What’s the reason you wake up every morning? What motivates you? What gets your juices flowing?
These are questions that we can all relate to, and the answers vary from one’s family to career to friends. The sense of purpose we feel each and every day is an essential part of our being. When looking at one’s job, specifically, the sense of purpose that it can provide for those highly motivated by having successful careers can be the essence of life. For someone like Masai Ujiri, that purpose has steadily grown larger than life itself.
Over time, he has steadily grown his Giants of Africa platform while operating as the director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Africa program. In March, the Basketball Africa League will have 12 teams participating in its inaugural season, a banner moment for the sport in the continent.
Which leads to questions that have started circling the waters like sharks: How much more room is there to grow? Can Ujiri’s biggest dreams and desires be satisfied in Toronto?
There has been plenty of talk around the NBA about the superstar free agency class of 2021, but there is no bigger name for the Raptors to secure than their current president of basketball operations.
Sure, past reports have come and gone, and Ujiri has stayed devoted to the cause. Even the latest smoke regarding Ujiri being pursued resulted in James Dolan moving swiftly to hire player agent Leon Rose as the Knicks’ new President of Basketball Operations because the Knicks owner didn’t want to play the waiting game.
But the recent reports of credible journalists like Sportsnet’s Michael Grange, the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur, and the New York Times’ Marc Stein have caused much consternation over where Ujiri’s head and heart are, or at least would like to be, in the future. Contrary to previous occasions that have feasted on the likes of the Knicks, Wizards, and Lakers wanting to hire him, there is plenty to suggest that Ujiri is now at least somewhat intrigued by the possibility of being the Masai-ah to the Mecca.
"It’s hard to imagine Ujiri accomplishing anything further than what he already has in Toronto. When he first arrived, it was under the premise he was taking on the Herculean task of transforming a league laughingstock into a respectable one. In the years since, he has exceeded expectations by a country mile."
Speaking from Ethiopia recently where he was helping Canada and Justin Trudeau’s push for a UN Security Council seat, Ujiri cheekily said “I’ll always be a Raptor” in response to whether he’d be sticking around in Canada. That doesn’t really answer the question—it doesn’t not answer the question, either. In a political setting, Ujiri provided a fitting response that leaves plenty to ponder. And it’s a far cry from the response he provided the last time he was broached about the very subject.
“For me, it’s always been about Toronto,” Ujiri said when asked to confirm his status with the Raptors in the immediacy of winning the title. “I love it here, my family loves it here, my wife loves it here which is very important, my kids are Canadians and you want to win more.
“I can continue to address teams wanting me and all those things, that’s a blessing in life and I don’t use it in a way that’s—for me, the blessing is being wanted here and finding a place that makes you happy and finding challenges that really make you grow as a person and this place has made me grow as a person. I identify with this place and I love it, so, in my mind, I’m here.”
That was in June, but curiously, MLSE have made no efforts since to extend Ujiri beyond the 2020-21 season he is currently obligated to. According to Grange, he may even have the option to opt out in the summer of 2020. For a man who is precise and calculating with every move he makes, it has been interesting to note how general manager Bobby Webster has featured more prominently over the past couple seasons both visibly and in team statements. Of course, some of that boils down to the fact that Webster was promoted to GM in June 2017. Some of it may have to do with having built a machine that can smoothly operate while Ujiri puts in time towards other passionate endeavours such as the Giants of Africa program, and one would have to wonder if he’d have the autonomy to do so anywhere else. It’s a level of freedom he’s earned during his time with the Raptors and something that is hard to envision him being granted until he takes any other franchise he sees a future with to prominence.
From the outside looking in, the narrative fits better than it ever has. It’s hard to imagine Ujiri accomplishing anything further than what he already has in Toronto. When he first arrived, it was under the premise that he was taking on the Herculean task of transforming a perennial cellar dweller and league laughingstock into a respectable one. In the six-plus years since, he has exceeded expectations by a country mile, by believing in the city in a way the people of Toronto never did.
It is now 2020 and the Toronto Raptors are defending NBA champions, a statement that would have seemed unfathomable when his seat as general manager was barely even warm. The franchise will make its seventh consecutive postseason appearance, on the back of what will more than likely be its fifth consecutive 50-win season, possibly even a first-ever 60-win season if it can win 20 of its final 27 games.
If everything was based on the outside looking in, though, Kevin Durant would be a Knick right now.
So, it really comes down to what Masai sees, what the perspective is from the inside looking out. With the recent lawsuit against him by an Oakland police officer, does it make him feel more at home in Canada or does he wonder whether he would even have to endure something like that with a franchise with the notoriety of the Knicks?
When asked about what follows winning a championship, he’s insisted that winning again is his primary objective. Since the NBA and ABA merger in 1976, there have been 15 different champions, the Raptors joining that list last season. Of those teams, just eight have secured multiple titles. how badly does Ujiri want the Raptors to be in that class?
That’s where it’s hard not to go back to his words about the true blessing of staying with an organization stemming from being wanted and challenged to grow. It’s possible MLSE’s absence of an offer has pushed him to rethink his future in Toronto. It wasn’t too long ago that the San Antonio Spurs took Kawhi Leonard’s presence for granted, asking him to be patient with an extension offer so they could exercise their desired cap management. That was the beginning of the end, and while there’s no quadriceps tendinopathy to push them further into murky waters, the reports that Ujiri is even considering the possibility of being elsewhere suggest that he may be beginning to exhibit the line of thinking that Leonard showed this past summer—that what’s mine doesn’t necessarily have to be yours. That his rings don’t necessarily have to come in Toronto.
The Golden State Warriors’ recently terminated dynasty serves a point to consider as well. When asked to look back upon their magical run and how it all ended, the Raptors' Marks likened the consecutive trips to the Finals like eating cake: that as good as the first piece tastes, or even the seconds, you eventually struggle to find the appetite for more.
How much more cake Ujiri wants is anyone’s guess, but that doesn’t mean MLSE should leave him feeling any less wanted. The Wizards reportedly were prepared to put an ownership stake on the table, the Knicks possibly ready to make him a $100-million man. If the Raptors want to be at the high-stakes table in 2021 bidding for the best players in the world, they’ll need to secure the biggest prize off the court first.