Masai Ujiri spent a night sleeping on a cold tile floor.
The story is one of a growing legion about the assent of the Raptors’ newly-minted GM through the NBA toward his current status as the league’s reigning executive of the year.
At the time Ujiri was an unpaid scout for the Orlando Magic.That affiliation was a testimony to Ujiri’s personality and connections.
The Magic had no budget for a scout to travel the world as Ujiri did. A Nigerian, Ujiri’s appeal was his potential to unearth African players.
There has been but one notable one, Hakeem Olajuwon, a one-time Raptor who starred with the Houston Rockets.
Ujiri convinced the Magic by financing his junkets out of his own pocket. He stayed with his ever-growing legion of friends scattered across Europe and the world.
The sleeping on the floor story happened in Belgrade when he was rooming with a player named Obinna Ezekie.
Ezekie came back to his apartment after a grueling practice and fell dead asleep. Ujiri had no key. He pounded on the door. He repeatedly tried to reach his friend by phone.
With nothing else to do, Ujiri curled up and slept on the floor.
There are three telling strands of that story.
First, Ujiri was willing to endure any hardship to advance in basketball.
“I used all my savings and money to travel to tournaments around the world,” he has told interviewers.
Second, he has a vast network of contacts.
“When my playing career ended,’ Ujiri said, “I got out my black book and started making calls.”
In an ESPN story, NBA executive David Thorpe explained what Ujiri, a player with no NBA credentials, two years of playing experience at an obscure college (Bismark State) and half a dozen pro seasons kicking around Europe offered.
“We made a document on my computer called “Masai’s Sphere of Influence” and basically it made the point that he knew people all over Europe, and could travel for the Magic as a scout without costing them much at all. He needed some airfare, some train tickets … but he could stay with friends all over. He had friends everywhere.”
The third point? Go back to the tile floor in Belgrade. The next morning, Ujiri smoothed out his clothes and pretended he was just coming in from sleeping at someone else’s place. He did it to avoid his friend the embarrassment of having locked him out.
“One value he definitely brings is that he knows everybody and has no enemies,” said Thorpe. “That’s how deals get done in the NBA. He’s not out late clowning around. He’s very classy. He values character.”
Those three elements, his overwhelming desire to succeed, his ability to work with people and the strength of his character are the key elements in Ujiri’s mercurial rise.
Finally put on the payroll by the Magic, he spent four years as a scout and then was recruited by Bryan Colangelo to become the Raptors’ Director of Global Scouting. That dovetailed into a two-year tenure as assistant GM before the Nuggets landed him as their GM and Vice-President of Basketball Operations.
“I see it like I’m carrying the flag of not only the continent of Africa but to say I’m the first foreign-born person to lead an NBA team, to me, that’s an incredible opportunity,” he said.
True enough but the Denver job was not, by NBA standards, an exceedingly desirable one. Franchise player Carmelo Anthony had just turned down a three-year $65 million extension.
Anthony wanted to go to the New York market and he wanted to be moved immediately to take advantage of elements in the soon-expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Ujiri cobbled a three-team deal that netted two starters in Danilo Gallinari and seven-foot-centre Kosta Koufas who was obtained from Minnesota.
“It was win-win,” Ujiri has said. “They (New York) wanted to contend. We wanted to rebuild with younger players.”
Ujiri surfaced again in the trade that sent Dwight Howard from Orlando to Los Angeles and brought all-star Andre Iguodala to Colorado.
Over his three years Ujiri refashioned the Nuggets into an ensemble cast.
He re-signed valuable bench players Javale McGee and Andre Miller.
The Nuggets began this season as the third-youngest team in the NBA but rolled out nine players who contributed at least eight points a game. The team’s bench was second in the NBA with 41.3 points a game.
Denver went 57-25 this season including a staggering 38-3 record at home before falling for the third time in Ujiri’s tenure in the first round of the playoffs.
Ujiri is known for his methodical nature. That he took his time digesting the Raptors offer speaks to his nature.
That the Raptors wanted him so badly speaks to it as well.