Late on a warm California night with the champagne still flowing in the visitors’ locker room at Oracle Arena amongst the twinkling lights of the Bay Area down below, Masai Ujiri and his wife, Ramatu, could finally breathe and take a moment to allow it all to sink in.
The Toronto Raptors had done it. After six years of meticulously shaping and building — of making heart-wrenching choices that cost friendships and raised the stakes — Ujiri’s vision had been realized.
The Larry O’Brien Trophy was heading north.
But for Ujiri, duty was already calling. As the celebration unfolded at Oracle Arena, the Raptors president was already on a plane, heading home. It was his daughter’s pre-school graduation, and it couldn’t be missed.
Ujiri and his wife picked up In-N-Out Burger on the way to the airport and took delight as their phones exploded with good will. While in the air, free from Wi-Fi, they could scroll through the texts at leisure.
Until they landed and the next wave hit.
“On the plane you can read everything and nothing else is coming in and it was really cool, to have that moment. But then we landed and our phones went back on and you see, like, another 600 messages come in – it was pretty cool to spend that moment with her, alone.”
The calm didn’t last, and the Raptors’ championship glow was short-lived as well. The NBA draft came three days after the Raptors’ championship parade, and shortly afterwards came July 1 and a chaotic free-agency period during which Kawhi Leonard — the man Ujiri had bet so heavily on to bring the Raptors a title when he traded DeMar DeRozan — chose to play for his hometown Los Angeles Clippers over running it back in Toronto.
It was unavoidably a letdown for the franchise, for the fan base and for almost anyone associated with basketball in Canada.
But Ujiri remains philosophical. He won a title in part because he traded the Raptors’ most beloved player and fired their most successful coach. These are the waters he is swimming in.
“Kawhi leaves and I’m mad? Mad for what? Then I’m a hypocrite.”
Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena will provide one more moment to reflect on the two magical months this past spring when Canada stood still for basketball, and the NBA was vanquished by the invaders from the North. The franchise’s 25th-anniversary season will be marked in a way that seemed unfathomable for so many of those seasons — with a championship banner being raised to the rafters. Those remaining with the team – the 10 players, as well as the coaching, training and medical staff – will receive their championship rings.
And then their title defence will begin as the ball goes up against the visiting New Orleans Pelicans.
But the Raptors are the only the team in NBA history to attempt to defend their championship after losing the Finals MVP in free agency. Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls after each of their three-peats, but he did it by leaving the league entirely — not choosing another team to play for.
Leonard’s departure brought an abrupt end to what should have been months of pleasant speculation and high hopes that are the typical dividends of victory.
Instead of dreams of a repeat, the common wisdom is the Raptors’ status among the NBA’s elite ended the moment Leonard left his Yorkville meeting with the Raptors and headed back to L.A. without a deal.
According to gambling site Bodog.com, the Raptors are 35–1 longshots to repeat. In a poll of ESPN insiders, the Raptors didn’t get a single vote as possible title contenders — Leonard’s Clippers were the top choice. Data-driven site fivethirtyeight.com gave the Raptors an eight-per-cent chance to make the Finals and a two-percent chance to win, ranking them 10th overall.
Of course, according to the Raptors remaining, this just means they have the league exactly where they want them.
“On this team, personally, playing for three, going on four years now, I’m used to it — it’s status quo,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, the only Raptor other than Leonard to get a Finals MVP vote. “We got to see the two sides of the extreme in the 24 months, from getting swept, to trading a franchise player, to getting Kawhi, to struggling a little with injuries, almost losing to Philly, then winning it. We’ve been on all sides of the spectrum. The best part is, you get to see that all of that noise is just bulls— and noise. Good, bad or otherwise, you just take it in stride.”
The popular perception last year was that the Raptors were a one-man band – “Kawhi and the back-up singers,” as VanVleet put it during the post-season — and the players themselves were well aware of it. But even with the band leader gone, the team is confident about playing on.
“There is no chance of a championship hangover. If we don’t get it done, we didn’t get it done. It won’t be because we relaxed or we thought we were better than we were,” said VanVleet. “All of us are hungry and motivated and still have a lot to prove in our careers, and we want to do it again.
“It’s different if you have the exact same team back where you can say, ‘We won — let’s do that again.’ We don’t have that luxury, so we have to find a new approach and a new path to get back to the same place.”
Is there some additional motivation in proving that their championship rings weren’t handed to them by Leonard on a platter?
“A little bit, but you can’t get carried away with that kind of stuff or you drive yourself crazy,” VanVleet said. “I think our team feels pretty validated about where we are, but, yeah, you want to be a good team — you want to go and show you’re a good team and prove that you belong in those conversations.”
Leonard’s legacy takes different forms. There is the physical evidence of his one-year whirlwind – the banner and the rings that will be on display Tuesday night.
But there are less tangible — but no less significant — remainders as well. The Raptors’ returning core went through an eight-week crucible together, an executive MBA in advanced basketball; day after day of the most advanced film study, intricate game-planning and pass/fail exams.
They are a better, smarter, tougher version of themselves as a result.
“[That experience plays] a huge role,” said Marc Gasol, the 10-year veteran who joined the Raptors at the trade deadline last season and who will likely see his stature grow – on and off the floor – this season. “Not just the chemistry and understanding — it’s the trust, what the guys are about in crunch time, how much you’re willing to put on the line for the guy next to us and what we are about as human beings. Obviously when you go through a very long playoff run and a successful playoff run, that builds a lot of trust.
“We haven’t mentioned … Kawhi, ever. Obviously you have to, but we don’t think about it, we don’t talk about it. He moved on. We’ve moved on and we’re about something different. We’re trying to build or continue to build who we are as a team, regardless of who’s on the floor. We’re going to be the most unselfish, the toughest team.”
The question that can only be answered beginning Tuesday night is if all that will be enough to replace what Leonard took with him when he left.
Logic says no. Leonard is one of the greatest playoff performers in NBA history.
But if the Raptors have anything as a group, it’s a championship heart. They were the only team in NBA history to win a title without a single lottery pick on their roster. Their individual and collective identity is to defy expectations.
Into the void left by Leonard steps Pascal Siakam, who over the weekend became the first player taken as low as 27th overall to sign a max extension on his rookie deal. In the 20 games without Leonard on the floor with him last year he put up better numbers than in the 60 they played together.
If he’s daunted about the prospect of becoming the Raptors’ No. 1 option, he’s hiding it well.
“We have guys that that have always been betting on themselves, and now is the time to prove it,” Siakam said. “We all have new roles. Everyone is excited. There is opportunity and we have the right guys with the right mind set.”
Tuesday night marks one last chance to look back. For Ujiri, he did find ways and moments to revel in what the Raptors accomplished. He took the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Nigeria, to the courts where he took up the game. It was surreal.
“Taking the trophy back to Nigeria, to my home, to give to my parents and actually taking the trophy to the basketball court where I started playing. My movie is going to be unbelievable,” Ujiri said. “You dream about playing in the NBA, you dream about meeting Michael Jordan. You dream about these things, but this one is right here… It’s not even on the agenda of the dreams. This one you can’t even imagine.”
But it happened, as millions of Raptors fans across Canada can attest.
But now what?
On to the next. On to a post-Kawhi future.
Before training camp opened, Ujiri was in New York City attending an event at the United Nations. There was a sumptuous dinner, and for dessert he was presented a cake.
He was confused.
“I was wondering: Whose birthday is it? It’s not my birthday,” he said. “But it was congratulations for winning the title, and I was like, ‘Win what?’ We’re already on to the next. That’s the mindset … ‘What’s next?’”
Now we get to find out.