THE EARLY STORY
It has been an unlikely rise in the basketball world for the 42-year-old, who first fell in love with the game as a youngster growing up playing on the outdoor courts in Nigeria while following the career of native son Hakeem Olajuwon, who was an NBA star.
Ujiri, whose mother is a doctor and whose father is a hospital administrator, emigrated to the United States and played two years of basketball at a junior college in Bismarck, N.D. After that he spent six years playing professionally in Europe where he realized that although he was 6 feet 4 inches, he wasn’t good enough to be a player.
WELCOME TO THE NBA
Ujiri turned his attention to trying to become an NBA scout focusing on up-and-coming talent in Africa and he attended games in the United States and abroad to study players and establish contact with college coaches and administrators.
In 2002, Ujiri was accompanying a young Nigerian player to a draft tryout in Orlando and met John Gabriel, who was the Magic GM at the time and who was impressed with Ujiri’s extensive knowledge of international players.
The following year, Ujiri agreed to become an unpaid scout for the NBA team and he used his own financial resources travelling to tournaments around the world, rooming with fellow scouts and players when he could to save money.
It was during that year that he met Jeff Weltman, then a young executive with the Denver Nuggets, who in turn introduced Ujiri to Kiki Vandeweghe, Denver’s former GM. Vandeweghe hired Ujiri on salary as an international scout.
THE RAPTORS: ACT 1
In 2007, after four years with the Nuggets, Ujiri joined the Toronto Raptors as director of global scouting and the following year was elevated to assistant general manager by then-president and general manager Bryan Colangelo.
BACK TO DENVER
In August, 2010, Ujiri was lured back to the Nuggets as the team’s executive vice-president of basketball operations, becoming the first African to run a major sports team in North America.
He is widely lauded for his first big move, holding out for as long as possible to maximize his return in the trade of franchise star Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks in February, 2011.
The trade resulted in a complete overhaul of the Denver roster. Ten players on this season’s team were there as an offshoot of that deal.
Denver won a franchise-record 57 games this season and was an NBA-best 38-3 at home before losing in the first round to Golden State. For his efforts, Ujiri was selected as the NBA’s executive of the year while George Karl, the Nuggets coach, was chosen coach of the year.
THE RAPTORS: ACT 2
After missing the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year, Colangelo was relieved of his GM duties in Toronto but allowed to keep the president’s title.
Ujiri, his protégé, was the first person targeted by Tim Leiweke, the new president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., to take over as Toronto’s new GM.