Ujiri’s rallying cry ushers in new Raps identity

Michael Grange believes that despite the Game 1 loss to the Nets, this is not the Raptors of old, and that they had the talent and the ability to make things interesting in upcoming games.

There are different ways to manage a bully, but there is only one way to announce to the wider world you’re not going to be bullied anymore.

Avoidance, running for help or appealing to reason all might help you miss out on a beating here and there.

But to make them stop?

Sometimes you just have to confront them, ideally in numbers, and let them know that they better find another source for lunch money or amusement.

This was clearly Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri’s tactic on Saturday afternoon when he lit the burner under the Raptors first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets.

The Toronto Raptors lost the first game 94-87 — despite some bright moments it never really seemed like it was their game to win.

But perhaps the most powerful point of the day was made off the floor on a rare day when the basketball world was casting their eyes northwards and the Raptors used the occasion to announce they aren’t to be mocked anymore. The Raptors aren’t going to be Clippers North anymore. The Raptors will be counted.

If I had to bet, that’s what Ujiri was doing when he climbed the stage at Maple Leaf Square moments before the tip was about to go up inside. Looking over the crowd Ujiri kept it short:

“F— Brooklyn.”

His comment was predictably posted online complete with a brief video in about 30 seconds and it went viral moments after that, reaching the inside of the ACC via the great social media echo chamber.

Ujiri wasn’t just paying a visit to some of the Raptors most faithful, the ones who had woken early to get in line to stand outside the arena where their team was playing their first post-season game in six years.

He was staring out at a courtyard packed with hope; crammed with Toronto Raptors fans harbouring years of playoff-free pain in need of a catharsis after suffering under the thumb of loss and rejection for so long.

The Nets, who are everything the Raptors are not, rich, famous, and cool, and the Raptors are their hand-picked opponent as they tanked four of their last five games to make sure they positioned themselves to draw Toronto in the first round of the playoffs.

It’s understandable: The Nets boast a star-studded lineup that has collectively started 417 playoff games while the Raptors don’t have a single player that has started a single post-season game.

Getting over the Nets and into the second round is Everest for Raptors fans. For the Nets, Toronto is a nuisance to be solved on their way to something better.

Ujiri, who made his way to the NBA’s clubby executive suites from the anonymity of Africa, is nothing if not a student of human nature, a man with a Clintonian-ability to connect with the other. He feels Raptors Nation’s pain.

Looking out on the sea of red and white, the clear blue sky above them, Ujiri knew they needed a message, something to cling to, the way a thirsty man needs water.

He opened a fire hydrant for them, his rallying cry instantly becoming part of Raptors lore.

As mild-mannered as Ujiri generally comes across he burns hot and when he gets hot he speaks like a sailor. It’s charming and real and a big reason why only the prudest of prudes – “but what about the kids?!” — could reasonably take offense to his offering.

More likely it will be Grade A fodder for the New York tabloids and every other outlet who might otherwise have failed to notice the Raptors were in the playoffs.

Nets coach Jason Kidd kind of summed it up:

“You’d have to tell me who the GM is, I have no idea,” Kidd said. “[And] I could care less what they think about Brooklyn.”

Ujiri was standing beside his boss, MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke when he made the comment. There is no evidence his boss was mad with him. It might have been his idea; chances are he’ll pay Ujiri’s fine.

Just this week Leiweke signed off on an advertising campaign that at its heart is a call to arms for Raptors fans and manifesto for their players. Called “We the North,” it basically says to the wider basketball world: We don’t care what you think about us anymore.

It’s arrogant, provincial and it touches a chord.

On the broadcast it was Drake, the Raptors brand ambassador taking his turn at the microphone and in reference to the Nets resident hip-hop star, the one on the Raptors payroll took his shot, noting that Jay-Z wasn’t at the game.

“Jay-Z is somewhere eating a fondue plate,” said Drake.

The only complication was that all of this was happening independent of the players on the court, the guys who actually have to slay the bear that everyone else was poking so hard.

And under the bright lights with their fans in full throat from the get-go – literally, they sang the national anthem, drowning out the singer – the Raptors played like a team that was still vulnerable, still not sure that they can finish the job they signed up for.

DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors all-star who led the team in regular season scoring shot just 3-of-13 from the floor, adding his name to a long list of Raptors go-to guys who stumbled in their first playoff game.

As a team they booted the ball, racking up 19 turnovers and they shot just 39 percent as the Nets double-teamed them whenever possible, forcing Toronto to make plays under pressure they weren’t ready to make.

“As bad as we played, we put ourselves in position to win, and that’s the approach we have to take,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “The series isn’t going to be won in one game.

“We got the kinks out, the playoff atmosphere, the first playoff game, [now] we can put that aside and focus on cleaning up the 19 turnovers.”

What was the Raptors reaction to Ujiri’s rallying cry?

They loved it.

“That doesn’t offend me whatsoever,” said Casey, who makes a point of not cursing. “I hope our team plays like that.”

Said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who was one of the few Raptors to play at full speed in game one: “He’s a passionate, emotional guy. His belief in us is why we’re the team we are today.”

The man himself was trotted out at halftime to make the decidedly token apology.

“Guys, I apologize. Wrong choice of words out there,” Ujiri said. “… I apologize to kids out there and to the Brooklyn guys. Nothing against them.”

Right. I asked him if that’s how he actually felt.

“You know how I feel,” he said, smiling. “You know how I feel. I don’t like them. And I apologize.”

Understood. His team has six more games to bring his message to life.

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