From the beginning, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri was confident his club would shine both on and — just as importantly — off the floor in Florida.
There was a championship to win, to defend.
The Raptors improved to 2-0 in their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets with a 104–99 win that featured 45 points combined from Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry, and 24 points off the bench from Norm Powell. And now they can take a stranglehold on the series with a win on Friday afternoon.
But there were bigger victories to chase, too.
As a Black man from Africa and one of the few Black executives in the NBA, he was passionate and determined about making sure that all of the time, money and effort put into making sure basketball could return safely and successfully amidst a pandemic wouldn’t detract from the social justice issues that have been so important to him, his players and millions of others in the wake of George Floyd being killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25.
To Ujiri, competing, winning and standing for something bigger were all part of the same package.
It is why the Raptors rolled through Florida in team busses emblazoned with the words “Black Lives Matter,” and why broader issues have never been far from any basketball conversation, be it Nick Nurse’s initiative to get U.S. citizens living in Canada to get out and vote; Norm Powell using proceeds from his personal clothing brand to raise funds for social causes; or even the simple act of wearing Toronto-themed BLM masks by local designer Nadia Lloyd throughout their time in the bubble.
“This is a really interesting time and Black lives do matter,” he said back when the Raptors arrived in Florida for their own two-week quarantine period before heading to Walt Disney World Resort for the NBA’s restart. “And we’re really going to use this platform, I think. It’s continuous, right?
“This is something that I don’t think is going to stop. Because there’s so much to be addressed…. With my platform, with my position, how am I trying to help and really push with these issues and how we solve them?”
The first step is identifying them and pointing them out at every opportunity.
But it’s doubtful Ujiri could have imagined himself as Exhibit A — a living, breathing example that no matter how successful or important a Black public figure you are, encounters with law enforcement carry no guarantee of fair treatment and often the threat of much worse.
But as his team set for Game 2 on a floor with “Black Lives Matter” etched in bold, black text, Ujiri had receipts.
It was at the peak of his professional life that Ujiri came under the thumb of a law-enforcement officer who felt free to exercise his authority indiscriminately. After the Raptors clinched the NBA championship with their Game 6 win at Oracle Arena in Oakland, he went to join the players and the rest of the organization to celebrate a moment many thought they would never see.
But on his way there he was stopped by Alameda County sheriff’s deputy Alan Strickland, who was working security courtside. Ujiri, who had his credential in his right hand, tried walking past the officer, but Strickland pushed him hard once and then a second time, even harder, causing the six-foot-five Ujiri to stumble back.
At that point, Ujiri stepped forward and shoved Strickland before they were separated, and Ujiri was pulled through the crowd and finally onto the floor by Lowry. But even as they embraced and Ujiri raised his arms in triumph, the look on his face wasn’t filled with joy.
In retrospect, it’s easy to interpret that look as something more like “What the hell just happened?”
As the months dragged along, it became apparent that Ujiri had been confronted by someone filled over the brim with his own authority, and willing — in the moment and after the fact — to do as he pleased without fear of consequence.
The first clue in that regard was that California prosecutors decided not to charge Ujiri, even though a sheriff’s deputy was claiming that he had suffered injuries significant enough to keep him off work for 14 months and counting.
A matter better suited for the civil courts, they said.
Then there were the eye-witness accounts from unbiased witnesses that contradicted Strickland’s version of events, and eventually the revelation that Strickland had already been convicted of insurance fraud.
On Tuesday night came the hammer that proved that Strickland’s version of events was not true and that it was Ujiri who was on the receiving end of not one but two unprovoked, aggressive and violent physical encounters.
The source? Footage from Strickland’s own body camera and a wider-angle shot from a stadium security video that clearly shows the sequence of events.
These became public after Ujiri’s legal team countersued Strickland, and were included in an amendment filed in court Tuesday.
“Sadly, Mr. Strickland’s dishonest account of the encounter is a narrative that has become somewhat familiar: a law enforcement officer using their position, engages in unjustified violence against a peaceful individual, then lies about the encounter by characterizing the victim as the aggressor,” according to an excerpt of the court filing published by The Athletic. “To be sure, the great majority of law enforcement officers do not conduct themselves in this way. Mr. Strickland, however, has chosen dishonesty over integrity. Motivated by greed (and perhaps revenge), Mr. Strickland continues to lie about his encounter with Mr. Ujiri in an attempt to support his frivolous lawsuit.”
Could Ujiri’s experience be more of the moment?
If a successful, glamorous public figure can be cut down at the height of his professional career on the brightest stage of all — picture Denzel Washington being worked over by security on his way to accept his Oscar — and a law-enforcement officer then feels confident enough to accuse that public figure of malicious intent even with contradictory testimony from witnesses and with his own body camera telling a different story, then what hope is there for private citizens without power, wealth, profile or – crucially – video evidence?
So much of what the Raptors and the rest of the NBA are playing for is to bring about change in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
It’s why players are taking a knee during the anthems. It’s why a multi-billion-dollar business like the NBA has worked to make BLM a cause that is broadly understood.
But had there not been video — eight minutes and 46 seconds of it — of Floyd losing consciousness under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, would anyone have believed what had happened?
Would the world have noticed? Would enough of us have cried foul about a Black man dying while being arrested, no matter how suspicious the circumstances?
Which is why Ujiri’s example is so important and so vindicating and such a powerful reminder that work needs to be done, that the efforts he and the Raptors and the rest of the NBA are making to keep the issues front and centre are so vital.
“It speaks to what’s going on now. I’m glad there was a body cam to show what actually went down,” said Powell after the Raptors win. “I know there were a lot of different stories going on saying Masai was the aggressor in the situation. I’m glad we were able to get to the real bottom line and everyone can see what really happened. It’s exactly what we’re fighting for, for justice to be served for those cops who are taking the law a little bit into their own hands unnecessarily. We saw it as a team. We’re very open and passionate about social justice…. It’s exactly what we were fighting for. We’re going to continue to take that fight to (get rid of) the bad apples in the police force.”
Maybe the next law-enforcement officer who gets swept up in their own authority will think twice. Maybe the next time someone without the reputation and resources of Ujiri claims to have been on the wrong end of an encounter with police, they’ll be more likely to be believed.
There was plenty of basketball action on Wednesday, of course. The Raptors had to grind it out. They trailed after the first three quarters, but were able to pull it out with some trademark lockdown defence as they held the Nets to 19 points on 7-of-20 shooting in the fourth while Powell chipped in with 12 of his 24.
But Ujiri scored a victory before the game ever started while proving that there are so many truths still to be won.