For some, reaching the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs for the seventh time and winning a third division title in the franchise’s 20-year history is worth celebrating.
Don’t count Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri among that group.
The lone Canadian NBA team was expected to accomplish both missions in a weak Atlantic Division.
After succumbing to the Brooklyn Nets in the first round last season, expectations this year are that Toronto will advance to the conference semi-finals for the second time since 2001 when they lost 4-3 to the Philadelphia 76ers and perhaps make its first conference final appearance.
“We have not done anything yet,” Ujiri told Share last week at a ceremony where he and 14 other individuals were unveiled as 2015 Harry Jerome Award winners. “In my opinion, the work has just started. It’s a work in progress and you want to grow and build this to be something good. We are about halfway to getting to where we want to consider ourselves excellent. I hope we continue to grow and in the process inspire more young people to play the sport.”
The playoffs start on April 18.
In May 2013, the Raptors hired Ujiri, the first African-born general manager in the four major North American sports (basketball, baseball, football and hockey). It was a homecoming for the Nigerian native, who spent three seasons as an assistant general manager before leaving in 2010 to become the general manager of the Denver Nuggets that won a franchise record 57 games and posted an impressive 38-3 home record to finish third in the tough Western Conference in the 2012-13 season.
Ujiri was rewarded for the team’s brilliance with the NBA Executive of the Year Award.
The Harry Jerome Awards recognize excellence in Canada’s Black community and individuals who promote diversity and inclusiveness.
Jerome, a top Canadian sprinter, equalled Percy Williams’ national high school record with a 10-second run in the 100-yard dash in March 1959, won gold medals in the 100-metre sprint at the 1966 Commonwealth and 1967 Pan American Games, set seven world records, defended his national 100-metre sprint title in his last official race in August 1969 and established the parameters for the creation of the federal Ministry of Sport before dying suddenly at age 42 in December 1982.
Born the same year that Jerome was invested into the Order of Canada 45 years ago, Ujiri is honoured to be recognized with an award named after the Canadian trailblazer.
“When I get an award like this, I always feel humbled,” he said. “It’s like I don’t know what I have done to deserve something like this. All I am trying to do is show good leadership and make an impact. I am very appreciative of this honour.”
Ujiri has made his mark since returning to the city.
The Raptors set a franchise record for wins last season, the team’s home games at the Air Canada Centre are generally sold out, fans in Canadian border cities close to American arenas are turning out in large numbers to show their support and the “We the North” brand slogan has been a major hit.
In the past two years, the GM and his Guinean-born wife, Ramatu, along with the Raptors have hosted fundraising galas in Toronto to celebrate late South African president Nelson Mandela’s legacy.
Proceeds accrued from the events went to the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Ujiri’s Giants of Africa Foundation, founded in 2003 as a means to use basketball to educate and enrich the lives of African youths.
CBC Sports audience voted Ujiri the most influential figure in Canadian sports in 2014.