Masai Ujiri's NBA journey began with modest beginnings

Denver Nuggets executive VP of basketball operations named 2012-13 NBA Executive of the Year
by Aaron Lopez

Ten years ago, Masai Ujiri accompanied a Nigerian player to a predraft workout for the Orlando Magic.

It was a modest introduction to the NBA.

“I had to wait outside,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed into the practice facility.”

Suffice to say, Ujiri is no longer on the outside looking in.

Ujiri reflected on his humble beginnings Thursday after receiving the 2012-13 NBA Executive of the Year award for his role in the Denver Nuggets’ record-setting season.

Less than two years removed from a near-complete roster turnover, the Nuggets won a team-record 57 games and finished third in the Western Conference before falling to the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs.

“It’s a little bittersweet for me,” Ujiri said, glancing at the pyramid-shaped award by his side. “I would trade that to be playing right now.

“This is a team sport, a team game. It’s about all of us and bringing all of us together to try and achieve a championship, which for me is a bigger trophy. That’s the goal in Denver. That’s what we want to do here.”

Ujiri, 42, worked briefly as an international scout for the Magic before being hired by the Nuggets in the same capacity in 2003. He remembers early morning workouts in the weight room with Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke.

The two shared a love of soccer, hoops and a passion to succeed.

“Mr Kroenke gave me that opportunity," Ujiri said. "I don’t know anywhere else I would get a chance to be here in this position. I really appreciate it."

After four season in Denver, Ujiri joined the Toronto Raptors in 2007, rising to the role of assistant general manager under well-respected NBA executive Bryan Colangelo before returning to Denver in 2010 as the executive vice president of basketball operations.

Since his return, Ujiri has worked closely with team president Josh Kroenke to keep the Nuggets among the Western Conference elite.

“I wish that we would be setting up another press conference and there would be another award for Josh Kroenke because that guy is the real executive of the year, in my opinion," Ujiri said. "He’s a leader and he’s a great person and given all of us here a great opportunity.”

Ujiri also was quick to credit vice president of basketball of operations Pete D’Alessandro, director of player personnel Mike Bratz, scout Herb Livsey and scouting coordinator Dan Tolzman. Together, the Nuggets front office put together a young, athletic roster that led the league in scoring and won a franchise-record 15 straight games from Feb. 23 to March 23.

The success was tempered by the first-round playoff loss.

“We’re a growing team. We’ll continue to get better,” Ujiri said. “All these guys played their butts off. They all come here and work. It’s an unbelievable blessing working with these guys. I’m so proud of them.

“There was an unbelievable energy in this city. We will continue to take this energy into the offseason and do whatever we have to do to get better.”

One of the priorities will be re-signing swingman Andre Iguodala, who came to Denver from Philadelphia last August in a four-team trade that also included Orlando and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Iguodala, an elite defender and versatile offensive playmaker, can opt out of the final year of his contract this summer but has expressed in returning to the Nuggets.

“I’m very optimistic that things will go well,” Ujiri said. “He grew as the year went on and began to play better. He’s a great kid and I think he’s great for us. That’s going to be his decision. We’ll do everything on our part. We want him back.”

Ujiri also is in line for a new contract this summer and joked that there are a lot of teams in Nigeria vying for his services. He and Josh Kroenke have developed a strong relationship that should help in negotiations.

“Josh and I have continue to have conversations.,” he said. “I’m very positive that things will work out.”

Ujiri also will stay committed to promoting basketball and developing players in his native Africa. He has been director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program since 2003 and continues to give back in any way possible.

“The NBA has done a great job of spreading the word and giving us a chance to do what we do in Africa and develop the game there,” he said. “I have to produce (in the NBA). By producing and winning, that will change things over there.

“This (award) helps. I’m definitely proud of it. I’m proud of what my parents have done, but I have a lot of work to do to help people over there and grow the game over there.”

Ujiri praised Denver’s coaching staff for helping to cultivate the young players that he has added over the past three years. Patrick Mutombo, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was among the Nuggets’ coaches in attendance when Ujiri received his award Thursday.

“It’s a historical moment for me, because of his background and humility,” Mutombo said. “He’s one of my role models for how he carries himself and puts his head down and works – and works and works.

“I know a lot of people of my generation look up to him with the steps he’s taken. He set the stage for us to come and either continue what he started or surpass what he’s done. To me, it’s incredible.”

Certainly an impressive climb from the days when he couldn't get in the door.