Canada-based Nigerian basketball former player-turned-administrator, Masai Ujiri has received a rain of accolades for his management savvy that has shot Toronto Raptors into their first final of America’s National Basketball Association (NBA).
Ujiri did come under some flak early in the season, on account of some draft decisions he took, but his ‘sins’ were forgiven on Saturday, when a a late surge saw The Raptors beat Milwaukee Bucks 100-94 and head to their first-ever NBA Finals in history.
Down by as many as 15 points in the second half, Toronto needed a late rally to complete the four-game comeback and they achieved it behind a monstrous third quarter from Kawhi Leonard, plus all-around team effort in the fourth, much to the delight of the normally meek Ujiri.
Observers are always wont to note that Ujiri takes pains to keep himself out of the limelight; but that was easier for him to do a whole decade ago, when he was early in his career as after active ‘b-ball,’ then a globe-trotting scout and aspiring front-office executive.
Today, Ujiri, 48, has become one of the shrewdest front-office minds in the business of basketball, one known for fearless, forward-thinking moves and blockbuster trades.
In 2010, Ujiri became the first African-born general manager in the NBA when he was hired to run Denver Nuggets’ sports centre’s basketball operations.
In 2011, Ujiri, then the vice-president of basketball operation for the Nuggets, had orchestrated a blockbuster 12-player trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York in exchange for promising young players.
Today, Raptors fans are enjoying the fruits of another bold Ujiri trade that sent fan favorite DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio Spurs, in exchange for Kawhi Leonard, arriving from the opposite end.
It was generally accepted in Toronto that The Raptors would not be one of the title contenders, but hindsight has now revealed that they would not be in their first NBA Finals appearance had Ujiri not made the trade.
Yet The Raptors’ president is staying humble and modest, even after his brinkmanship paid off and the team rattled off four straight wins against Nigerian-born likely MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo and other NBA’s top seed in The Bucks.
Leonard is operating at the peak of his powers, averaging 31.2 points per game in the post-season, helping Toronto win the biggest game in their history, with their first-ever final spot in 24 years as an NBA outfit.
All the applause is now going for Ujiri, after he built a sizable chunk of his Eastern Conference champions’ roster through trades, acquiring pivotal lads like Leonard, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka over the years.
Thanks in big part to those moves, his Raptors will now square off with Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals beginning Thursday in Toronto, Canada.
With the crowd at Scotiabank Arena cheering him on after Toronto’s Eastern Conference win Saturday night, Ujiri made a couple of audacious proclamations in a post-game interview, but still remained modest.
Ujiri told TNT’s Ernie Johnson: “We came all this way to compete, and we want to win in Toronto — and we will win in Toronto.
“(Leonard has) been unbelievable. He’s the best player in the league, and we’re happy he’s in Toronto.”