That led to his first full-time job, with the Denver Nuggets. He switched from Denver to Toronto and back. In 2013, he was NBA executive of the year as the Nuggets general manager. The next year, he was lured back to run the Raptors organization. By now, there are very few important players in the college and pro games that he does not call a friend. He leveraged those relationships to get Giants of Africa started. The first camp took place in Ujiri’s hometown of Zaria, Nigeria, in 2003. The 50 invitees lacked the most basic equipment. Ujiri put a box in the middle of the Nuggets dressing room. Players dropped whatever they had lying around inside.
In Kenya, it’s another 16-year-old South Sudanese, Kon Bior. At 6-foot-6, Bior has the broad build and easy grace that mark the special ones. He is one of those players who seem spotlit on the floor. “He has the eyes of a killer,” Ujiri says. “That kid can be in the NBA.” Bior doesn’t need Ujiri’s help. He’s enrolled in one of Kenya’s best high schools, and already a bit of a local legend. Others have taken notice. Remember the name. He’s on his way somewhere. Ujiri has to wait like everyone else to see exactly where. But watching Bior run the floor, Ujiri still can’t help muttering to himself: “He would look so good in a Raptors jersey.”
The league would not put the resources it has put into Africa over the last few years if it didn’t view it as a growth area. But that does not mean expansion, as is still the dream among many in Europe. There could be regular-season games in the future, but not until there are more arenas on the continent with the bells and whistles the league requires — suites, signage, you know the drill. (Saturday’s game was played in Ellis Park Arena, which seats 5,000.)
There were some empty seats at Saturday’s game; the English newspaper The Guardian speculated that some fans may have taken in the Soweto Derby soccer match which drew a sellout 94,000 in the nearby suburb. There is support for more games, including NBA regular-season games. But the talk has to be followed by construction cranes.