Ujiri’s new deal with Raptors weds visionary executive to franchise

Donnovan Bennett looks at all the accomplishments of Masai Ujiri in his role with the Toronto Raptors, in light of the news that Ujiri is sticking with the team going forward.

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, how much weight does a professionally edited video spliced with home movies and narrated by the subject himself carry?

A lot.

There is no other reasonable way to interpret the two-and-a-half-minute clip the Toronto Raptors released on their social media accounts Thursday afternoon.

It was more than a neat way to announce that the future of Raptors president Masai Ujiri has been secured and that his bond with the franchise he has helped lift to prominence in the NBA has been cemented from now until, well, forever, or whatever the sports version of that is.

The video wasn’t just news, wedding vow, marrying the charismatic and visionary basketball executive to the franchise, the city and the country.

“I said it before and I’m saying it again,” Ujiri speaks over a gently building soundtrack as clips of various Raptors players and montages of the crowds flying We The North banners roll on. “We will win in Toronto.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to lead this team. I love being the leader of the Toronto Raptors, and I’m here to stay.”

Those who will be cutting what are undoubtedly some very big cheques are thrilled:

“Great sportsmen impact their games. Great leaders impact their communities. Masai Ujiri does both, and we’re very pleased he is returning to the Raptors as vice-chairman and president,” Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum said in a press release.

“Masai and MLSE share the goals of bringing another NBA championship to Toronto, and off the court, working toward making our city, country and world a better place. These are exciting times, and we look forward to all that comes next for our team, for Masai and for his family. Masai, we’re glad you’re staying home.”

Ujiri’s new title is ‘vice-chairman and president.’ The vice-chairman part being new and reasonably giving rise to speculation that he’d been given an ownership stake with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the umbrella company than includes the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto FC, and Scotiabank Arena among other holdings.

But there was also reference to a ‘multi-year’ contract.

Do owners sign employment contracts?

I don’t think so, and according to the intel I’ve been able to gather, Ujiri is not part of the ownership group.

As for the length of the deal, ‘multi-year’ can mean almost anything longer than one, but given the elaborate nature of the announcement, it makes no sense that it’s a short-term deal. As an educated guess I would put it at five years, which is plenty of time for the Raptors to ride out the post-championship lull it appears they’re in and begin to climb back up.

But the details almost don’t matter. The video, words and tone it conveys can’t casually be walked back.

Ujiri is here, he’s not leaving – at least anytime in the foreseeable future – and he’s pledging to find a way to win again, building on the remarkable run he’s had since joining the franchise in the summer of 2013.

And if he’s not been made an owner it’s a lock that the ‘mult-year’ deal is for a significant amount of money.

This was assumed. Ujiri has always been well paid relative to other executives in the NBA and has always used the interest that other franchises have had in him – the New York Knicks particularly – to leverage excellent terms for himself and for his coaches and staff.

From the early stages of this negotiation, which began bubbling into the public sphere when Ujiri was connected to the Knicks again in the winter of 2020, it was understood that whether his new deal was in Toronto or New York or elsewhere in the NBA, the terms were going to be significant.

“He’s going to be the best-paid executive in the NBA,” was one insider’s prediction back in November.

I can’t say for sure what Ujiri’s new salary will be, but there’s little chance he’s not going to be earning $12 million a year – that’s believed to be the highwater mark set by Phil Jackson during his disastrous tenure running the Knicks – and he could be in the $15 million range.

It would likely make him the highest-paid executive in all of sports.

That said, it’s a sound investment in a league where Gary Trent Jr. – a 22-year-old with a fairly sparse on-court resume across four NBA seasons – will be making $18 million a year.

But what is a vice-chairman?

I haven’t been able to get anyone to explain that to me yet. One source said it means that Ujiri will be able to attend board of governors meetings and make himself heard.

“Everyone knows all the gripes he has with the league; well now he can air them in a boardroom,” he said.

That makes sense, except that Ujiri was already an alternate governor and attended the league’s board of governors meetings. He is a friend and confidante of NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and failing to get a hearing there, few executives in all of sports are more willing and adept at making themselves heard with direct appeals to the public at large.

As the intrigue around Ujiri’s contract status dragged on through the 2019-20 season, the off-season and then all of 2020-21, the question wasn’t so much about whether Ujiri would re-sign in Toronto or not, it became almost existential, along the lines of: “what was important to him, what did he want?”

There was a belief among those close to him that he wanted an ownership position. With the prospect of league expansion looming on an undefined horizon, the thinking was maybe Ujiri would hold out to be part of an ownership group of a team not yet formed. There were all kinds of possibilities to speculate about.

But it was always made clear to me that being an actual owner of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – the company that owns the Raptors, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Scotiabank Arena and Toronto FC – was unlikely, if not impossible.

The complexity of the company’s holdings, the fact that ownership was shared between two publicly traded companies (Bell and Rogers) as well as chairman Larry Tanenbaum and the precedent it would set (very hypothetically, what would Leafs president Brendan Shanahan get if his team ever won the Stanley Cup?) made it a non-starter.

In theory, the benefits of ownership could be conferred to Ujiri via various compensation strategies – bonuses tied to revenues; lump-sum payments in the event of a sale and that kind of thing – but actual ownership was off the table.

Does the vice-chairman title indicate that position changed? Or does it mean Ujiri was given a giant raise and they had to figure out a promotion to go with it?

For now, I’m going with the latter.

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The philanthropic piece is significant as well. When Ujiri was recruited to Toronto from the Denver Nuggets in 2013 by then MLSE president Tim Leiweke, one of the conditions was that Ujiri’s Giants of Africa Foundation would be supported by the Raptors and MLSE.

Given the prominence of GOA and Ujiri’s other social justice issues in the video, it seems safe to assume that MLSE will be throwing even more of its considerable resources behind Ujiri’s off-court passions and supporting his ambitions to have GOA present across the African continent, not to mention building out social justice measures closer to home.

“Off the court, the work continues,” Ujiri says in the video. “(The) fight for equality in the justice system work; to prevent children from becoming child soldiers, to grow the game in Africa and build the infrastructure there so kids can have a place to play, to dream their dreams; to make sure young women and young girls are valued and included. These are global goals. Toronto is a global city. You give me the strength and inspiration to reach for that.”

How all of this plays out will be fascinating to watch.

But the ultimate and obvious takeaway here is we’ll all have time to see it.

Ujiri’s future has been a question mark almost since he arrived. He was so successful, so early in his tenure that it seemed inevitable that a more prominent franchise would sweep him away, just like so many of the Raptors’ top players have made their names here before moving on to pastures presumed greener.

Even on the night the Raptors reached the mountaintop, clinching the 2019 title in Game 6 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, a report broke that the Washington Wizards were going to make Ujiri rich and give him an ownership stake.

Ujiri had two years left on his deal at that time, but almost since that moment his future in Toronto has been in doubt, and as he seemed determined to work to the end of his contract and explore free agency, it was easy to assume that he was on his way out, or that if he did return it would be in some kind of stop-gap capacity until the next best chance came along.

But the only conclusion to draw from the video and from Ujiri’s own words is that he will be part of the fabric of Toronto for years to come – that his work is just beginning.

What was happening with Ujiri was the biggest question looming over the Raptors’ off-season as the team tries to navigate through its post-championship restructuring.

And now it’s been answered. Ujiri’s not only back, he’s not going anywhere, at least for a good long while.

After eight seasons in the playoffs, multiple 50-win seasons and an NBA championship, Ujiri has finally put a ring on it.

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