TORONTO – Since his team was eliminated from the NBA playoffs just over 12 months ago, Masai Ujiri’s public profile has been relatively muted.
Based on track record, it was by choice.
The brash young executive who whipped up an adoring crowd at Jurassic Park way back on the eve of the 2014 playoffs with "Eff Brooklyn" or who rallied the crowd a year later — with NBA commissioner Adam Silver looking on – prior their first-round series against Paul Pierce and the Washington Wizards by shouting "we don’t give a s—t about ‘It’ has long ago toned down the firebrand image.
It wasn’t the warnings from the league or the potential fines, it was that the job had been done. People had paid attention to the little team to the north.
But the boldness hasn’t gone anywhere or the sense of the moment, even as the Raptors profile has grown. Ujiri’s nature is to push, or push back.
It’s why when all the noise swirls around Drake’s sideline antics you will never hear Ujiri question whether or not the club’s biggest celebrity fan is going over the line and will resist any attempts to reel him in – and you just know the NBA has.
Ujiri sees in Drake someone who has the freedom to express the passion the self-made NBA executive feels himself, and if people don’t like it?
Ujiri’s decision to hold a press conference as the opening event for the first NBA Finals outside of the United States proves he’s still got that spirit at heart – not that there was any reason to doubt.
There was no ‘Eff Warriors’ – just a chance to make a presentation about where the Raptors have arrived at after a long and occasionally twisted 24 years.
In case you were wondering, it’s very unusual for a team executive to have the first word at the NBA Finals media day or any word. I’ve never seen one hold a press conference, and the first Finals I covered was in 1998. Veteran NBA Journalists with more Finals under their belts than me agree: this was a first.
But Ujiri is always thinking. Always planning; always looking for an opportunity build the Raptors image within the greater NBA community.
Why would he not take a chance in front of few hundred media members to get his message out there, to make sure everyone knows that the Raptors aren’t here by fluke and what they stand for and how they can still grow?
"Every day you come to work it’s — this is it and it’s overwhelming because you think, when I look at all the international players we have on our team, from Marc [Gasol, of Spain] and even our staff and the people on our staff and the backgrounds, it’s really brought us together," said Ujiri.
"And I think it says so much because that’s how our city is, that’s how the country is, that we can all relate to the multicultural or the diversity of Toronto and Canada and that’s how our team is,” he continued. “They talk in different languages on defence, they talk in different languages in the locker room, and it’s like that in our organization. And being international myself and being from Africa, I’m proud of that."
Getting his message out is an Ujiri specialty, practically his trademark. His mission upon being hired away from Denver prior to the 2013-14 season was not only to build the bones of a winner but to build a foundation that can outlast any particular collection of players or even coaches, maybe even him.
It was less about building a basketball team and more about creating an idea of what an NBA team could mean here. Winning games and shaping minds were equally important.
The Raptors being here, on this stage is just another step in a continuum and it’s impressive:
Create a formal relationship with Drake unlike any connection any franchise has with an entertainment star?
Drake and the Raptors are still going strong.
Host the NBA All-Star game?
Sign him up. Shame about the Polar Vortex; not even Ujiri can fix the weather.
Take his team to Japan for pre-season?
The Raptors are going next October.
Get on stage and curse out another franchise or a future Hall-of-Famer on the eve of a playoff series?
The man has a message to get out there about the potential of the franchise, how committed they are to winning, how ready they are to win. The Raptors and the city of Toronto couldn’t ask for a better person to deliver it.
"We just feel like …. we have prepared well to be here. And you go through that grind, it’s very flattering for us as a team, as an organization," said Ujiri.
"We have been trying to prepare for this moment, to get here and it’s been a grind,” he continued. “We get mocked. People talk about us in different ways, but for us that’s the growth."
Naturally there were some questions about the one wild card, the biggest domino:
What about Kawhi Leonard, the player who Ujiri moved heaven and earth to bring to Toronto after five years where the existing formula wasn’t working?
What makes him think he would actually stay?
"I think when he sees with the city, the fan base, basketball, I think coaching, everything almost has to come together," says Ujiri. "I think that was an incredible moment in Game 7 [Leonard’s series-clinching shot against Philadelphia] with that shot.
“All these things I think naturally they have to come together, and I think we’re blessed here in Toronto that it’s slowly coming together for us. But the trust, you hope to build that trust where at the end of the day we know that there are two tough moments in sports, in the job that we do that make it very, very difficult, and that’s trading a player and when a player leaves in free agency.
"We all have to prepare ourselves for everything, and I think we have built this trust in a way that whatever it is, I think we would have prepared ourselves."
It was 11 months ago in the same building that Ujiri was first asked questions about Leonard and Toronto on a warm, humid, July day. The circumstances were different. Only a few days before Ujiri had called DeRozan and told him he was traded. DeRozan said he felt betrayed.
Ujiri started that press conference not with a welcome, but an apology.
"Maybe I should have handled it better," he said of what he called a miscommunication between himself and DeRozan about the possibility of him being traded in off-season. "That’s what I’m apologizing for."
There’s no need for any of that now. Ujiri made a tough call but ultimately helped the Raptors and the city they play in earn their time in the sun.
On Wednesday, he took a few moments to remind everyone why Toronto was worth the effort.
"I can tell you it’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be crazy here [Thursday]" he said. "It’s going to be crazy here on Sunday. It’s going to be crazy here for a few days because that’s the mentality of our fan base. We know it’s across the world. That’s something special about here. We can reach the world easy from here, from Canada, and we’re happy to be the global team that represents the NBA."