OAKLAND, Calif. — In early June 2013, at what was then called Air Canada Centre, Masai Ujiri sat next to then-Toronto Raptors CEO and president Tim Leiweke to be introduced as the team’s next general manager.
Sporting a black suit and his trademark wide smile, Ujiri, who for the previous three seasons held the same position with the Denver Nuggets, told the assembled media his plans to awaken the “sleeping giant” that was the Raptors franchise.
He then rhetorically asked the interviewers, why couldn’t he change the culture of a team that had, at that point, won just one playoff series in its entire existence. He said basketball decisions would be his and his alone, and that it was his job to make the team better, to “create a winning environment.”
Almost six years to the date of that news conference, standing atop an assembled stage at center court of Oracle Arena — home of three of the last four NBA championships — Ujiri held the Larry O’Brien Trophy up high after his Raptors finished off the defending champion Warriors in six games following a nail-biting 114-110 victory on Thursday.
And while the championship victory was monumental for a city that hadn’t won a professional championship in 26 years, it was even more so for Ujiri. He became just the second black general manager or president of basketball operations (Joe Dumars, 2003-04) to win an NBA title, and the first African-born executive to win a championship in one of the four major American sports.
Ujiri’s victory should put other teams across the league (not including the Washington Wizards, it appears) on notice that the requirements of the modern day team-builder — middle-aged white guy who’s fond of team swag, a couple of pairs of pleated pants — is not the only way to be successful in the NBA.
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The naming of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in 2007 kick-started the advanced statistics era that has now completely shrouded the NBA in recent years. What was once scouting and film study morphed into data science and predictive models. Jobs normally reserved for former players and coaches suddenly were taken over by computer scientists and statistical analysts.
But this influx of hedge fund and venture capital ownerships and philosophies led to a pipeline of similar-minded, similarly skilled people coming from an industry that itself struggles with diversity. Suddenly the people who once played the game (more likely than not African American) were being overlooked for those from Silicon Valley and the Ivy League (more likely than not white Americans).
As ESPN analyst and former NBA player Jalen Rose recently told The New Yorker, “There are many people that feel like [sports analytics] has a cultural overtone to it that basically suggests that, even though I may not have played and you did, I am smarter than you, and I know some things that you don’t know, and the numbers support me, not you.”
Despite all the winning Toronto has done since Ujiri took over ahead of the 2013-14 season, the Nigerian’s professional brilliance never appeared to be on a similar level as the NBA’s supposed whiz kids: Morey, Sam Presti, Bob Myers and, of course, Sam Hinkie.
And it’s not as if the Raptors don’t use analytics – they employ at least four data-focused coaches and executives and were at the forefront of the advanced stats movement. But because it’s Ujiri, a black former college and professional player and scout, and because the Raptors didn’t get to this point by taking the most 3s (ranked 11th during the regular season in 3-point attempts) and close 2s (19th), it flies in the face – as Rose said – of the notion that the venture capitalist or hedge fund way, with its lack of black people and other people of color, is the only way to win championships. Analytics, Rose went on, “should be a tool in the box, not the actual toolbox.”
When Ujiri took the reins, Toronto had missed the playoffs for five consecutive seasons and had just one playoff series victory since the team’s inaugural season in 1995-96. He immediately shipped out cumbersome center Andrea Bargnani and high-volume scorer Rudy Gay and dealt for supporting cast members Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka. In drafts, he’s made solid picks in Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, not to mention signing a little known undrafted free agent by the name of Fred VanVleet.
But his biggest swing was trading away fan favorite DeMar DeRozan last summer (a shrewd business decision that ignored DeRozan’s connection to and love for Toronto) to bring in 2014 Finals MVP and superstar Kawhi Leonard. Unlike, say, Danny Ainge, Ujiri’s deal-making skills didn’t appear to be as highly regarded.
Since becoming general manager and president in 2013 (Ujiri relinquished his general manager duties in 2017), the Raptors have won 321 regular-season games (fourth-most in the league in that time span, according to ESPN Stats & Info), five division titles (tied for first with Golden State) and had the league’s best record last season.
“It’s great working for him,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s set the goals very high for our organization, similar to what the goals that our staff and our players set.
“He’s put together a heck of a roster and some great players and the blend is really good.”
As the Raptors celebrated on the Oracle Arena court, Ujiri (who reportedly got into a confrontation with security on his way to the floor) stood on stage with the team, white championship shirt in hand while lifting both hands in jubilation as Kyle Lowry lifted the trophy. He told the crowd of Raptors fans who have taken over the arena after all three road wins this series that, “We wanted to win in Toronto, and we have won in Toronto,” before bellowing out a Howard Dean-like yell.
While Ujiri was most concerned about bringing a championship to the entire country of Canada, what he’s accomplished in six years transcends one team or one city or one country.
In a league that is 73 percent black but with just one black majority owner and two black presidents of basketball operations, Ujiri’s Finals win proves that the preconceived notion of what an NBA decision-maker looks like is, ironically enough, outdated.