Masai Ujiri on Leadership During the Pandemic and the Raptors’ Incredible Spirit

By March 10, the Toronto Raptors had quietly compiled the second-best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and the squad that team president Masai Ujiri built looked well positioned to push for a second-straight NBA title. The next day, an NBA player tested positive for Covid-19, and the league suspended play as the pandemic upended plans everywhere. Ujiri had to adjust mid-season, but the architect of the Raptors’ 2019 NBA championship still strives to strengthen both his team and his legacy – in addition to running his Giants of Africa foundation to provide opportunities for youth across the continent and being an outspoken advocate for diversity. We spoke with Nigeria-born, Toronto-based Ujiri, just before he delivered the keynote at the 2020 Audi Innovation Series, about building a winning culture that thrives even during a pandemic.
 

July 10, 2020
The Toronto Raptors win at the Scotiabank Arena
Scotiabank Arena, Toronto.   Photo: Christian Mendoza (Unsplash)

 
enRoute What has been the most profound change in the way you do your job since the NBA season was suspended?
 

Masai Ujiri Managing my time and schedule has become so important. It’s very structured: I know exactly what’s happening every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. because of all the calls with the team and players. It’s important to manage being personal with whoever you’re interacting with.
 

ER When you can’t see people face-to-face, how do you ensure the organization still feels a personal connection?
 

MU I don’t think you can turn it on and off, and this is why I’m proud of the culture in our organization. It’s about letting people be themselves, letting people work free and empowering people. Whether it’s friendly text messages, WhatsApp, phone calls, video calls or Zoom, communication has been the key to finding a way for people to focus, especially mentally. We’re going to have to address a lot of mental health issues when this is over – we might as well start addressing them now, and that’s by communicating.
 

ER How did you arrive at your management style?
 

MU By hiring people smarter than me. A lot of people are scared to do it. If you hire very smart people with character, they’ll figure it out. If I don’t need to manage anybody with their work and their character, work flows and people take responsibility. When you get people with a winning mentality they want to win on the court and off the court.
 

Masai Ujiri with his Giants of Africa team he is mentoring in Somalia
A Giants of Africa girls’ camp at the Elman Peace Centre in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2019.    Photo: Kevin Couliau / Giants of Africa

 
ER Who are some of your biggest influences from a leadership standpoint?
 

MU My dad and my mom: They taught me to treat people well first. They taught me about honesty and trust, and how to be fierce. From Nelson Mandela, I learned about being selfless – to take ego out of it and have pride in a good way. I’ve been blessed to have a friendship with Barack Obama – he’s a unique, smart, intellectual, caring person. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – these visionary leaders are inspirational to me, too.
 

ER You founded Giants of Africa in 2003. At what point did you realize what you were doing was bigger than basketball?
 

MU I was inspired when I started working with the women’s junior national team in Nigeria in 2002. I saw these people who were so smart with an incredible passion for life, looking for opportunity and mentorship. It made me realize that winning can create something great. You can win at basketball, but these youth also need a path to something bigger.
 

The Toronto Raptors at the NBA Championship parade held by their city
NBA Championship parade, Toronto.   Photo: Joshua Chu (Unsplash)

 
ER Just over a year ago, you were finishing up the Raptors’ championship parade. In a pandemic-free world, what would the 2019-2020 Raptors be doing right now?
 

MU We’d have been doing the same exact thing. I give our organization a lot of credit because to stay mentally focused after a year is one of the hardest things in sports. We lost probably the best player on the team [Kawhi Leonard], so to get back to that level – third-best record in the league when the season was suspended – takes heart. It’s an incredible spirit that these guys have. They’re winners – they want to win, and they want to keep winning.

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