Raptors proving to be NBA’s model family with Ujiri, Webster in bubble

We look back at all the ups and downs from the Toronto Raptors 2019-20 season before the NBA pause, and look ahead to a healthy return in Orlando, and a chance to repeat as world champs!

The Toronto Raptors like to think of themselves as something closer to a family than a team or certainly a business.

It’s a common theme in professional sports, but ‘family’ can mean different things. Some families are dysfunctional. Some lack guidance and leadership. Some look like they are thriving from the outside, but privately the dynamics are far different.

Strong families require sacrifice and commitment and it starts from the top.

So when it became clear the NBA restart was going to require players and coaches to be away from their real families for potentially months at a time, the leadership group for the Raptors made a simple decision: They weren’t going to ask their players to do something they weren’t willing to do themselves.

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With organizations limited to having only 37 positions in the so-called ‘bubble,’ decisions had to made. Not everyone could go.

The Raptors leadership group quickly decided they couldn’t not be there.

Which is how the Raptors came to be one of the few NBA teams at the Walt Disney World Resort accompanied by both of their senior executives — president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster.

“It was a conversation that we had very early on when we knew there were only so many spots,” said Webster on a conference call Thursday. “But really, it wasn’t that difficult a decision. I think you guys know how we operate, and having both of us here is good to take care of things here on the ground — we can communicate back to Toronto — but I think more than anything … we’re here in full support, we’re in this together, obviously we think this will be a long haul for us here, and we just wanted to do that.”

It’s the kind of gesture players, coaches and staffs notice. It builds loyalty, solidifies bonds and avoids the awkwardness or resentment that could fester if they don’t feel management is on the same page and making the same commitment.

The least amount of time that anyone in the Raptors travelling party will have been away from their families by the time the second round of the playoffs begin – which is when families can come to Disney World – will be 10 weeks.

Webster and Ujiri – each with young families at home – are no exception.

“They’re really committed to the organization — that goes without saying — but they’re committed to what we’re doing,” said Raptors guard Norman Powell.

Says wing Patrick McCaw: “It’s huge, honestly. Think about it, them making the sacrifice to be here with the team, being away from their families and their kids and their wives just to support us and help us finish the rest of this season with everything going on right now, the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, they chose to be here with us and support us and be with us every step of the way. I believe it’s huge for them to do that.”

It’s beyond basketball. Social justice issues have been prominent as players are determined to use the NBA platform to advance change. Webster and Ujiri understand that too.

“They’re very active in talking to us and making sure we’re good mentally or if we need anything in terms of the movement and going forward, how we’re gonna get our message out,” says Powell.

“They’ve been really active in that and sitting in practice talking to the guys. It’s good to see those guys in practice and really interacting with everybody. We preach that it’s a family organization, and you can really tell.”

Deeds speak.

As the protest and unrest that followed the murder by police of George Floyd on May 25 continued to build, Ujiri was front-and-centre, pledging the Raptors organization would push for change and back up words with action to advance the position of historically marginalized groups.

Just this week the club announced that John Wiggins – a Black Raptors 905 executive from Brampton, Ont., – was named vice president of organizational culture and inclusion, a newly created position to make sure the Raptors are reaching stated objectives in those areas. Meanwhile, Courtney Charles – who started in basketball operations as an intern – was promoted to vice president of franchise and basketball operations for Raptors 905, evidence of the Raptors’ pledge to continue to build a broader and more diverse executive roster.

But symbols matter too.

When the Raptors left the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Naples, Fla., to make their way to Orlando after having spent two weeks there in ‘pre-quarantine,’ they looked up to see a pair of gleaming buses in the franchise’s Black and Red colour scheme with “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned on the side.

“We didn’t know they were doing that, or at least I didn’t know,” said Powell, who has been outspoken in his support for social justice and is donating proceeds of his “Am I Next” shirts from his clothing line to a pair of charities aligned with the cause. “… But it was really cool to walk out of the lobby and see those buses with Black Lives Matter out there. I really like that.”

“They’ve been really quick to respond to the feedback from the players and being really proactive and making sure they’re behind us every step of the way,” said Powell. “I thought the bus was really cool and the publicity that it got. Those are the types of little things that show where we stand, and we’re going to continue to take strides and steps forward and really effect some real change.”

Still, the business of basketball marches on. Normally by this time of the year Webster would have been deep into the most critical period of the off-season, beginning with the draft in late June and then heading into free agency beginning July 1.

The timelines have been pushed out but the Raptors still have a lot of decisions to make. They own both their draft picks and have to figure out what to do with three prominent pending free agents in Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.

Those moves have been pushed out to October and November, beginning with the draft scheduled for Oct. 16, with free agency set to begin on Oct. 18.

And while Raptors head coach Nick Nurse isn’t a free agent, it would only seem good business to provide the NBA Coach of the Year candidate with a healthy contract extension as he heads into the final year of his existing three-year deal in 2020-21, whenever that starts.

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Webster says that they haven’t got a deal with Nurse yet, but with all the time they have together coming up, who knows?

“Obviously the timeline’s a little different this year with the season not quite done, so as far as Nick, obviously he’s done an incredible job for us, and those type of conversation are always top of mind for us and obviously we’ll address them in due time,” said Webster.

“I guess I’d describe [the talks] as ongoing, we’re always in communication on any of the contract issues and so I’d say it’s no different than our typical conversations with him.”

For now they’ll keep those talks in house, family style.

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