As a young boy living in Zaria, Nigeria, he was first introduced to basketball by Coach Oliver B. Johnson, popularly known as “Coach OBJ.” The famous coach visited parts of Africa in 1969, as a member of the American Peace Corps. He chose to stay back in Nigeria and coach young children.
Young Ujiri was one of the children who benefited from Johnson’s training. With this experience, he started dreaming of playing in the NBA. This desire eventually took him to a prep school in Seattle, then junior college in North Dakota.
Sadly, his dream never stood a chance as he simply lacked the required skill and size. “I wasn’t good enough,” he confessed to Toronto Life. However, he played professionally in Europe for six years before he finally quit.
From a failed dream to having a successful basketball career
Ujiri’s dream to play professional basketball may have failed but unknown to him, he was still going to have a successful career in this same sport. It all began when he called David Thorpe, a development coach, and Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) analyst to figure out his future.
During the call, he talked about his interest in the business side of basketball. This call resulted in Thorpe introducing him to many coaches who showed an interest in working with Ujiri. “I was getting lots of phone calls from famous coaches I didn’t know,” Thorpe recounted. “Clearly he had charmed a lot of people and he had something to sell, which was good players in Africa.”
The two worked on a document called ‘Masai’s Sphere of Influence,’ before Ujiri landed a volunteer international scouting job with the Orlando Magic, then a paid scouting position with the Denver Nuggets. He also started his Giants of Africa basketball camps in Nigeria within this period.
His big break happened after he got a tap on the shoulders during a pre-draft event in Orlando. He turned to see Bryan Colangelo, president and GM of the Raptors who wanted to know if Ujiri was interested in working in Toronto.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is Bryan Colangelo talking to me,’” he said. This encounter got him a job as director of global scouting in Toronto. Recounting the experience, he said, “I was like a sponge. I had to learn the salary cap. I had to learn about the business side of the game. I had to learn trading. I had to learn how to talk on the phone to other executives. I learned all that from Bryan Colangelo.”
He did such a good job that Tim Leiweke, then president of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), came calling. “He had the same kind of juice and determination that I did,” Leiweke said. “A desire to be great wherever he went.”
Ujiri was hired as the general manager of the Raptors, described as a “team the league did not respect” by Toronto Life. With this title, he became the first African-born general manager in NBA history. He later accepted the position of president of basketball operations. Within six years, his team won its first championship and succeeded in rebranding an entire city.
“First he rebranded his team, then he rebranded Toronto," Toronto Life wrote. "He made us feel worthy of a championship and then went out and got us one. But the Raptors president did more than just secure an NBA trophy. This year, Ujiri, more than anyone else, engineered a new Toronto identity: city of winners.
This is exactly why he has been named the most influential person in Toronto.