Nigerian native Masai Ujiri returns to Denver to lead Nuggets; top priority: keeping Melo

By Arnie Stapleton, AP
Friday, August 27, 2010

Nuggets hire Ujiri as new GM, and priority is Melo

DENVER — The Denver Nuggets have hired a man with global basketball experience to manage a team that’s in a world of hurt: two big men sidelined, a player under police investigation and its superstar’s signature missing from a contract extension.

Former Nuggets international scout Masai Ujiri, a native of Nigeria, was appointed the team’s new executive vice president of basketball operations on Friday.

He’s joining a club at a crossroads.

Amid reports that All-Star Carmelo Anthony’s days in Denver are all but done, Ujiri told The Associated Press on Friday night that topping his to-do list is keeping Anthony in a Nuggets uniform for the long-term.

Anthony has guided the Nuggets to the playoffs every season since leading Syracuse to the national title as a freshman in 2003, but the longer he goes without signing a three-year, $65 million extension that’s been on the table for two months, the greater the alarm grows in Denver that his seven-year stint in Colorado could be coming to a close.

“Of course, that’s going to be the priority,” Ujiri said in a phone interview from Toronto. “Melo is a great player, I think arguably a top-5 player in the NBA. … It’s a challenge, but I’ll meet with Melo at some point. He’s in China and he’ll come back in the next couple of days. So, we’ll set something up.”

Ujiri said he’ll get to Denver on Sunday and huddle with other team officials to formulate a strategy over trying to keep Anthony through the 2013-14 season.

“I think that Melo maybe sometimes he goes through this in his mind and says, ‘Should I stay? Should I go?’ That’s natural with somebody of his caliber and obviously sometimes he’ll have his frustrations,” Ujiri said. “But we love Melo. The city loves Melo. The players, the coaches.”

Anthony can opt out of the final year of his contract after this season and become the headliner of the 2011 free agent class a year after LeBron James and Chris Bosh shook up the league’s balance of power by heading south to play with Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat.

The Nuggets aren’t likely to let it go that far. Denver would almost certainly try to trade Anthony before the February deadline if they can’t keep him. Getting players and/or picks in return for the superstar beats the risk of losing him without compensation next summer.

“I just came from the Chris Bosh situation with the Toronto Raptors, so I can relate to how difficult it is on both sides,” Ujiri said. “Obviously with management, with coaching, with the player himself.”

Ujiri said he’s confident that coach George Karl will be back on the sideline next month after missing the end of last season while undergoing treatment for throat and neck cancer.

“He’s ready to roll, he’s ready to coach,” Ujiri said. “And that’s very positive for us.”

Ujiri (whose name is pronounced ma-SIGH u-JEER-e) served as a scout for the Nuggets from 2003-07 before joining the Raptors as director of international scouting in 2008. He most recently served as Toronto’s assistant GM in charge of player personnel.

He played at Bismarck State College and Montana State and professionally in Europe for six seasons before beginning his NBA career as an international scout for Orlando in 2002.

Ujiri, 39, also served as director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program the last eight years.

He is the first African to run a major sports team in the United States.

“I see it like I’m carrying the flag of not only the continent of Africa but to say I’m the first foreigner to lead an NBA team, to me that’s an incredible opportunity,” Ujiri said. “It’s a challenging job, but wow! There’s 30 jobs like this in the world and I have one of them. I will tell you I’m blessed and I will do my very, very best.”

The Nuggets had been without a front office leader since the contracts of Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman expired earlier this month.

“We are very pleased to welcome Masai back to Denver,” Nuggets official Josh Kroenke said in a statement. “He brings a diverse basketball background and a unique perspective that will be valuable to our organization. He is respected in basketball circles throughout the world.”

Kroenke is the 30-year-old son of owner Stan Kroenke, who agreed to turn over operational and financial control of the Nuggets and the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche as a condition for taking over as majority owner of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams on Wednesday.

The Nuggets failed to get back into the draft in June to select a big man and were unsuccessful in their pursuits of free agents Jermaine O’Neal and Udonis Haslem. They ended up signing Al Harrington, who is slated to start at power forward with Nene at center when the season begins because Kenyon Martin and Chris “Birdman” Andersen are coming off knee surgeries.

And J.R. Smith, the Nuggets’ talented but often-troubled sixth man, is under police investigation for an alleged altercation he had with a person at the team’s practice facility earlier this month.

“Well, when I get to Denver I’m going to assess that situation and deal with it,” Ujiri said.

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