Ujiri deflated by Leiweke’s departure

Tim Leiweke brought Masai Ujiri to Toronto. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Masai Ujiri tried to make a joke but it didn’t quite take off. There wasn’t enough air in the balloon.

Ujiri is in Tim Leiweke’s office. It should be a great moment for each of them. They are offering a sneak preview of the Toronto Raptors’ newly approved $32-million practice facility. It was one of the pre-conditions for Ujiri accepting the job as general manager, and one of Leiweke’s first coups as the president and chief executive officer of MLSE just 14 months ago.

But Ujiri – always upbeat – seemed a bit deflated.

At almost the precise moment Leiweke was getting approval for the 64,000 square foot facility to be built on CNE grounds, the wheels were in motion for his surprisingly sudden departure. He was given a five-year contract when he was recruited from Los Angeles, where he spent 17 years as the president and chief executive officer of AEG, but there had been a chorus of off-the-record voices recently saying he was never going to last that long.

He has a seven-figure retention bonus if he stays at least two years – a period of time that matches what I’ve been told is a two-year US-based non-compete clause that AEG saddled him with after he left the massive LA-based sports and entertainment conglomerate. Leiweke denied to me that he had a non-compete clause.

Regardless, after Elliotte Friedman of CBC and soon-to-be Sportsnet reported that Leiweke would be gone “soon” and Leiweke said he would “reassess” after next April, MLSE held an emergency board meeting on Wednesday night and issued a press release Thursday saying their star CEO would be gone by June 30th, 2015 or sooner if a suitable replacement could be found.

“That’s just the board trying to regain control of their process,” said once source with deep Bay Street ties. “They don’t like Tim making it seem like he’s picking when he gets to leave.”

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Some sources close to MLSE say it could happen in as quickly as two or three months. Others believe Leiweke will last until April of 2015 because an exhaustive executive search could take at least six months.

However and whenever the end comes, there’s no doubt that Leiweke’s run is over and in true MLSE fashion, it won’t end elegantly.

Even if Leiweke was planning to leave next summer, I can’t think of anyone who could have better managed his own corporate funeral by making his departure seem like a great idea for everyone. By forcing the issue, MLSE has botched the job.

Anyway, as I sat with Ujiri in Leiweke’s office, I asked for his reaction on the news. That’s when he tried his joke.

He looked at Leiweke and said “F-Brooklyn” – and they both laughed at the reference to the ‘us-against-the-world’ position that Ujiri staked out during the NBA playoffs, which was central to the Leiweke-inspired rebranding in which the Raptors’ status as NBA outsiders – “We the North” – has become the franchise’s rallying cry.

Except now you don’t get the sense that it’s the Raptors against the world.

Maybe it’s the Raptors against the rest of MLSE?

That’s probably stretching it, but Ujiri admits that the last 48 hours have been a setback, even as he gets the practice facility he campaigned for before he ever took the Toronto job.

“It’s not been easy man,” said Ujiri of the news that the partnership he forged with Leiweke suddenly had a hard deadline attached. “I love chemistry, I love team sports and Tim is a great team player. He’s a great boss and a great leader. It just makes it tough. You feel you have all of that chemistry and you have to change again.”

“But the pressure is on them.”

Emphasis on “them.”

What happens going forward will be the subtext to everything over the next few months and while Leiweke is a long way from delivering on his oversized promises of a championship for every fans’ pot, there was a relentlessness to the man that will make whoever follows seem like a technocrat in comparison.

It’s clear that Ujiri reveres his boss.

It’s also clear the Leiweke had a knack for rubbing his bosses the wrong way. “They like to believe that MLSE is a best in class organization,” said one source. “And Tim kept telling them that it wasn’t, and he wasn’t always that nice about it.”

Things almost got petty at times, with Leiweke pushing the board to look at outsourcing their food and beverage business to a company liked Philadelphia-based Aramark, who performed that function at Staples Center, and wondering why e11even, the fine-dining restaurant outside the ACC, needed a $150,000-a-year sommelier when the market rate was perhaps half that. Larry Tanenbaum, the MLSE chairman, didn’t appreciate the line of inquiry, and believed that keeping their food and beverage services in-house was a distinguishing feature.

It was hardly a make-or-break issue, sources say, but it was indicative of Leiweke’s determination to push for change, and the board not always appreciating the implications.

“No one wants to hear their company’s not good enough all the time,” one source said.

Getting a practice facility done was nearly an obsession for Leiweke, because it was a “must-have” for Ujiri and essential to being a model NBA franchise.

It was one of the first things they talked about when they met at Leiweke’s home in Vail, Colorado in the early stages of the wooing that ended with Ujiri leaving the Denver Nuggets to become the general manager of the Raptors.

Ujiri had been with the Raptors when Bryan Colangelo had his plans for a practice facility turned down by the MLSE board, and wanted assurances that the franchise’s new ownership would make the facility a priority.

Leiweke didn’t exactly make the promise in his own blood, but it was close.

“I told him if I didn’t get it done he could have my first born and he could leave and I’d have to pay him forever,” said Leiweke. “It’s in his contract.”

It wasn’t easy.

Two initial plans to get either the government or the NBA to share costs – under the auspices of the supporting Canada Basketball – were rejected, so Leiweke found himself trying to convince the board at MLSE that spending $32-million with no prospect of a return on the investment was a good idea. This was on top of a $120-million investment to renovate BMO Field and $100 million spent on bringing in Jermaine Defoe and Michael Bradley to Toronto FC.

“You can imagine how that went over,” Leiweke said.

But Leiweke was adamant. He says his first ally on the MLSE board was Bell Canada chief executive officer George Cope, with MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum next.

“We needed something, some bricks and mortar, that was a symbol that Raptors were important,” said Leiweke. “The board needed to make a commitment that the Raptors were as high a priority as the Leafs.”

It will have all the bells and whistles – a kitchen, a video room the size of a small movie theatre, a state-of-the-art sports medicine centre, two full-sized courts – and most importantly all of the coaching staff, players, and management will be in one location with an open door policy.

“Everything about the way it’s being designed is so that everything is together, there’s flow,” said Ujiri. Everything matters in sports and you want no excuses.”

“It’s a symbol of ‘yes we can’, not: why we won’t,'” said Leiweke.

The ACC has a practice facility in the building but it’s a high-school sized footprint with a cramped weight room that is an elevator ride from the locker rooms, treatment facilities and the coach’s offices. Meanwhile, the executive’s offices are in the office tower adjacent to the arena.

It should all be ready in time for the 2016 All-Star game, and Leiweke made no bones about why that’s significant.

“In order to be among the top six or 10 teams in the league, it’s about recruiting now,” he said. “They understood that we could be a great team and we need a facility that helps us keep players and it’s not lost on us that every great player in the league will be in this facility for a week during the NBA all-star game in 2016. It’s a pretty good calling card.”

He turns to Ujiri: “Can I get fined for that?”

He doesn’t seem all that concerned.

But Ujiri does. He’s got a practice facility, but he’s losing the guy who made it happen. It’s a big day, but Ujiri seems wistful.

“There were so many bumps, so many things that stop you, whether it’s the board or money or the government,” he said. “It would always bounce back, but Tim would always walk into my office and say: ‘we’re going to get you a training centre done, we’re going to get it done, we’re going to get it done, and he did.”

“He’s a bulldog, man.”

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