Masai Ujiri is a man of several firsts. In 2010, the Nigerian executive became the first African general manager in US professional sports when he joined the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. When he became the president of the Toronto Raptors in 2013, that was another milestone.
And in 2019 he led the Canadian basketball team to become the first outside of the US to win an NBA championship. Yet during the on-court celebration, Ujiri had an altercation with a sheriff’s deputy that he believes happened because he is Black.
Ujiri, who signed a contract extension with the Raptors in August to make him both vice-chairman and president, says the incident has motivated him to lean in more to his humanitarian work – particularly through his Giants of Africa organization.
Through the nonprofit, he hopes to draw more Africans to the sport, hosting basketball camps for more than 5,000 boys and girls in 16 African countries since 2003 – and he is currently on a mission to build 100 basketball courts across the continent.
CNN’s Arit Okpo spoke to Ujiri in Kenya while he was unveiling some of the first courts this past September.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Arit Okpo: You’re the first Black, non-American team president in North American sports. What does that mean to you?
Masai Ujiri: I struggle with it a little bit because you have the pride in you to say you are leading the way and that’s where it ends. Because if there are not other people that follow after me, that means I didn’t do a good job. I’m the only one, and I actually hate it. I want there to be more Blacks. I want there to be more Africans.
It’s very prideful for me to bring young African coaches, young African women to come and speak to these kids because they see that if me and you can do it, they can do it too. So yeah, I don’t want to be the only one. I hate that. It’s fine, being the first – I have a problem with being the only one.
Okpo: So are there ways that you are taking this and maybe changing the way certain things are done?
Ujiri: Yes, plenty of ways. First of all, we have to give more Black people opportunity in our own institutions and organizations. We have to continue to figure out a way to be decision-makers, be in these boardrooms. It’s not only hire an intern or hire a diversity and inclusion officer – we have to be in positions where decisions are being made in the best way. For me personally, there are a couple of projects that we are working on that I cannot speak too much about now that I am 100% excited about.
Okpo: Your duties with the Toronto Raptors have expanded to vice-chairman. In addition to president, what does that mean in terms of the work that you’re going to be doing?
Ujiri: We are the only (NBA) team that’s outside the United States so that brings a unique opportunity. And some people don’t really understand it. When I spoke to ownership, I thought, you know what? We need to see it bigger. We need to be the team of the world. I have to help more people. I have to use my platform to be a voice.
It would be a failure if there are not more (people like) me in this position. So my voice had to be bigger, and put us in environments where we can be even bigger decision makers. And those are the things that I want to do.