Foreign Policy Blogs

Masai Ujiri: The Path to Becoming the First African NBA Executive


Masai Ujiri took an unconventional route to the pinnacle of National Basketball Association (NBA) team management. Now he is watching his Denver Nuggets’, a team he built in just three seasons as general manager, attempt to make a run at an NBA championship.

Ujiri grew up in the central northern region of Nigeria, in the city of Zaria, a city that has seen its fair share of violence as the ultra-conservative group Boko Haram has been blamed for killing several ethnic Igpos in an attempt to enforce sharia law in the area.

The meteoric rise of Ujiri is a testament of his perseverance, sacrifice and passion for the sport to ascend through the ranks of NBA executives.

While growing up in Nigeria, Ujiri, like many of the other youths in the country, maintained a passion for soccer. However, at the age of 13 he discovered basketball and never looked back.

Ujiri aspired to follow in fellow countryman and NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon’s footsteps as a professional player in the NBA. First he attended a prep school in Seattle, staying with a Nigerian family there. Upon graduation he attended a junior college in Bismarck, North Dakota where he played until transferring to Montana State. He left Montana State early to pursue a professional opportunity in Europe. After spending six years bouncing around European teams, Ujiri realized that his path to the NBA may not be as a player.

“At some point I started chasing this thing that is not there anymore,” he said.

Ujiri decided it was time to expand his basketball knowledge, develop contacts internationally and work with players from his native continent. Then, in 2000, he first met player development expert David Thorpe, who has worked with a wealth of NBA talent over the years. Thorpe first met Ujiri at a workout for a Nigerian NBA player, Olumide Oyedeji, who was a rookie for the Seattle Supersonics in 2000. Ujiri contacted Thorpe again just weeks prior to the 2002 Final Four and journeyed to Atlanta to meet with Thorpe. Ujiri used the weekend to meet as many people in the business as he could, utilizing this opportunity to create a catalyst to launch his professional executive career. Later that year he met former Orlando Magic and current Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers and the two hit it off. Ujiri showed his contacts in the basketball world that stretched across Europe and Africa. By the fall of that year, he was a scout for the Orlando Magic. The first year was rough as Ujiri was an unpaid scout that paid his own from tournament to tournament, often staying with friends.

From there his diligence and track record paid off as he was offered a full-time gig with the Denver Nuggets in 2003.  He stayed with the team until 2007 when he was offered a position as the director of international scouting in 2008 with the Toronto Raptors. He stayed with the team for a few years as assistant general manager in charge of player personnel, before returning to the Nuggets as their general manager in August of 2010.  With his hiring, he became the first and only African to run a major sports team in the United States.

Ujiri certainly rose through the ranks quickly and unconventionally. He has also run the Nuggets unconventionally. When he was hired he was held hostage by player Carmelo Anthony’s trade demands. He parlayed that potential disaster into a major haul for the Nuggets. Contrary to conventional NBA patterns, Ujiri has built a team designed around sharing and depth as opposed to a traditional playoff team built around a couple of players. His methods are paying dividends quickly.

The Nuggets for many years have been a fringe playoff team, but this year, after struggling through a brutal opening schedule, the Nuggets charged back and snatched the third seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Now, locked in a heated battle with the Golden State Warriors, the Nuggets have a chance to advance in the NBA playoffs for only the second time in nearly 20 years.

Ujiri has not forgotten his homeland of Nigeria either. Every year he hosts two camps there, one for the top 50 players in Nigeria, sponsored by Nestle Milo and another for African big men, which he co-sponsors with Nike. He also leads an annual Basketball Without Borders Camp in Africa along with players, coaches and league officials to help promote the game on the continent.

Ujiri has become a pioneer and role model for anyone, not only in Africa, internationally that has a passion for sports and wants to enter the realm of professional scouting or team management. His story proves that determination and passion can lead to success no matter how long the odds are. Furthermore, through all of his success, Ujiri has not failed to give back to his homeland and his people with the sport he loves.




Daniel Donovan

Daniel is the Executive Director of a non-profit development organization that focuses on building infrastructure and training in rural Sub-Saharan Africa called the African Community Advancement Initiative ( . He has a Master's degree graduate in International Relations with an emphasis on conflict resolution and development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Coupled with his extensive financial background, Daniel also works as a consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence in Pretoria and the Centre for Global Governance and Public Policy in Abu Dhabi. In addition to his work at FPA, he is also a regular contributor to The Continent Observer and International Policy Digest. He currently resides in Denver, CO.