Talking Points

Ever wish you could ask the mayor about urban development, or a battalion chief about fighting the Waldo Canyon fire, or a Nobel Prize winner about the nature of reality? In our first-ever Interview Issue, we asked 18 of the city’s brightest, most outspoken leaders and personalities those questions, and many more. Turn the page to hear them speak out—in their own words.
January 2013

Masai Ujiri photo

Masai Ujiri

The Denver Nuggets general manager on hoops, his work in Africa, and the time he thought he’d blown his chance to lead the Nugs. Interview by Robert Sanchez

Your mother was a nurse, and your father was a nursing educationist in Nigeria. How did they react when you said you wanted to play basketball? 

African parents are all about school, and sports is generally something on the side. I had curfews to study, but they understood. They saw the love I had for basketball. Growing up, I followed the NBA. I read magazines and I got videos, like Come Fly With Me with Michael Jordan.

You moved to the United States as a teenager to attend school and play ball, but you’d been here before.

One of the first times I came here, I visited a family friend who was living in Idaho. When I got there, the first thing I wondered was, “Where’s MTV? Where’s Bill Cosby?” 

You played college ball here, then you played professionally in Europe, and then you became an NBA scout and later an executive. Still, you’ve always been drawn to Africa.

Five or six years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela. There were five or six of us there, all NBA personnel. The first person Nelson Mandela walked up to was [former Denver Nuggets center] Dikembe Mutombo, who’d opened a hospital in Africa, and Mandela said, “We really appreciate what you are doing for Africa. Don’t ever stop the work.” That touched me. I felt that God was paving the way for me, too, to help other people.

How did that moment change you?

I thought, I have to work harder, I have to do better, I have to strive more. Mandela couldn’t do it alone. Mutombo couldn’t do it alone. I was put in this position in Denver for a reason: to help other people.

You were offered the Nuggets job in 2010. What was that conversation like?

Paul Andrews [the team’s former CEO] calls me. We start talking money. I’m pushing a little harder; he’s pushing a little harder. He asks me if, for a certain amount of money, I’d really miss out on being the executive vice president of the Denver Nuggets. I say, “Yes, that amount of money helps me make a difference in Africa. I will walk away.” He hangs up and I hang up. I said to myself, “Have I just blown this fricking job?” Four minutes later, he calls me and says, “You’re the new executive vice president of the Denver Nuggets.”

What does being the first African general manager of a major American sports franchise mean to you?

It doesn’t mean anything. You have to make an impact. Do I want to be the first African general manager who just comes in, has the job, and is done? No. I want to win. And if I don’t impact Africa, it means absolutely nothing.

Are you a basketball missionary?

Eventually, I will be. Our dream with the Nuggets is to win a championship. My second goal is to grow the game in Africa. I pray that happens.

In quiet moments, have you ever asked yourself, “How did I get here?”

In Nigeria, I used to read about Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan. And now I’m sitting in a general managers meeting, and I look across the table, and I see Larry Bird. I’m still in awe.

You don’t worry some of these big-name sports giants are going to fleece you in an important deal?

When it comes to work, my mentality is totally different. In sports, you have to be a killer. If not, you can’t survive. There’s no other way in sports.