in Toronto before, I’m familiar with the organization, ownership and I was happy to go back,” he said.

Though his pet Africa Top 50 basketball is now in its 11th year, for him every home-coming is always great to be home.

“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 supper 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 emphasized.

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 because finding of the players and selection of players. The bottom line of this camp is for the kids to go to America but I have always told the kids 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 and now that I am back with a better opportunity, 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 try 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. With Amedu and the coaches, we’ll try and put our resources together to see what we can do.”

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 basket ball 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 travel 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.”

The 2013 edition of the camp which started last Sunday and ended on Tuesday unlike in the past in which a lot of foreign coaches are flown in, but because of the busy schedule of NBA programmes only two foreign coaches in the persons of Patrick Mutombo and Patrick Engelbrecht joined by Markmentors of Abuja Coach, Joe Tomo, took participants through the rudiments of the game.

“This year’s camp is situated at a difficult time because of the NBA rules and the NBA summer League and so it’s been very busy period for us and it’s even also during pre-agency period and knockouts. That is why this year we were limited to only two coaches. We had kids from Nigeria, Benin Republic and Togo with instructors drawn from Nigeria and the United States of America,” he said.

Masai however feel fulfilled after 11 years of which he started the camp.

“Looking back after 11 years when we started, I will say the camp has really grown. I hope it continues to grow. A lot of kids aspire to attend the camp which provides them the opportunity to learn the basics of the game, which I think is 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.”

The Top 50 Camp is however not without its obstacles some of which Masai identified thus: “Some of the challenges we have is the number of kids that would have love to participate but had to be turned down because of limited  accommodation and facilities. Though we call it the top 50, I think we always ended up accommodating 70 kids which I think is still a good number for a camp. We are limited in terms of facility and it’s not just conducive for you to say that you put a hundred and fifty 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 there he can 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 why we are so talented in football because the facilities are easier to create. With just two stones which can serve as goal posts you can get going. When I come to camp on a 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.

On the chances of Nigeria at the 2013 FIBA Africa Championship slated for Cote d’Ivoire between August 20 through 31, Masai said like all other participating country, Nigeria will always have a chance.

“The chances of the team are very open just like the last African Cup of Nations where Nigeria won. I remember when I was younger; it was Nigeria, Cameroun and Ghana that used to be the power house in African football. At any Nations Cup, they were always favourites to win the title while the smaller countries are striving hard to create an upset. Same goes for basketball now, the smaller teams are figuring it out now. Nigeria will always have a chance, we have the team, and we have the players, the capabilities. At the moment they are playing on tour in China, which is a good start and this is something that was not being done all the time. You know that preparation for a major tournament has always been our problem. The African championship has eluded us and we have to win that championship at some point and I have been involved with this, I know how hard it is to win that championship.

“You have to select the right players, select players with the right mentality to go there and win. So I think we’ll always have a chance. Though teams like Senegal and Angola will be tough teams to beat because of the calibre of players they boast of. Cameroun is always good outfit at the tournaments and then Tunisia represented Africa at the 2012 London Olympics. I have been attending the African Championship since 1997 and it’s always a remarkable tournament to watch and I’ll be in Ivory Coast this year to watch the competition and it will be interesting to see. I think Nigeria will always have a chance. We failed because we lacked continuity. Some of these countries that we will be competing have very limited players and they use them to their advantage because there’s consistency. Take Angola for example, it’s the same set of players they have been parading, so they continue to play over and over again for years.

“But in Nigeria, we have about 120 players today that we can call up to play for the national team but how do you start the programme? When you build over the first 20 players that are really good and then you continue to sustain the team with the junior teams. With what is on ground now, I think these coaches  have done a great job of them. The Nigeria Basketball Federation under the leadership of Tijani Umar and the D’Tigers’ coach, Ayo Bakare have done a great job and hopefully they will sustain the achievement of qualifying and the experience garnered at the 2012 London Olympics as we go to the African Championship,” he concluded.

Ujiri, born in 1970, is a native of Zaria, Nigeria. The son of a doctor mother and a hospital administrator/nursing educationist father, originally played soccer 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 admired Hakeem Olajuwon, an NBA star, who was born in Nigeria.

Masai Ujiri