Waking up Wednesday morning, most of the country first saw reports that the Knicks and Phil Jackson, the team’s president, were parting ways. Those reports were then followed up with the news that the split would be made official later in the day. Naturally what came next was speculation as to who would be replacing Jackson.
Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, who first reported the possible break-up late Tuesday night, tweeted out Wednesday morning that James Dolan, the controversial owner of the Knicks, was looking at Masai Ujiri, the General Manager of the Toronto Raptors, to replace Jackson.
Unless you’re either A) a Toronto Raptors’ fan B) a Denver Nuggets’ fan or C) a serious NBA junkie, there’s a good chance you don’t know who Ujiri is. That’s a shame. The irony that Ujiri, whose first big move as a NBA executive was trading Carmelo Anthony, would now be reunited with the disgruntled Knick, is likely lost on you.
Here’s what you need to know about Masai Ujiri
1. Ujiri was Born in Nigeria and Chose Basketball Over Soccer
Ujiri was born on July 7, 1970 in Zaria, Nigeria, a city in northern Nigeria. His mother was a doctor and his father was a hospital administrator and educator. Ujiri spent his childhood living in both Zaria and London, England.
At age 13 Ujiri became interested in basketball, gravitating away from soccer, which was significantly more popular. He admired Hakeem Olajuwon, the NBA legend who was also from Nigeria.
“You wanted to do what he did,” Ujiri said. “He was so great, what he accomplished and the kind of player he was. At every stage, in college and the pros, and even his legacy now as a person.”
Ujiri was able to meet his idol while playing for Bismarck State College, when the team was playing in Minneapolis at the same time as Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets were in town to play the Timberwolves.
2. Ujiri Played College Ball in North Dakota and Montana
Ujiri first came to America to attended prep school in Seattle, Washington. In 1993 he moved to North Dakota to play basketball for Bismarck State College. In his first season with the team they went 23-8 and averaged 12.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
“He was a slasher-type player. … He could run and jump, and he was a fierce competitor. On the floor, man, he lined up and played,” BSC coach Buster Gilliss has said about Ujiri. “He was like that every day when he came to practice, too. He was an all-around hard worker and very supportive of his teammates.”
After two years in North Dakota, Ujiri transferred to Montana State University-Billings, but only stayed for a semester before heading to Europe to play professionally. In 6 years, Ujiri played in Belgium, Germany, England, Greece and Finland. He retired in 2002.
3. After Playing in Europe, Ujiri Led Youth Basketball Programs in Africa
After retiring in 2002, Ujiri became a youth coach in Nigeria. One year later he helped start the Giants of Africa Foundation, a basketball camp that’s goal was to help promising young Africans further both their careers and their education.
“My honest goal is to try to build facilities in Africa,” Ujiri has said about the program. “So kids have [the] chance that I got, to get to where I am.”
Since the program started in 2003, roughly 80 attendees of the camps have gone on to play at American high schools and colleges/universities. Twenty or so are currently or have previously played professionally in Europe.
“It’s all up to us to find the talent,” says Ujiri. “Building facilities, helping coaching … helping to start leagues, all these things are going to enhance one person somewhere.”
In addition to the Giants of Africa Foundation, Ujiri has also served as the director of the Africa program of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders initiative.
4. Ujiri Got His Start in the NBA Working as a Freelance Scout for the Magic
Ujiri started on his path to the NBA in 2003 when he introduced himself to long-time NBA scout and trainer David Thorpe at a summer league game in Boston. Thorpe was immediately impressed with “this guy with a British accent and ‘Kid ‘n Play’ fade” and when they re-connected nearly a year later, Thorpe told Ujiri to meet him at the 2003 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in Atlanta, where he would introduce him to some coaches.
Through those introductions Ujiri landed a freelance scouting gig with the Orlando Magic, scouting European players. A year later he landed a full-time job with the Nuggets, where he stayed for four years, scouting players around the world.
In 2007 Ujiri was named director of global scouting for the Raptors and a year later became the team’s assistant general manager. He stayed with the Raptors’ organization until 2010 when he was headed back out west, this time to serve as the executive vice president in charge of basketball operations for the Nuggets. Three years later in 2013, Ujiri was named NBA Executive of the Year, the only non-American to ever win the award.
Ujiri was hired back by the Raptors in May of 2013, this time to be their general manager. He signed a 5 year contract worth $15 million.
5. One of Ujiri’s First Moves as an Executive was Trading Carmelo Anthony
Ujiri’s first task when he took the Nuggets’ front-office job in 2010 was finding a way to resolve the situation between the team and it’s star, Carmelo Anthony. Anthony had made it clear after talks had broken down in the spring of 2009 that he wanted out and more specifically, wanted to go to New York. Ujiri for his part, made it known that his preference was to keep Anthony in Denver.
“Of course, that’s going to be the priority,” Ujiri said at the time. “Melo is a great player, I think arguably a top-5 player in the NBA. … It’s a challenge, but I’ll meet with Melo at some point. He’s in China and he’ll come back in the next couple of days. So, we’ll set something up.”
In the end though, Ujiri elected to trade Anthony and in February 2011 traded him to the Knicks in a three-team deal. The prize for the Nuggets was Italian sharp-shooter Danilo Gallinari. The team also received praise for pulling off the deal, considering how little leverage they had as everyone and their mother knew Anthony wanted to go to New York and only wanted to go to New York.
Ujiri’s next move with the Nuggets wasn’t nearly as big as the Anthony trade, but still had an impact on the team’s future. In 2011 he traded guard Raymond Felton to the Trail Blazers in another three-team deal in which the Nuggets received veteran guard Andre Miller, a stabilizing force for their young team. Ujiri’s next big move was in August of 2012. In a four-team trade involving the Magic, Lakers and 76ers the Nuggets were able to acquire veteran stud Andre Iguodala from Philadelphia.
During his time in Toronto, Ujiri hasn’t made an Anthony-sized move, but he has still be plenty busy building a solid contender north of the border. In addition to keeping star DeMar DeRozan in Toronto in the summer of 2016, he signed Jared Sullinger away from the Celtics and signed former Hawk DeMarre Carroll in July 2015. Perhaps his biggest move with the Raptors was trading for Serge Ibaka in February 2017.