Masai Ujiri says he appreciates other NBA clubs' offers, but his roots are in Toronto
During his first formal news conference since the Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship, team president Masai Ujiri put to rest rumours he might soon head for the exit.
“For me, it’s always been about Toronto,” Ujiri said. “I love it here, my family loves it here. My wife loves it here, which is very important. My kids are Canadians.”
Ever since Ujiri was hired by the Raptors back in 2013, his stated goal has always been to bring a championship to Toronto. But even though that goal has been accomplished, he says he’s not ready to leave the team. Not while there’s still a chance to win.
“When you taste it,” Ujiri said about winning the title, “you want to do it over and over again.”
The ability to win a back-to-back title will be a huge part of the Raptor’s pitch to Kawhi Leonard, who will enter free-agency on June 30. While Toronto is considered a front-runner to re-sign the 2019 NBA Finals MVP, Leonard is expected to entertain offers from other teams. Still, Ujiri says the Raptors are confident in their chances.
“Kawhi is his own man. He’s shown us that since he came here. He’s a confident human being, he’s an unbelievable person. I’m glad we got him for a year.”
Ujiri said that sitting down in front of reporters on Tuesday was much different than when he met with the media back in July 2018 to announce the Raptors had traded DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Leonard and Danny Green.
“People don’t understand how hard that was for me,” Ujiri said of the DeRozan trade. “I know it was harder for him. He’s the one, he’s the subject, he’s the one who got traded. Man I think of the growth of that kid and even my relationship with him and where he got to.”
Ujiri says he was in Africa last July when he had to make the call to DeRozan.
“I had to walk around this hotel in Kenya for two hours at 4 a.m. just to sum up enough courage to call DeMar DeRozan,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing. I still think about that.”
Ujiri acknowledged the friction that existed between him and Kyle Lowry, who was initially upset about the trade. But he says time has started to heal those wounds. When San Antonio was in Toronto to play the Raptors during the regular season, DeRozan made a point of finding Ujiri.
“DeMar came into our locker room,” he said. “He came up to me and he hugged me. And asked me how my family was doing.”
Ujiri said he and Lowry have moved past those hard feelings, and that he has been blown away to see Lowry’s growth of a player, especially during Game 6 of the finals, where he put up 22 points in the first half alone.
“There’s something about that guy,” he said.
For a city that’s constantly questioning its teams’ ability to win, Ujiri hopes this championship is just the first of many. He said that when he first started in Toronto, he was often asked, ‘can any team here ever win a championship here?’
“Then the soccer team does, and the basketball team has,” he said, referring to Toronto FC’s win in 2017. “And I guarantee you the hockey team will. Guarantee.”
Ujiri points to the city’s inexperience with planning championship parades as part of the reason the Raptor’s parade last Monday took more than five hours and ended in violence. Four people were shot near Nathan Phillips Square during the formal portion of the celebrations.
“You make mistakes when you do things for the first time,” he said. “And my feeling and my hope is that there are more championships so we can correct that.”
Six different nationalities are represented on the Raptors roster, something Ujiri is proud of. He said basketball is truly a global game and that the Raptors have appeal around the world because Toronto is such a multi-cultural city.
When Barack Obama came to Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Ujiri said the former president was blown away by the diversity in the crowd at Scotiabank Arena.
“It’s what 44 said to me, ‘wow, look at the people, look at the different types of people at the game. It’s unique.’”
And Ujiri believes what the Raptors represent on the court is just the beginning.
“You think about the Vince Carter-effect, the Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan-effect. And now you think about the Kawhi effect,” Ujiri said. “So whether it’s my son who is three or a lot of the kids now, this is how they are going to start playing basketball and 20 years from now it’s going to be even bigger.”
Ujiri is all about growing the game of basketball and using it as a vehicle of change, especially in his home continent of Africa. He will visit six African nations this summer and said going back as a champion this time makes the trip even sweeter.
But he’s not sure whether he can take the Larry O’Brien Trophy with him. He said he needs to get permission first.
When asked if it would be the first time the so-called “LOB” has gone to Africa, it seemed as though he was no longer interested in waiting for permission.
“I guarantee you it’s going there, since you asked the question,” he said. “We are going to, guaranteed. It’s got to be the first.”