Taking in opening night with Masai Ujiri

Donnovan Bennett goes behind the scenes with Raptors GM Masai Ujiri on opening night at the ACC.

It’s opening night of the Raptors’ 20th season. The level of media coverage rivals that of the team’s first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets last summer, and the expectations surrounding the team exceed that. In a corridor adjacent to the Raptors’ dressing room, one of the franchise’s most avid supporters, Drake, the global ambassador himself, plays with DeMar DeRozan’s young daughter.

It’s not a sight you’re likely to encounter too often—a global superstar doing his best to entertain a toddler before taking his place courtside to scream with boyhood enthusiasm for his hometown team. But this is the culture GM Masai Ujiri talked about building when he returned to Toronto less than two years ago to give the faceless Raptors a new identity.

Ujiri greets Drake with a big hug when he emerges from one of his many media obligations on the day. “You good buddy?” Ujiri asks.

“I’m good man. I’m blessed.” Drake assures him.

“Good,” Ujiri says. “I appreciate you.”

It won’t be the last time he says that on opening night, and Drake’s won’t be the last important face he greets. But despite the countless demands on his attention and seemingly endless responsibilities he shoulders, Ujiri ultimately contends that he, too, is blessed.

In part that’s because the environment in which he makes million-dollar decisions lacks much of the tension usually associated with the cutthroat world of pro sports. During the first quarter, after Ujiri has settled into the bunker of a video room he watches games in when the team’s at home, his wife brings their baby to visit. In his daughter’s presence, Ujiri shifts gears seamlessly, suddenly more interested in her two protruding teeth than who on his team has two first-quarter fouls. But Ujiri’s ability to relax and enjoy his daughter’s company doesn’t mean that he’s not yearning to do and accomplish more. Part of the blessing is “doing something with it,” he insists. “It’s fun to work.”

Every step of the way in Toronto, that steadfast work has been fun for both Ujiri and the team’s fan base. This offseason he acquired one of the best bench scorers in the league for next to nothing, landing Lou Williams from the Hawks in a trade for John Salmons. Before that he was able to move the seemingly immoveable contracts of Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay without having to pay some of their salaries in the process. And, most importantly, he fought the urge to tank away the 2013 season, and was rewarded with a surprise playoff appearance and unprecedented expectations in 2014.

Even with all that success already in the rearview mirror, Ujiri can barely watch the Raptors play. Not because he’s indifferent—quite the opposite—Ujiri can’t stand to watch because he’s so emotionally invested.

“I do random things during the game,” he admits. “I just can’t watch. Sometimes I go up in my office and work. Other times I’ll drive home in the middle of the game.

“Everybody around here refers to Game 7 last year. I didn’t see most of it. The big comebacks and lead changes against Brooklyn. I didn’t see most of them. I’m not sure why. It’s hard to explain. I just do random things to get my mind off the game.”

Opening night isn’t without its hiccups, blown calls and bad rotations, but Ujiri trusts that he’s hired the right people to correct the early mistakes. Besides, his ultimate goals are much bigger and far less concerned with bringing joy for a single game than with the franchise’s first championship. If he hits that target, he knows nobody will remember an Oct. 29th contest against the Atlanta Hawks.

Within the organization, many will remember that night, however. And they’ll remember it for the way Ujiri treated them. In a suite high above the ACC hardwood before the game, Ujiri dedicates an hour to meeting a smattering of employees and sponsors face-to-face—members of the MLSE marketing and sales teams as well as sponsors and key clients. When he enters, he’s the tallest person in the room but he goes out of his way to bring himself down to their level. A man begins to introduce himself: “You probably don’t remember me, but—”

“From New York,” Ujiri interjects. “We met at the Blackberry launch. You came all the way here for the home opener? That’s awesome.”

Glad-handing isn’t the part of the job Ujiri is known for. Ujiri took a scout’s path to the GM’s office, breaking into the NBA sleeping on friend’s couches, grinding out all-nighters, and watching tape while jet lagged from a road trip. But with MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke slated to leave the organization by the summer of 2015, more onus has fallen on Ujiri to be the face of the Raptors’ franchise.

“My wife jokes that I can’t pick my nose in the airport anymore,” he says. “Now everybody is watching you.”

Ujiri has earned that attention, but when asked whether he feels a sense of accomplishment from having reenergized the Raptors, his response is unequivocal. “No,” he states matter-of-factly, before the question is even finished.

“We haven’t done anything yet. We made the playoffs, and that’s great, but so many teams make the playoffs every year. Big deal. What drives me is, if it’s like this now just think how amazing it could be when we do accomplish something.”

Don’t expect Ujiri to stop and admire the view; his eyes are cast far down the road. But he will stop to chat, so if you happen to see him, don’t be afraid to walk up and say hi. Just don’t bother congratulating him. He’ll be the first to tell you his job is far from done.

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