Raptors, Ujiri kick off All-Star week with new practice facility

Shawn McKenzie and Michael Grange talk about the new Toronto Raptors practice facility and how it could attract potential free agents or change the culture around the team.

Masai Ujiri remembers the first time he attended the NBA’s All-Star weekend. It was in 2004 in Los Angeles. Shaquille O’Neal was the game’s MVP. Fred Jones of the Indiana Pacers and Voshon Lenard of the Denver Nuggets were the weekend’s entirely forgettable winners of the dunk contest and three-point competition.

But what Ujiri will never forget was just the visceral thrill of being there, seeing in person something that seemed almost mystical when he was growing up in Zaria, Nigeria, watching All-Star games on grainy VHS tapes provided by his basketball coach, usually weeks or months after the fact.

So it isn’t lost on the Toronto Raptors president and general manager that having the NBA’s All-Star weekend in Toronto—the first time the game has been played outside the United States—is yet another milestone on his own improbable journey from a place as distant from the heartbeat of the NBA as is perhaps possible to being one of the league’s true insiders.

“When I was growing up, you almost couldn’t sleep, just thinking about All-Star. My coach OBJ would show us like six months after All-Star happened and now here I am living in it, live, and hosting one. I hate to sound like this, but it’s actually unreal.”

It should be an outstanding week for Ujiri, the Raptors, and Toronto, provided the city’s first dose of frigid winter weather and a potential taxi strike don’t put too much of a wrench into things.

For Ujiri, events kicked off on Wednesday with the official opening of the BioSteel Centre, the Raptors 68,000-square foot practice facility on the Canadian Exhibition grounds.

The building itself is impressive, spectacular, even. And, in the context of an elite NBA club, much needed. Since the ACC opened, the Raptors have trained on a single court and in a small weight room on the second floor of the building. The team’s executive offices are on another floor, the coach’s offices and training rooms on yet another floor. Shuttling between them meant elevator rides and walks through the concourse—awkward if, for example, DeMar DeRozan wanted to come in at night to train or shoot and there was a Leafs game or concert on.

The new facility brings all aspects of the basketball operation together in one environment. The fitness and medical facilities are state of the industry. There are two basketball courts and even though the building does have some community access, the Raptors will always have access when required. There are hot tubs, cold tubs and underwater treadmills, and a view of Lake Ontario from the dressing room. There is even a barber’s chair. The Raptors practised in it for the first time a few days ago and came away wowed.

“Coach Casey is almost breathless when he talks about it; the players loved it; they really, really enjoyed it,” says Ujiri. “It builds your culture better. You can spend more time with each other.”

The opening was intentionally timed to coincide with All-Star Weekend, allowing the rest of the NBA to drop by for a peek if interested, but Ujiri isn’t counting on it being the difference in attracting free agents. “As far as a recruiting tool, yeah, you need a good practice facility, but the reality is in the NBA, the way it’s going, everyone is going to have one,” says Ujiri. “It doesn’t make you better or different, but it hurts you if you don’t have one.”

For Ujiri the real benefit might come this year as the Raptors, winners of 14-of-15 heading into Wednesday night’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, get a nice little gift to play with as the season enters the dog-days phase.

“It shows the players that we’re trying on our part to keep on progressing, to give them a good platform,” he says. “The timing is good. We have some momentum and anytime you can do something positive in an 82-game season, we’ll take it, you know?”

But the opening of the Raptors new practice facility is just the beginning of an almost unfathomable week for Ujiri.

Whereas at that first All-Star game in 2004 Ujiri was there as an international scout with the Denver Nuggets—his first paying job in the NBA—and sharing an accreditation with some other equally low-on-the-totum-pole types, now he’s the master of ceremonies for the biggest event on the NBA calendar.

The next big moment comes Thursday night when Ujiri hosts the premiere of Giants of Africa, a documentary film shot this past summer, capturing Ujiri pursuing his other passion: using basketball as a tool to create opportunities for African youth through sport.

It does not get more full circle that this: The kid who watched All-Star games months after the fact on VHS at home in Nigeria will be joined at the premiere by NBA commissioner, Adam Silver. The skinny boy from Zaria who pursued his unlikely professional basketball aspirations all over the United States and Europe before realizing his NBA future lay in scouting or managing, will be honoured by the presence of African NBA legends Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon. John Tory, the mayor of his adopted city, will be there. Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of the country of his two young children’s birth, wanted to come but had to send his regrets.

Ujiri remembers the thrill of that first All-Star weekend he attended in person. He vividly recalls seeing Michael Jordan, then recently retired and in the early stages of attempting to transition into NBA ownership, sweeping by him in a hallway at Staples Centre in Los Angeles, trailing an entourage fitting for a head of state. It still blows him away that when Jordan sees him now he heads over and exchanges greetings.

Jordan is an owner now; his Charlotte Hornets an Eastern Conference rival.

And on Friday night, Jordan and the 29 other NBA owners will gather for dinner, one of the rare occasions when the league’s powerbrokers are all in once place at one time.

Ujiri will be the keynote speaker. What a story he’ll have to tell them.