Masai Ujiri’s impact on Canada extends beyond Raptors, basketball

DeMar DeRozan scored 28 points, Kyle Lowry added 20, and the Raptors beat the Nets 132-113.

Very quietly, late on the Friday afternoon of Labour Day weekend, the Toronto Raptors put out a press release announcing the team had signed president Masai Ujiri to a contract extension.

The timing would be suitable to pass on news you desperately want buried — the settling of an embarrassing court case, or a contentious firing.

Retaining one of the most accomplished young executives in sports? A figure who provides instant credibility not only in the NBA, but all over the basketball world?

That’s the kind of news you want out in front of as many eyes and ears as possible.

But that’s Ujiri. The last thing he wants is to be made the centre of attention, and so the news that he was staying was announced when almost anyone who might want to know was looking the other way.

Every once in a while, though, you are reminded how fortunate the Raptors are to have him and the kind of impact he hopes to have, when he’s willing to be out front, to use his name to support a cause, to make things happen that have very little to do with NBA basketball.

Friday afternoon was one of those times.

At the Raptors’ gleaming BioSteel Centre practice facility, Ujiri was helping play host to 10 kids from La Loche, Sask., a remote Native community about six hours north of Saskatoon.

On Jan. 22, the town of 2,600 will be marking an anniversary everyone would prefer to forget: that day last year a 17-year-old shot four people and wounded seven. Nine of the victims were attacked on the grounds of La Loche Community School.

Ujiri has become involved because he was asked to help. Marci Len, a journalist with CTV, noticed that one of the kids at a vigil in the shooting’s aftermath was wearing a Raptors hat. She reached out to Ujiri, who said sure. In late November they flew to La Loche and visited the school, walked through the community.

But it didn’t end there. Ujiri’s passion is his Giants of Africa foundation, where he uses basketball as an outreach program for kids throughout the continent, putting on more and more camps every summer. The camp’s motto is “Dream Big Dreams.”

After visiting La Loche, Ujiri felt it was important to bring a group of students — most of who had never been away from home — to Toronto. They visited Ryerson University. They were in the audience for The Social. They will attend both Raptors games this weekend.

"When I go to this community I feel we have to figure out a way to give them passion for life, we have to give them hope," said Ujiri.

Do you want to be against Ujiri helping make some of that happen? Bad idea.

The guy lends his name and time to a cause and the next thing you know Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in the building, helping lead a group of kids in brand new, personalized Raptors uniforms through defensive slides.

Spend time with Ujiri and it’s not even a question that he’ll find a way to leverage his voice to lead a chorus. He’s one of those people impossibly drawn to taking action; convinced that small steps will lead to bigger steps, that change can happen.

He’s found some more believers in La Loche.

"It’s his spirit," said the school’s acting principal, Greg Hatch, who is in Toronto accompanying his students. "When he came to La Loche you could see how sincere and kind he is. It’s not about him. It’s not about him …what a special man. Incredible."

Ujiri has proven a shrewd and forward-thinking basketball executive. This weekend at the Air Canada Centre is proof of that.

On Friday night the Raptors easily handled the Brooklyn Nets 132-113. It was just three seasons ago the Nets outlasted the Raptors in a seven-game, first-round playoff series. Building that team severely mortgaged the Nets’ future and it will be years until they are competitive again.

In the meantime, the Raptors have confidently carved out a spot among the NBA’s top franchises. On Sunday the Raptors will host the New York Knicks, another club that has been burdened by uncertain leadership and seems no closer to becoming a serious factor in the Eastern Conference again. It was rumoured the Knicks had designs on recruiting Ujiri to help lead them out of the darkness, but Ujiri’s extension will prevent that.

However, Ujiri’s value lies beyond figuring out the salary cap and finding Norman Powell in the second round of the NBA draft. For this alone the Raptors were smart and lucky to make the effort to retain him. But basketball is just part of it.

He believes in improving everything he touches. And as he was watching a group of teenagers run around his shiny new practice facility, with Dwane Casey coaching them in shooting drills — an unimaginable scenario a year ago — it was clear that he was already working on his next idea.

"I wanted to do something here [in Canada]," he said. "I don’t know where it takes us but I think it’s important that we find a way to give back in some way and maybe find a platform to talk about some of [Canada’s complicated history with Native peoples] and how we can make it better.

"I feel we have to figure out a way to give them passion for life, we have to give them hope. There is so much depression, suicide, abuse, addiction. All those things are very important issues and we need to help. I’m not a politician and I’m not an expert but I know I can create a platform and be a voice. I want to be a voice in some kind of way."

It’s only been one weekend, but the experience has made an impression. The kids from La Loche were on the floor with the Raptors for the national anthem. They have been places they have only seen on television. Now they know they’re real.

"It’s breathtaking, you know?" said Preston Nontrgand, a 17-year-old Grade 11 student who had only ever left La Loche to go to the Yukon. "All these high buildings and the people. It’s really nice."

To Ujiri it’s small, but meaningful.

"Even if we can create little programs like this in some kind of way it can help. These 10 kids, I guarantee you one is going to make it, two, three, five. And those who make it are going to help someone else make it too."

The Raptors under Ujiri are on pace for another record season and are well positioned to continue to be competitive for years. Ujiri will make sure of that.

But that’s just one reason the Raptors signing him to a long-term contract extension was news that deserved far greater prominence than that Friday afternoon of a long summer weekend.

And it’s not even the most important one.

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