Masai Ujiri’s big leap and the NBA’s African digital push
“If you don’t want to dream big, then there’s no dream at all.” – Masai Ujiri
This week the Toronto Raptors begin a historical attempt at winning the NBA Finals title at the expense of the Golden State Warriors. It is the first time in the 24-year history of the Canada-based franchise that they have reached the Finals. Last week the Raptors eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks 4-2 to win their first ever Eastern Conference Finals courtesy of the massive work of superstar forward Kawhi Leonard. He got the best of the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokoumpo who struggled to make an impact during four of the six games.
Raptors are now heading into their first Finals with a chance to win the most coveted title in professional basketball, the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. And all this is down to the boardroom work of Masai Ujiri, the Nigerian who is President of the Toronto Raptors and has taken them from a struggling team in the 2012/13 season to the pinnacle of the league in six years. When Ujiri fired former head coach Dwayne Casey and replaced him with his assistant Nick Nurse, eyebrows were raised. The Raptors had consistently reached the post-season but were always falling short of winning the Eastern Conference due to the impact of LeBron James at the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But Ujiri saw bigger things ahead as he changed the coach. He also traded star forward DeMar DeRozan for Leonard from San Antonio Spurs. DeRozan had become the life wire of the team where he broke the scoring record and took them to the playoffs consistently. Ujiri trusted Leonard with leading the team and they finished the regular season as the second-best team in the league behind the Bucks who also thrived with the departure of James to the Lakers. And they went into the post-season getting a first-round win against the Orlando Magic in five games before a spectacular buzzer-beater in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers in the semi-finals. Leonard and his posse of Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet then rose from a two-game deficit to defeat the Bucks 4-2.
After the game on Sunday, Ujiri praised his team and his star player Leonard for securing the first Conference title since their founding. He tried to deflect all the praise by insisting that Leonard was responsible for the rare achievement. But he was the one who made the big decisions inside the boardroom that have brought all the difference to a team once considered as chokers. This Nigerian man, the only foreigner in charge of a franchise in the big five sports leagues in the United States, was finally enjoying the praise.
In 2017, I caught up with Ujiri at the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Surulere, Lagos, during a session of the Giants of Africa basketball summer camp that he has been hosting for several years. As the kids sat on the floor looking up at him, he told them – “If you don’t want to dream big, then there’s no dream at all.”
Ujiri has certainly lived up to his own words. He has turned a small franchise into a major competitor. Like the Drake-inspired song, he started from the bottom as an unpaid scout in the NBA and is now seven games away from winning the Championship title with only the giant Warriors in front of his boys. He is becoming a massive profile in sports business management.
Meanwhile, the NBA has been spreading its reach wide across Africa with the launch of its NBA Africa YouTube channel in March. After the broadcasting partnership with Kwese TV and Kwese Free Sports broke down due to the broadcaster’s financial problems, the NBA is now reaching directly to African fans via its free YouTube platform that has been gaining popularity since the Playoffs began last month.
The digital platform now has 20,000+ subscribers at the end of May 2019. It has been screening all the live games in the Eastern and Western Conferences and will gather more fans as the Finals commence this week. Alongside the live games, it has begun independent programming showing content like the NBA Africa Game Time, a 15 minutes interview show hosted by South African rapper Sho Madjozi with guests having included Nigerian singers Niniola, Mr Eazi and South African singers Loyiso Gola and Da L.E.S. The show is hoping to use famous singers to draw attention to the channel and the game across the continent.
The NBA’s expansion into Africa will also see it launch the Basketball Africa League in collaboration with FIBA Africa next year as it looks to capture the interest of a young and increasingly digitally-savvy African population.