Drake leaving his mark in role with Raptors

Michael Grange joins Eric Smith to recap the Toronto Raptors win against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Drake Night.

TORONTO — In the wee hours of Saturday morning Masai Ujiri was digesting the Toronto Raptors‘ star-crossed win over the Los Angeles Lakers when his hotline blinged.

I’m sorry. That was lame, but if not on “Drake Night” ….

Anyway. On Ujiri’s caller ID: Drake.

Or more specifically “new, new, new Drake” — apparently a downside of being one of the most popular entertainment acts on the planet is the need to keep changing your cell phone number.

Why was Toronto’s very own calling Ujiri at that time? He was concerned about the fate of Jonas Valanciunas, who had his hand broken by Kobe Bryant before halftime and hadn’t returned. The Raptors’ global ambassador was worried about Toronto’s big Lithuanian centre so he put in a call to Ujiri.

“He was concerned — he was ‘how is he’ — but that’s how he is with anything that we do,” says Ujiri.

So Drake cares enough to call in bad times. This makes him a nice guy. But what difference does Drake make?

Announced as the franchise’s global ambassador to much acclaim three years ago, like all high-wattage celebrity relationships, what they really mean is hard to measure or quantify, other than heading into the Raptors’ third annual Drake Night Toronto was 2-0 on the occasions when the Air Canada Centre reverberates with the Drake catalogue (even more than usual) and everyone in attendance gets free t-shirts to try and hawk on eBay.

And maybe there’s something to it. Tied at half and leading by two after three quarters Toronto pulled away from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for a 103-99 win on the strength of an electric second-half by Kyle Lowry, who scored 14 of his game-high 27 in the third quarter and added six more in the fourth to help give the Raptors (10-6) their biggest win of the still young season.

So this Drake thing, maybe it has legs.

Drake is young and getting richer. He’s made one of the biggest, most vibrant cities in North America part of his personal brand. The Raptors are a subset of that strategy. The Raptors-Drake relationship is just getting started. Maybe one day he’ll own the whole damn team.

But for now he supplies extra hype and some courtside star power, which isn’t the worst thing, given the Raptors are just a few years removed from being one of the NBA’s undesirables.

“I hope it lasts forever,” Drake, who watched the game with his mom, said of the association in a pre-game media crush outside the ACC. “The Raptors are an institution in this city and I always like to be here to get the city excited. I’m a hometown boy so as long as we have wonderful guys like Masai here I’m sure the partnership will grow and blossom.”

With MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke — the person who initiated the relationship with the music icon — on his way out it will be interesting to monitor to the state of the partnership going forward. Over the past couple of years Ujiri has been the team’s primary point of contact for Drake with the team and vice versa. Drake’s visibility will peak at the all-star game in Toronto in February. The sense is that as long as Ujiri is in charge, Drake will have a role.

The problem on Wednesday was the opponent was the Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers, whose biggest celebrity is a guy named LeBron James, another music lover but one who also happens to be a four-time NBA MVP.

When the Raptor-Drake marriage was formalized there were all kinds of connect-the-dots scenarios that tickled the fancy of Raptors fans. Wasn’t Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant a Raptors fan when he was a kid? Wasn’t he a Drake fan now?

Hey, maybe, just maybe, Drake could convince Durant to sign with the Raptors when he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2016.

If only it were that simple. The odds of Durant coming to Toronto are slightly better than me getting a shoutout in Drake’s next single, but not all that much. There are limits to what Drake can do, as a team “employee” when it comes to interacting with players under contract with other clubs. Drake found out the hard way when his playful appeal to Durant from the stage at OVO Fest last summer earned the Raptors a tampering fine.

In practical terms what Drake provides Ujiri is another tool in his toolbox when it comes to connecting with the NBA’s elite. He moves in the same circles they do. They’re as impressed with his success as a worldwide musical phenomenon as he is with theirs as masters of the athletic universe.

There is much mutual fawning; maybe every once in a while he can provide some insight into what might be going on with this player or that team on an informal basis.

The Raptors’ pursuit of LaMarcus Aldridge this past summer was always a longshot but Ujiri and Toronto worked hard to at least get a meeting with 2015’s most coveted free agent.

It was considered a small triumph to get the Raptors on the radar alongside the Lakers and Knicks and the eventually victorious Spurs, and it was helped in some way, presumably, when Drake called Aldridge and extolled him on the virtues of Toronto and the Raptors.

While Drake’s cultural cache is such that it can make a significant event out of a Wednesday evening in November, even with the presence of James, Toronto son Tristan Thompson and the Cleveland Cavaliers, his most important contribution to the Raptors may simply be giving people who wouldn’t normally think about the team a reason to.

“He’s incredible. He brings a buzz,” says Ujiri. “He’s a charming dude, he’s very thoughtful, he’s really worked with us and we’re thankful for it. In Toronto and in Canada generally we have to embrace who we are and Drake is one of the persons who we are. He embraces it; he loves it.

“The work for me is to put a brand on the court that competes, and plays and wins and the rest is going to come and he just elevates it even more … you just walk around with the guy, it’s so cool,” says Ujiri. “Even when I’ve been with him in other cities he brings something, but the biggest thing is he embraces us and he embraces the team, good and bad, even at times when we’ve struggled. He’s always been here and he’ll always have an effect.”

His contributions mainly are in things like branding and buzz, things that don’t matter a whole lot when you’re playing the Cavaliers or the Spurs or the Warriors or the Washington Wizards.

But it probably can’t hurt having someone with Drake’s apparent staying power in the Raptors’ corner.

“He blows my mind how smart the guy is, how thoughtful the guy is. He’s always thinking about things that can help our team,” says Ujiri.

“I’ll never forget having a meeting with him at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans and we had a few ideas and right away the ideas he came up with from what we gave him were incredible …. He’s very quick that way. He’s a special person, there’s no doubt.

“For someone — in this industry or music — to stay on top is hard. You have to be creative.”

The Raptors have come a long way since their association with Drake began, although it’s mostly by coincidence. And the road ahead only gets steeper as the Raptors try to figure out how to make the climb from relevant to champion.

Nights like “Drake Night” — Wednesday night in other words — are fun signposts along the way. Downing James and the Cavaliers in Game No. 16 in November isn’t quite like battling them in a playoff series come May, but it can’t hurt. Drake was pleased. The crowd was ecstatic.

What role Drake will play in any Raptors future success will likely only be understood in retrospect, if at all.

In the meantime there are worse guys Ujiri could have to call him on his cellphone, from whatever number he’s using at the time.

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