As the basketball world holds its breath, awaiting Kawhi Leonard‘s decision and its subsequent seismic impact on the NBA’s power balance, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri doesn’t appear particularly stressed about the fate of his franchise.
In London over the weekend ahead of the meeting that’ll see him try to bring the Finals MVP back to Toronto, Ujiri stopped by the NBA’s U.K. headquarters for a wide-ranging discussion about his Giants of Africa program and the Raptors’ growth as a franchise during his tenure at the helm.
The 2013 Executive of the Year shed light on his first meetings with Leonard when the former San Antonio standout initially came to Toronto, and what he learned about his marquee acquisition during that process.
“I started meeting with him and developing a relationship, and everything, everything, was based around winning. Every single thing,” Ujiri said to a group gathered at the NBA’s headquarters, per a video posted by GiveMeSport’s Benny Bonsu. “You meet with a player and they ask you 100 things, ‘What are we doing here? What are we doing there? How are we doing this? How are we doing this?’ and Kawhi only asked me two questions when I met with him, two things that he wanted to know:
“He wanted to know if I was staying in Toronto and he wanted to know how we could make the team better. He didn’t ask about anything else, all the sideshows or anything. Those were the two things he asked about.”
Do with that what you will, but with all the mystery surrounding Leonard’s future and the unending chatter about his potential desire to return home to California, there’s something to be said of his early interest in Ujiri’s long-term plans.
The veteran manager also recalled hearing from Raptors global ambassador Drake after the deal had dropped, about the courtside star’s own first impressions of the enigmatic Leonard.
“I’ll never ever forget Drake calling me and telling me to meet him in a restaurant. I met with him and he says to me — this is in the beginning when we first got Kawhi — and he said, ‘I just had dinner with Kawhi and we spent a lot of time, and all he talked about was championships,'” Ujiri said. “This is in September, or this is in October. And I’ll never forget, Drake kept saying, ‘He said championship about 800 times, I got sick of it.’ And we hadn’t even gone anywhere yet. Then I began to really understand Kawhi, really understand his thinking.”
The onslaught of references seemed to work out, of course, with the Los Angeles, Calif., native eventually leading the Raptors to the franchise’s first-ever title, putting up one of the finest post-season performances in league history in the process.
That championship buzz has since given way to the tense, seemingly endless waiting period that is #KawhiWatch, as the Raptors’ 2019 Finals MVP takes meetings and mulls over his basketball future. At one point early in the off-season, it seemed the Raptors might be at risk of losing Ujiri as well, with reports of the Washington Wizards trying to poach the highly regarded executive, and rumours of Ujiri being open to a D.C. move.
His comments in London suggest there was little fuel to that fire.
“Toronto is an advantage for me because it is an international city,” he said, noting he’d just flown in from a meeting with former President Barack Obama. “When I first came, everybody thought it was a disadvantage, and what I wanted to do was make it an advantage for us and something positive, rather than people telling me free agents don’t want to come there, or it’s cold, or we’ve never won, the taxes, all that stuff.
“The taxes are actually less than California and New York, when you actually, like, study it. Real studying, real data, real information. So all those things, you have to take advantage of what your actual situation is.”