Bryan Colangelo had called in the dead of summer in 2007 suggesting that a chat with his newest hire, the director of global scouting, might be worthwhile.
An interesting guy, the Raptors’ president and general manager said, well-versed in the growing globalization of the game. A Nigerian who’d bounced from continent to continent, expanding his network of basketball contacts while developing a world view that was unique among sports executives at the time.
So there we were, in a tiny office atop Union Station overlooking some railway tracks one Saturday morning, and it was illuminating.
It was a well-appointed place, but there weren’t a ton of pictures of players he’d discovered or championships his teams had won. No, the only image that lives in memory was a large portrait of Nelson Mandela — prominently placed on the wall behind his desk — and, yes, you could tell Masai Ujiri was cut from a different cloth.
Sure, he talked about discovering players and couch surfing through his array of contacts as he worked pro bono to get his career going, but the passion for greater things was obvious. Ujiri and, by extension, the Raptors were going to be a global force in the development not just of basketball players but of people.
It stood out then, and it’s why Ujiri has become a rock star, a talisman, a leader in the game and in greater social causes — more beloved and respected than any other Toronto sports executive in ages.
“The passion he shows for Giants of Africa, I think, strikes a chord because Canada is such a multicultural country,” said Terri A. Ritter, a Mississauga nurse and passionate Raptors fan. “He’s using his platform for fighting for racial justice and equality and how could you not like that?
“He’s passionate and cares and has integrity, and he’s all about helping people. It makes you proud to be a Raptors fan, because I think the players and the organization take their lead from him.”
Other local sports executives have evoked great passion — Pat Gillick and Paul Beeston with the Blue Jays come quickly to mind — but none have matched the undeniable connection Ujiri has with basketball fans across Canada.
Until recently, a portion of the fan base was apoplectic at the possibility that Ujiri would leave the Raptors. His return was seen as the key off-season issue the franchise had to deal with. It took longer than many wanted, but when his return was officially announced on Aug. 5, along with the fancy new title of vice-chairman, there was a collective sense of relief. Fans desperately wanted him back.
Why? It’s because the 51-year-old married father of three resonates so deeply at so many levels. He inspires and cajoles and demands excellence and never takes a step back. He stands amid the fans and says “Eff Brooklyn” before a playoff game. He says “We will win in Toronto and win big” and people believe him. He talks of fighting social injustice and racism and creating greater opportunities for youth worldwide and people want to fight with him.
He seems, in many ways, to be what we want from ourselves.
“He certainly has a relationship with them, whether it’s because he just stands up and says, ‘We’re going to win, I’m telling you right now’ (and) they just were like, ‘Yeah man, this guy’s like us,’” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said this past week. “There’s a lot to that. You tell people, ‘This is what we’re going to do. Are you coming with us?’ and they come.”
It helps, of course, that Ujiri has delivered on all of his bold promises and that he’s taken fans on a wild, unprecedented journey.
The Raptors’ 2019 championship was amazing, but so too was the build-up to it. He expects a similar journey will begin anew in the coming seasons, and given his track record it’s silly to doubt him.
“For me, it’s the fact that he speaks to the heart of the matter. He addresses how ‘we’ feel as fans … and he actually acknowledges the narrative of not wanting to come to this city, and speaks to it. He finds ways to work within it,” said Shannon Armstrong, a Toronto-area entrepreneur.
“He’s not going to give you the details, but alludes to enough that you know where the team stands. He believes in himself and the organization and his team so immensely that his confidence is palpable.”
But it’s more than that.
He’s preached social responsibility since the day he got here, and it’s given the fan base more causes to rally around: Black Lives Matter, educational programs for girls and boys in Africa, BIPOC issues in Canada. He fights the good fights, giving fans someone they can be proud of and want to be associated with.
“There are going to be things that we have to do as an organization that I think (are) going to be separate from the job, my job description as president of basketball operations,” he said. “I look at social justice and even the opportunities for the BIPOC community here. I think there is going to be more that we are going to have to do.”
He rhymes off programs with the NBA and the players’ association, NBA Africa and its sports and educational initiatives, Canada Basketball’s developmental system. A gamut of initiatives that fans want to be part of, and are proud of Ujiri for pursuing.
It’s a different era, for sure. No sports executive in Toronto has had the same opportunities, causes and platform that Ujiri has. He knows it, and it’s no small reason why he decided to re-up with the Raptors and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
“I see this place as an incredible platform,” Ujiri said during Wednesday’s wide-ranging media session. “I don’t think players have even scratched the surface on what they can do here. Toronto sits as a place where you can really, really attack the world from here.
“So whether it’s the U.S. or whether it’s Africa or whether it’s Europe or whether it’s South America, it gives me a platform, a voice to speak on a lot of issues that I think are important, global issues that are important. And I appreciate that and I’m thankful for that.”
Whether it’s building a basketball team or trying to carve out a better world bit by bit, Ujiri has a way of dragging people with him. His passion is undeniable, as is his success. His story resonates, even if he tends to shrug that part off.
“I don’t know about celebrity,” he said. “Maybe public figure is the best way to put it. For me, we represent as leaders and our organization, our communities. And if we have a voice, if we have a place where we can speak and shed light on issues and also health, we have to. It’s an obligation for me.”
The connection is real.
“I think as a whole the Raptors’ fans feel like perpetual underdogs. Masai was born an underdog. He came from Africa and couch surfed until he willed a career for himself, and now he is one of the most powerful men in sports,” Armstrong said. “When I listen to him speak, I myself can’t help but believe that anything is possible not only for this team, but for myself.”
As Mississauga nurse Ritter said, it’s simple: “We chose Masai, and he chose us. In Masai we trust.”
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