VICE Sports Q&A: Masai Ujiri

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri talks about his Giants of Africa program, being a general manager, the sweep to the Wizards, Drake, his Blackberry, and more.

Dec 4 2015, 4:40pm

Photo by Darren Calabrese-The Canadian Press

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To commemorate the second anniversary of Nelson Mandela's passing, Masai Ujiri and the Raptors will honour Mandela on Saturday night when Toronto hosts the undefeated Golden State Warriors. The evening-long celebration will support Ujiri's non-profit organization, Giants of Africa, and the Nelson Mandela Foundation in an effort to continue to create growth and development opportunities for youths in Africa. Giants of Africa was founded in 2003 by Ujiri and his high school friend, Godwin Owinje.

Earlier this week, we caught up with the Raptors general manager to talk about the success of the Giants of Africa program, the team's performance so far this season, and more.

VICE Sports: Since starting Giants of Africa, a lot of the kids who attended the basketball camps in Africa have gone on to have basketball careers all around the world. Has that been the most satisfying part?

Masai Ujiri: That has been very satisfying, but one of the things I struggled with was: it's easy to see the talented kids go on and do better, get scholarships, and play elsewhere, but what about the kids who never make it? That always bothered me, because there are always going to be kids who attend the camps who are not talented enough. One of the challenges we've had is how do we set up programs that help those kids go to university and succeed in life outside of basketball.

Have you made progress in addressing that challenge?

I think we have. We're making more contacts with people that can help. It's a responsibility for us. When I first started it was exciting to see some of these kids go places in the basketball world. But as I've grown older I started to say, 'You know what, not all of us are going to get that opportunity.' The challenge has become bigger for us and we're spending time on it to figure out solutions to that.

You spend several weeks during each summer attending these camps in Africa. Is there a specific experience you've had from GOA that you think best illustrates what this program is all about?

There are so many. One of the best was in camp this summer. There was a kid that's now in a director position at a bank. He never left Nigeria, he went to high school and university there, and now he has a great job. He read that the camp was coming to town and came to visit. He was wearing this really nice suit and looked so different from six or seven years ago when he attended the camp. We had him speak to the kids at camp. It was so cool to see.

What are the next steps to continue growing the game of basketball in Africa?

We're building more courts. We're also going to more countries. This year we were in Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria and Ghana. We're hoping to add Botswana, Senegal and maybe the Ivory Coast and Uganda for next year. If we can build a few more courts and add a few more countries each year, I think we'll make steady progress, and continue affecting more and more youths there.

In Evan Rosser's Sportsnet profile of Giants of Africa this summer, it was mentioned that you don't cook at all. Can you cook?

My wife is an unbelievable cook, so I've been spoiled a little bit. I haven't found a need to cook except fry a couple of eggs and make breakfast. I can cook, but my wife is the best cook in the world, so...[laughs]

I also read that you used to coach in Nigeria. Was coaching something that you ever considered pursuing?

I coached the junior national team in Nigeria, and was the assistant coach of the national team. It's not something I would consider anymore. My passion is managing, but knowing the game and knowing coaching is also part of my job, so I'm happy to have gone through that experience to know some of the things that coaches do.

Where do you stand on team building and specifically the value of chemistry?

It's very important. It's something that's very underrated. I think it's a huge step in creating a culture of winning.

Believing that chemistry is an important part, did that make turning the roster over so much this summer a difficult decision?

It did. When you're building a team and you go through what we went through the last couple of years, there are a few guys you're used to. But it's part of the business. You jump to another stage, you move onto something else. Sometimes that something else is new and you don't know what you're getting. It might look good on paper but you don't know how it will look when the season starts.

So do you feel validated now by the moves you made, especially since DeMarre Carroll, Luis Scola, Bismack Biyombo and Cory Joseph have all played a huge role in the team's success so far?

Not really. I don't consider anything done. We brought in these fantastic players, but it all has to come together over a period of time. We've only played a few games. So no.

How would you assess the performance of the team so far?

If you took our schedule into consideration from the beginning and I said 'Hey, this is the record we would have' I think everyone would have taken it. There has been a couple of games we felt we could have come away with. There are things we need to get better at, like moving the ball a little better down the stretch. The three-point shooting and rebounding is getting better. We have to learn to win consistently. It's still a growing team.

The sweep to the Wizards in the playoffs last season. How hard do you take losses like that?

I don't want to say for the rest of my life, but it's one of those things that haunt you. I can remember every loss, that's how hard you take it. But you can't react crazy. Over time, you have to build your philosophies where you manage the team and its progress. Those losses hurt, but you move on, you figure it out. I'm one of those people who lives with them, but they inspire you, they make you work harder. They give you sleepless nights, but you have to move on.

A lot of us like to think we can be general managers, run a team, manage the salary cap, figure out what the right moves are. What's one thing that we, as fans and media, don't appreciate about how difficult building a winning team in the NBA can be?

Honestly, it's not rocket science. To me, anybody can do it. We need luck. There are reasons behind the things we do, but sometimes we get lucky and it falls our way, sometimes we don't. It's a one in a million job. I pinch myself every day that I have this job. I don't know what to pinpoint but sometimes we just need a little bit of luck. I don't know how complicated this is. [laughs]

How many Drake CDs do you own?

I go with what my wife plays in the car, so I don't actually own any CDs. But there's a ton of Drake in our car.

Favorite song?

I like "Hotline Bling."

Can you dance like he does in the video?

I can, but only a minute of it.

A movie that you're looking forward to watching?

I want to watch Concussion. I think that will be a good movie. You know, I watch a lot of documentaries and I watch 60 Minutes. I love watching stuff like that.

What books are you reading?

I just re-read "A Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah. It's a story of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, who went from a tough life to fighting and progressing to beat those circumstances. The story inspires me. That's the last one I read. I'm blanking on a lot of books. I'm a weird reader. I'll read half of a book and even when it's really good I'll put it down, and then I'll continue on a next trip and read another book. I'm also reading a couple of Nelson Mandela books again. Sometimes I want to read up on some of the things that didn't stick to you as much the first time.

Do you have time to watch any TV shows during the season?

I don't really watch any TV. I'll glance at the TV sometimes if my wife's watching Empire or Scandal. I'll sit with her for an episode. But I don't have a TV show that I watch. I don't know if it's the fear of that it would take me away from what I do, but I'm one of those people who would rather not put myself in a position to do anything like that. I don't want to engage in shows that I think I'll get addicted to.

So how do you unwind during the season when you have downtime?

My daughter. She's my love. She had this little peekaboo house and yesterday she made me go inside it. Anything she does moves me. Everything she does affects me. I can't concentrate on anything when she's around, she's that precious. I focus on very few things in life—my work, my family, my friends. Those things are important to me and I pay good attention to them, and everything else just comes and goes.

To your knowledge, are you the only GM in the league that uses a Blackberry?

I always like to claim that Obama uses a Blackberry so I don't care what you guys say. [laughs]

I just see everyone using Androids and iPhones these days. But no complaints about the Blackberry?

Safest in the business.

This is probably why there are never leaks about trade rumours or draft picks.

Yeah, exactly. I'm telling you. That Blackberry, man.