TORONTO — Tim Leiweke is loving what he sees. And the former MLSE boss will get a firsthand look Sunday when he takes in the Raptors and Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
Leiweke calls the Raptors’ run "one of the great sports stories ever written."
"It’s one of those unique things that’s great for the organization, it’s great for the city but it’s amazingly great for the country," Leiweke said in an interview Friday in the wake of Toronto’s 118-109 win over defending champion Golden State.
While Leiweke stepped down as president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in October 2015 to form his own company (Oak View Group), his fingerprints are still all over MLSE.
He hired Masai Ujiri to run the Raptors, Brendan Shanahan to oversee the Leafs and Tim Bezbatchenko to make over Toronto FC. Bezbatchenko eventually left to take charge of his hometown Columbus Crew but not before leading TFC to the 2017 MLS Cup.
Leiweke helped green-light — and accelerate — the "We The North" campaign and brought Drake on board as global ambassador.
Do the Raptors still feel like his baby, he was asked.
"No it feels like Masai’s baby," he answered. "And I’m proud of Masai and I’m proud of what he’s accomplishing because he’s as good a friend as a man can ask for. And so I’m really happy for him and (GM) Bobby (Webster) and the whole team. And I’m really really happy for (MLSE chairman) Larry (Tanenbaum). This is all Larry ever really wanted — was to be in a position of winning championships.
"And so that’s probably what gives me the most pride, is that I helped steal and recruit Masai (from the Denver Nuggets) and he’s turned out to be everything we imagined and more. And I think the impact he’s had not just on the franchise but on the city and on the game of basketball has been immense. And so first and foremost I’m proud of Masai and his organization."
Leiweke said Ujiri helped rebuild a culture while being involved in all aspects of the organization.
"I admired his desire to find the greatest challenge and not be intimidated by all of those that were convinced that we were going to fail," he added.
The two remain close.
As for "We The North," he credits MLSE’s business team, naming chief marketing officer Shannon Hosford, senior vice-president Tom Pistore and former chief commercial officer Dave Hopkinson in particular.
"Masai and I decided we were going with it sooner than anyone imagined. But they and the ad firm (Sid Lee) I thought captured something that allowed us to talk to the entire country. And I think it’s inspiring to this day.
"I still go back occasionally and look at that first 60-second spot. And looking at the culture it wanted to create and now look at what’s happening all across the city and the country, that is that 60-second spot."
After praising his former colleagues, Leiweke took a self-deprecating shot at himself.
"I occasionally screwed it up by talking about stupid things that could happen if we won," he said with a chuckle, referring to an early gaffe after taking the job in 2013 when he mentioned having a Stanley Cup parade route already mapped out.
"But everybody in the organization from Larry to Bell and Rogers to the executives to the entire team, everybody bought in to this is what it could be — and let’s dream about it because this could happen here.
"And now to see the job they’ve done with all the Jurassic Parks scattered around the country. it really is quite inspiring. It’s great that the U.S. media and the U.S. basketball fans are beginning to figure out what is going on in Toronto because I think it’s one of the great sports stories ever written. And good for that city, They deserve it."
Leiweke also has nothing but good things to say about Drake, the rap star who is the Raptors hard-to-miss global ambassador. He brought Drake on board in September 2013.
At the time, Leiweke said Drake would "help us forge this new vision, this new buzz, this new excitement for where we’re taking this organization."
"This is a team, and this is a sport that’s going to rock this city going forward," he added.
Drake was also prescient.
"I want to bring the excitement into this building, I want a team that people are dying to come see, I want the tickets to be extremely hard to get," he said at his introductory news conference. "I want to bring that aggression, I want to bring that energy. Obviously, I want it to be a top team in the NBA, if not the top team."
Years later, Leiweke remains a huge Drake booster.
"There’s nothing to dislike about Drake," he said. "I think it’s amazing the time and the emotion and the passion he’s put in to not just the organization but the city. I understand that there are those that find his emotions to be unchecked. I see it the other way, which is if you look at ‘We The North,’ that was inspired by Drake."
Leiweke pointed to Drake watching one of the Eastern Conference final away games against the Bucks with the fans at Jurassic Park outside of Scotiabank Arena.
"You can’t ask for a better partner and a better ambassador than Drake. And so I think he’s great for the game, I think he’s great for the organization, I think he’s phenomenal for the city and the country. And I am very very proud that I call him my friend and my partner. I just can’t say enough good things about him … and the job that they’ve done at helping to change the image and the culture of that organization."
While the Oak View Group flourishes, Leiweke is nostalgic about his time in Toronto and with MLSE, calling it "the best business organization I’ve ever had the privilege of working with."
Leiweke, 62, says Oak View, an entertainment and sports facilities company that has grown to 150 employees with offices in four cities around the world, is building "a lot of arenas." It is also involved with the expansion Seattle NHL team — whose president CEO is brother Tod Leiweke — and the Islanders’ new arena.
"There’s more coming," he said.
"It’s intense. You get up every day and it’s challenging. And that’s what I wanted," he added.