Raptors’ Ujiri enters season recharged after emotional summer

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

It would give the average person whiplash, maybe a concussion. For Masai Ujiri, it is all in summer’s work.

The Toronto Raptors president and general manager has a very public job and a deep private passion — improving life in Africa through basketball and a charitable foundation — that he wants to bring to the world. Most of the time he can flow between the two easily and elegantly, often with one enhancing the other.

But sometimes worlds collide and Ujiri found himself in Nairobi, Kenya on behalf of his foundation wandering the streets in the wee hours, his young family asleep in their hotel room as he prepared to make a phone call to DeMar DeRozan and uproot another family half a world away.

Months after a summer of great highs and lows, Ujiri can look forward to how everything has worked out with enthusiasm, but it takes a toll. "It’s the part of the business I don’t like, it will make me leave," he said Tuesday morning at an event for his passion project, his Giants of Africa foundation.

Now, after a quiet few weeks on vacation in Senegal with his family, Ujiri has returned, recharged.

It’s a new season and the Raptors are set to open their sixth training camp under Ujiri’s watch on Monday with the best and deepest roster the club has ever had, anchored by newly acquired Kawhi Leonard, who becomes the best player in team history the minute he steps on the floor for the first time.

And yes, the former San Antonio Spurs star will be there, with no red flags.

"Everything [seems] to me he is determined and seems in the right frame of mind," Ujiri said. "You will be hearing from him shortly. I think there is a fire inside of him and we are all excited about that."

But getting to this point wasn’t without tumult, like firing Dwane Casey, the franchise’s most successful head coach; like making the most important trade in franchise history in the middle of the night, half-way around the world.

Half Kenyan, half Nigerian, Ujiri has been expanding his philanthropic work in his home continent almost from the moment he broke into the NBA.

His foundation — which celebrated its 15th year this past summer — combines basketball with outreach work, trying to turn buckets of goodwill into rivulets of change in one of the globe’s most complex environments.

He ran camps in six countries — Rwanda, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal — for 450 athletes, including 150 girls, no small feat given large parts of the continent lag well behind in opportunities for women in sports and other avenues.

He shot baskets with Barack Obama — the former U.S. president increasingly a mentor for the always inquiring Raptors president — as they bonded over G.O.A. partnering with Obama’s sister in opening a sports and education facility in Kenya.

It’s work Ujiri feels compelled to do even though his full-time job doesn’t often relent.

"If I don’t do it, who will? And I love to do it, this is just a part of me, and I think part of us," he said. "…wherever we have a platform to speak and to act and to help others, we have to do it. For me, it’s an obligation. And lastly, if you look at my story, how did I get here? It’s through people helping, that’s the truth … so I have to do the same thing to help others to maybe get this kind of opportunity, or another kind of opportunity. There is so much that can be done around sports these days."

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But that other job — the one he’s paid to do and the platform which has bolstered his foundation so much over the years (part of his recruitment to the Raptors involved a commitment from ownership to support the foundation financially and logistically) — doesn’t sleep, and as a result Ujiri doesn’t often either.

Ujiri was walking outside his hotel in Nairobi, waiting for DeRozan to get out of a movie so he could tell him his was being traded after nine years of stellar service. The feeling in his gut while waiting to make that call is never far away, even two months later.

"It was tough because I built five years with DeMar," he said. "In the job you’re telling them to push as hard as they can, you’re encouraging [them], you’re trying to put in things for them to succeed and do everything you can. But you’re also trying to be yourself. You don’t want to be a fake person in this business. And then all of sudden these kind of opportunities come or these type of things happen. How do you explain that?"

You don’t, but you have to move on and the Raptors have.

Summer is over. The season awaits, and so even at an event to celebrate a summer of achievement and growth away from the floor, what the Raptors will look like on the floor always lurks.

The nitty gritty?

As much as can be determined by the famously inscrutable Leonard, he’s starting off his tenure with the Raptors — however long it lasts — on the right foot.

"He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches," said Ujiri. "He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly."

There were plans in the works for an introductory press conference for Leonard conference this week but it’s been pushed back. Nothing to see here, says Ujiri.

"He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change."

Ujiri is not much different, although it’s his work in Africa that get his juices flowing. The idea of improving the lot of women there or creating opportunities for someone like himself to better themselves and then reach back and help others?

It’s his passion, and after 15 years he can say with confidence the best is yet to come.

But it’s basketball season now and for the next eight or nine months it will be what happens on gleaming hardwood and under bright lights that will matter most, for now.

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