Breathe. You’re fine. You are more than fine – you’re good, you’re great. This is the self-talk every Toronto Raptors fan needs to engage in every time the possibility of Masai Ujiri leaving for another franchise is raised.
It was the Los Angeles Lakers. Then it was the Washington Wizards. But most often and most recently, it’s the New York Knicks.
The rumour mill started up again after the Knicks fired their president, Steve Mills, two days before the trade deadline and a week before the all-star break.
It was reported that the team’s owner, James Dolan, was targeting Ujiri. New York Times writer Marc Stein added fuel to the fire in a piece in his newsletter, reporting that “two long-time Ujiri-watchers whom I trust deeply for their reads on this situation have been telling me since December, that Ujiri intends to maneuver his way to the Knicks.”
According to Twitter, on the platform in the hours that followed, Ujiri’s name was mentioned 15 per cent more in connection with the @Knicks handle than it was with @Raptors.
Given what he’s accomplished in his career Ujiri should be coveted by other organizations. Regardless of his contract status, his name will continue to be mentioned in rumours, and the unsettling truth for Raptors fans is we don’t know his long-term plans. It’s possible he could decide to move on from Toronto.
There are plenty of issues that could get in the way of Ujiri going to New York, of course. The biggest might be the draft pick compensation the Knicks would have to give up in exchange for him, which would impact his ability to hit the ground running and do his job.
There’s also the fact that Ujiri is under contract through 2020-21, and Dolan’s long track record of meddling with his team in truly damaging ways.
But none of that means Ujiri won’t leave. New York City has real pull. (The Meatpacking District is great this time of year!)
On Madison Avenue, he would constantly be in front of the biggest brands and media conglomerates in the world. He could be on Today and Good Morning America before breakfast and The Tonight Show and Desus and Mero at night. If he wants to grow the reach of his philanthropic efforts and the brand of Giants of Africa (a worthy goal), I’d argue there is no better place to be than Manhattan.
That may terrify Raptors fans, but it’s worth remembering that Ujiri isn’t the only executive whose name surfaces whenever there’s a high-level vacancy. Warriors GM Bob Myers has been linked to the Lakers multiple times. Myers played at UCLA and, the thinking goes, he could look for a new challenge after all his success with Golden State.
The difference between those rumours and ones involving Ujiri is that reports about Myers don’t trend, they’re a footnote, because, with or without Myers, the Warriors will have stable ownership and top-notch facilities, they’ll be well run and led by star players, they’ll have a rabid fan base and be really good on the floor. Myers’ departure would be a loss, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. The Warriors would come out OK.
All of that is true for Toronto, too, but fans don’t seem to really believe it. So, there’s the slightest hint that an Ujiri departure is imminent, panic ensues.
The inferiority complex is understandable. Given our proximity to the U.S., it’s part of our Canadian identity. And given the history of our basketball stars electing to leave, it’s part of our sporting identity too.
But that was a different time and place.
The Raps now have a strong team, a budding superstar and will have major cap space to work with starting in 2021.
Managed by Sara Chan, the team has more scouts in Africa – the new frontier for elite basketball players – than anybody else, they have a beautiful training facility in the OVO Athletic Centre, They have real investment in their G League franchise.
And they’ve proven that they can not just compete but dominate after losing their biggest star in Kawhi Leonard, as they’re on pace to win 59 games this season and finish second in the East. Of course, the Raptors won 58 games and were the No. 2 seed with Leonard in the lineup a season ago.
The Raptors are bigger than one player or person, even a force like Ujiri.
Ujiri has had plenty of chances to leave and has decided to stay – an affirmation of the team and the city. If he does leave now, it won’t be a contradiction of that fact but a statement: He’s built something strong and stable enough in Toronto that it no longer needs him. It’s time for a new challenge.
He’s the most influential person in the history of the Raptors franchise. And in fact, has had such great impact on the team that it won’t erode if and when he stops running things. There will be a structural and cultural legacy that persists – the telltale signs of an effective leader.
The case can even be made that the Raptors could land on their feet immediately after an Ujiri departure, considering the draft capital they’d get in return and the long list of execs who’d covet his position.
It’s time to trust what’s already in place: A great team and an organization with a sound structure and championship experience, set in one of the best cities in the world.
Ujiri believes that, he’s been saying it nonstop for years, and whether he stays or goes, you need to believe it, too.
After his opening press conference in 2013, Ujiri told me, “I know one thing: I’ll leave this franchise better than I found it.”
He will – whenever that day comes.