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The Kenyan connection to NBA playoff finals

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[dropcap]B[/dropcap]arrack Obama, Lupita Nyong’o, Divock Origi just to mention a few. Kenya has produced individuals that came to be known to the whole World and even conquered the World. Kenyans are forever proud of these individuals being sure to mention they hail from this country when talking about them.

Another name could be added to the list. That name is Masai Ujiri, the the General Manager of Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association. Now that the Toronto Raptors are in the finals of NBA playoffs, Ujiri is one of the most powerful Sports executives in America.

Ujiri’s Kenyan connection comes from his mother, Paula Grace, who traces her roots to Machakos. His father Michael Ujiri, however, is from Nigeria. The Kenyan side of his heritage is not known to many despite being in the public eye for over a decade.

His parents met and fell in love while studying in England. His Nigerian father, Michael Ujiri, was an hospital administrator while his mother Paula Grace was a doctor. They later moved back to Nigeria before immigrating to America.

The Raptors general is forever connected to the continent ad has done many things in his power to help Africa, his motherland. In 2014, when more than 200 girls were abducted by Boko Haram terrorists, he wrote a column pleading for help, linking his own daughter, Zahara, with the plight of the nameless girls.

He has been in Kenya identifying children with talent and helping them develop into formidable players that can get opportunities locally or internationally. He last visited the country in August 2016 for activities involving Giants of Africa (GOA) — a non-profit organization he is associated with.

When his parents moved to America, he played basketball for two years at Bismarck University before he transferred to Montana State University-Billings.

With the path to the NBA closed, he moved to play in Europe for six years but ended his professional career in 2002. It probably hit him that he was not good enough as a player and decided to be a scout and source for players from Africa, South America, Europe and Asia.

While accompanying a young Nigerian player to a draft tryout in Orlando, Mr Ujiri met Mr John Gabriel, who was the Orlando Magic General Manager. They talked for a few minutes and, impressed by Mr Ujiri’s extensive knowledge of international players, Mr Gabriel offered him an unpaid scout position for the team. This meant Mr Ujiri was using his own financial resources, something he has been quoted as saying almost bankrupted him as he had to raid his savings.

He, however, did not do the unpaid job for long. He met Mr Jeff Weltman, an executive with the Denver Nuggets, who introduced him to Mr Kiki Vandeweghe, Denver’s former GM, who hired Mr Ujiri on salary as an international scout, a position he held for a successful four years. The journey to the top had started.

Mr Ujiri joined the Toronto Raptors as director of global scouting in 2007 and the following year was elevated to assistant general manager. Three years later, he became the first African General Manager in the NBA when he was returned to Nuggets to run their basketball operations department.

At the Nuggets, he displayed his skills and the world was impressed when he pulled an impressive 12-player deal that stunned the entire NBA. For his efforts, he was selected the NBA’s executive of the year while while George Karl, the Nuggets coach, was chosen coach of the year.

This success did not go unnoticed and in May 2013, he packed his bags and returned to Toronto after he was named President and General Manager of Basketball Operations of the Toronto Raptors. The move also meant he had hit the million dollar mark. Mr Ujiri signed a five-year, $15 million (Sh150 million) deal.

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From Kenya, from Nigeria, to the Toronto Raptors. When in his tender age, Mr Ujiri could not have imagined he would one day be the boss of a big basketball club. Yet another Kenyan at the global arena, writing history.

Ujiri’s Giants of Africa recently built a basketball court in Alego, Kenya, as part of the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resource and Vocational Training Centre founded by Auma Obama, the former US President’s sister.

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Kevin Namunwa
Kevin Namunwahttp://www.businesstoday.co.ke
Kevin Namunwa is a senior reporter for Business Today. Email at [email protected].
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