It was just over a year ago that Masai Ujiri slipped out of Denver to head north to Vail, Colo., for his initial meeting with Tim Leiweke, then in his early days as president and CEO of MLSE.
The two men greeted each other for the first time, cracked a few jokes and then before they talked basketball or the Toronto Raptors or anything else, Leiweke made a pitch directly to his prospective GM’s soul.
“We talked about Africa for about an hour,” Ujiri said. “He had read everything about me and about my foundation. He knew where my heart was.”
A few weeks later Leiweke was ecstatic that he had got his man, and not just because he was the best basketball executive available. On June 4, Ujiri introduced himself to Toronto by underlining the fact that as the NBA’s first African-born GM he felt a weight of expectation greater than making the playoffs or pursuing a championship.
“The only place in my life I feel pressure is for a continent that big and that great,” he said at the end of his first press conference. “To have the opportunity I have, I have no choice but to be successful, for me being successful means we can do more. We can build more courts, we can help more people… it’s an obligation, I have to do well for my continent.”
A year later Ujiri has made good on his early promise. In fact, things couldn't have gone much better. He made moves that were aimed at the future—creating salary-cap flexibility and adding draft picks while trading Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay—and was unexpectedly rewarded with a team that set a franchise record with 48 wins and lost a riveting seven-game playoff series to the Brooklyn Nets, galvanizing a worn-down Raptors fan base along the way.
And he’s doing his part for his continent, too.
On Thursday night Ujiri will be hosting a gala in Toronto's distillery district called Madiba: An Evening Honouring Nelson Mandela to pay tribute to the life and legacy of the former South African president, one of Ujiri’s personal heroes.
The event will act as fundraiser for the Nelson Mandela Foundation and for Ujiri’s foundation—Giants of Africa—with a goal of earning $300,000 split between the two charities.
Ujiri doesn’t pretend that he’s been organizing seating charts and planning the menu. The event is being produced by MLSE, who are expert given their own experience running events for their Team Up foundation. But that MLSE would throw themselves behind a charity gala for their GM a week before he NBA draft speaks volumes about Leiweke's belief that basketball decisions alone don’t make a winning organization.
“Have you ever met anyone who has a more devout commitment to culture and character than Masai?” says Leiweke, who will be at the gala along with a guest list that includes actor Danny Glover, NBA great Dikembe Mutombo and several Raptors players, including Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson. “There are a lot of guys out there who understand trading and building, but when you combine that with their character and integrity, that is the mark of a great leader. I’m a fanatic about character and giving back and understanding the platform we have, and I saw that in Masai.”
The event will be pure Ujiri, who is recognized as one of the NBA’s great friend makers. The co-host, for example, is CNN broadcaster Wolf Blitzer. The men have known each other for about five years. Blitzer, an avid NBA fan, loved talking hoops with Ujiri, and Ujiri loved talking with Blitzer about the star journalist’s visit to Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned for so long.
Also prominent among the guests is Lowry, the Raptors' pending free agent. Business is business, but Ujiri’s passion for causes bigger than basketball are a way for him to connect with his players on a different level.
“From day one Kyle told me he was going to come to this,” said Ujiri. “We’ve been texting back and forth, we talked during the NBA Finals. Free agency is free agency, and we have to do our job, which is to sign Kyle Lowry, but we’ve been communicating and he’s been very cooperative about everything."
Ujiri's worlds always seem to be colliding—the risk of living life with an open heart.
On the morning of game seven against the Nets the issue foremost on his mind was the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian school girls by a religious fundamentalist group. This month he’s following his native Nigeria’s World Cup progress, but he's also sorting through the heartbreak when he learns about gunmen killing more than a dozen people at a viewing party back home.
It’s easy for him to stay motivated, his drive to lift the Raptors twinned with his passion to make things better at home. “The Raptors are my number-one responsibility," he says. "But Africa is who I am, this is part of me. I want to make a difference.”
A year into his tenure in Toronto, he’s got both bases covered.