‘There’s nothing like it’: Raptors’ title leaves Ujiri wanting more

Masai Ujiri dismisses Washington rumors, says he'd like to stay with the Raptors "long term".

TORONTO – Not all that long ago Masai Ujiri was a professional athlete, a basketball player. He bounced around the lesser leagues of Europe. Nick Nurse coached against him once.

He was an energizer with more passion than skill. Playing in the NBA was not an option.

He found his way, as we all know.

But beneath the suits, the global vision and the passion to see impossible things as the next great challenge, all the while understanding the boring work of incremental improvement, Ujiri loves to get his exercise in.

Boxing, pilates, circuit training. A dabble in hot yoga. It’s all on the menu. His favourite workouts when he’s in town are at the light-filled gym at the OVO Centre with the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on Lake Ontario. He’s often under the supervision of Jonny Lee, the Toronto Raptors strength and condition coach, or Ray Chow, the team’s longtime massage therapist, martial arts expert and all-around health guru.

So before Ujiri met with the local media for his first extensive comments since the Raptors clinched the NBA championship in Oakland on June 13th, Ujiri hit the gym.

It’s where he goes to clear his brain and let it fill with new thoughts, new ideas and new solutions. Some people do their best work under the steady stream of a hot shower, Ujiri likes to feel a burn.

And when he took the microphone Tuesday for a 56-minute tour de force – it was not a press conference – to sum up the Raptors championship season, he was on fire.

He spoke for nearly seven minutes without taking a question. He somehow managed to celebrate one of the greatest moments in Canadian sports history while also convincingly making the case that it was just a small step on a ladder leading inevitably to bigger and greater things for the sport of basketball, for the NBA, for Toronto and for the country. He made the return of Kawhi Leonard seem like – if not a certainty – something that was real.

He did it all while having to dab his forehead with a face cloth at times as he tried unsuccessfully to cool down from the gym.

Of course, he was sweating a bit this time a year ago, when wrestling with the possibility of firing Dwane Casey or later explaining his gut-wrenching decision to trade DeMar DeRozan.

“I think of this time last summer – I think I was sweating the same way last summer,” said Ujiri. “I don’t know why I do all these workouts before I come here and I end up sweating but … [it’s a] different kind of sweat from last summer.”

Last summer it was nerves, stress and the burden of trying to figure out what was the right thing to do – and then doing it. Ujiri talked about how it took him two hours of pacing around his hotel in the middle of the night in Nairobi to work up the courage to call DeRozan last July and tell him he’d been traded for Leonard, unlocking a Raptors future that scarcely seemed possible for most of its past.

But Tuesday was about elation, about the joy of what’s happened and the promise of what comes next. It was about securing the present – Ujiri pledged his allegiance to Toronto and the Raptors for the immediate future – and healing old wounds. He related moments of rapprochement with DeRozan, an in-season heart-to-heart with Lowry and even communications with former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey.

But mostly it was about Ujiri’s vision for the franchise being something bigger and grander than most would allow themselves to wish.

Don’t worry. Ujiri will do it for you.

Will the Raptors win again?

Yes:

“You want more,” said Ujiri. “There is no question about it, you’re eager for more. When you talk to Kawhi, you talk to Kyle [Lowry], you talk to Fred [VanVleet], you talk to Serge [Ibaka] — Serge came in the other day and he said, ‘Bossman, bossman, I really feel we can win two more.’ And that’s their mentality … You have to believe. And when you taste it? It’s over. You want to do it over and over again. And honestly, that experience of the playoffs, and seeing the intensity and the roller-coaster and the ups and downs, there’s nothing like it. And you want to keep experiencing winning that, and you want more and more of it.”

Bring back Leonard? While Ujiri stopped well short of making promises, he didn’t hedge much either. He left plenty for Raptors fans to dream on.

“We’ve built a relationship with them [Leonard and his team] where honestly, I texted with Kawhi last night. I talked to his [Uncle Dennis] this morning,” said Ujiri. “For us, there is that trust regardless of wherever it goes. There will be constant communication.”

So Leonard staying is an option?

“A hundred percent …” said Ujiri. “He played here last year. That’s a big-time option, in my opinion. He is going to consider that. He played here. I think he had a great experience here. He won a championship here.”

“…This team, that’s a priority for us, how we can run it back and I think they know that…”

But all of those questions and answers – which would be more than enough heart-swelling stimulation for any hopeful Raptors fan – were just a prelude to Ujiri’s greater message: the Raptors are poised to take over the heart and minds of basketball fans the world over.

It’s one only he can deliver – or at least is uniquely positioned to deliver. He is the child of a Nigerian father and a Kenyan mother who has chased his basketball dreams throughout the U.S. and across the globe before settling in Toronto while expanding his charitable efforts in Africa. Ujiri can effortlessly see things from 30,000 feet; can easily explain Toronto to itself from the perspective of the other side of the world. He sees international players dominating the NBA’s end-of-year awards, not as an anomaly, but an inevitability, and Toronto’s position as an international franchise as a strength.

A passionate soccer fan – if Ujiri ever leaves the Raptors, he’s as likely to be lured by a Premier League club than another NBA role – he doesn’t see why the iconic brands in sport are Real Madrid or Manchester United, or why the Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Knicks should be ahead of Canada’s team.

Basketball is a growing global force and in Ujiri’s eyes, the Raptors are poised to grow right along with it.

“We’re are going to capture the world …” Ujiri said. “There’s just a different reach from here. Let’s call a spade a spade. This is what it is.

“We should have seen this years ago and we’re seeing it now, let’s plan for years to come. There is something here. I don’t know if there should be more teams in the NBA that are outside the United States, but this speaks a lot, that a team outside the United States can win a championship in the NBA and can have a strong identity, and identify with people around the world. There is nothing like that, there is nothing like that because this is what this game is about …

“And we should build on that. It should not be a mockery of ‘we’re in the cold, and people don’t want to come here’ and all that nonsense. That’s past,” said Ujiri. “No one is talking that nonsense now because we have a championship now, and we believe in us and it should be how we reach the world…”

It might even start at home. Ujiri said he believes Canada will be a basketball country instead of a hockey country in time – although he softened the blow by guaranteeing a Stanley Cup for his Toronto Maple Leafs brethren within Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

Hey, the guy has vision.

But it was all part of a bigger picture delivered by a man with an active athletic mind and a bottomless spirit.

“…There’s something going on here…,” he said. “Ten years from now, what kind of coverage you can have from here, I don’t know?

“But I know that when I see four million people watching the NBA Finals, numbers up from last year, when I see 59 Jurassic Parks [across Canada], when I see nine million people watch a parade, when I see a parade like that, I don’t know that you cannot pay attention to this and want more.”

As Masai Ujiri speaks he is still running, still racing. He’s got an athlete’s heart and a dreamer’s spirit. Ujiri’s going to surge ahead. We would all do well to try our best to keep up.

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