Masai Ujiri is passionate yet practical, calculating yet decisive, kind-hearted with a penchant for being cold blooded when the situation demands. He is exactly the type of person who would strike down upon any untoward plan the NBA might have conceived for a return to play amidst a global pandemic and a civil rights movement.
His position—President of Basketball Operations—as a Black executive is rare, and he has never hesitated to flex the decibels of his powerful voice. When he speaks, ear lobes perk up ever so slightly.
“There has to be a good balance between health, safety, and the economy of this, of us getting back to play,” Ujiri said via everyone’s new favourite conference medium, Zoom. “When you do these things, you have to make plans, right?
“We didn’t see this virus—this pandemic has been very unpredictable, especially in the (United) States—but we’re planning to go ahead. We’re all excited about getting into Orlando and moving ahead with the season.”
Ujiri is with the Toronto Raptors players and coaches in Florida where the team has trained at Florida Gulf Coast University and stayed at a hotel opened exclusively to cater to them. Masks are worn at all times anywhere in and around the hotel, hands are being sanitized regularly, as are the weight rooms and any other accessible area. Contact is minimal. Vice-President of Basketball Operations and Player Development Teresa Resch and Dr. Howard Petroff—Assistant Team Medical Director—both worked together to sort out logistics and safety protocols.
"We all know the right thing to do is to not play, to take a stand. Morally, yes, that makes sense. But life goes on. We’re all young Black guys. None of us want to give any money back. I don’t think that we should." - Fred VanVleet
Discussions were had about whether going to Florida was the right decision to make, but no real convincing was needed because they were all prepared to respect an individual decision. No vote was taken. The Raptors players and coaches want to play but are also completely understanding of the other side of the coin.
“I definitely respect guys that took the stand to sit out for whatever reason,” Fred VanVleet said via Zoom. “But my choice was to come play. I’m not right and they’re not wrong. It’s just a personal choice for everybody.”
VanVleet explained how everything looked as promising as possible—given the circumstances—a month or so ago but the sudden spike in Florida cases the past few weeks had made the decision challenging. Ultimately, he placed his faith in the organization and the league, believing that they wouldn’t dare put the players in extreme risk.
“Hopefully, they prove me right and not wrong and I understand that around the league there have been some positive tests and they are trying to get ahead of that now so that when we are actually in the bubble, hopefully everything will be OK. I’m trying to be optimistic about it. It’s not the most ideal situation but it’s kind of the times we are in. It hasn’t been ideal for anyone.”
While winning the championship is front and centre, the challenge of potentially going around 100 days within a “bubble”—despite amenities such as daily movie screenings, DJ sets, ping pong, and lawn games—will be immense. Ujiri is confident his group of players has the mental toughness, chemistry, and self-belief to persevere through whatever challenges come along the way. Ultimately, these players want to play because of their passion for the game of basketball and the desire to play the sport at its highest level. He’s also impressed by the competitive spirit of the workouts he’s seen thus far.
Those workouts are staggered throughout the day for different players to maintain distancing as group workouts aren’t permitted until July 9 when training camp begins. VanVleet was one of the first Raptors to arrive at the hotel and so at a point was one of five people in the entire building. He has been working out early in the day, which allows him to then eat and sleep before getting some treatment to work on sore muscles or whatever may be nagging him. Then, he spends the rest of the day playing video games, FaceTiming his family, or just sleeping to burn the time. For now, VanVleet says it isn’t too dissimilar to when the Raptors hold their training camp in Vancouver or Victoria where the routine is generally hotel-gym-hotel-gym. The challenge this time will be to see if they can do it for three months.
“It sucks. It sucks, man. It’s terrible timing but that’s been 2020 for us,” VanVleet said about having to adjust to living in a literal bubble. “We all know the right thing to do is to not play, to take a stand. Morally, yes, that makes sense. But life goes on. We’re all young Black guys. None of us want to give any money back. I don’t think that we should. I think that money can be used in a number of different ways.
“This is not going to end this summer, regardless, or over the next couple of months. This issue, racial injustice, social injustice, police brutality, all these things are not ending anytime soon. Our fight was long-term. That was part of my decision.”
In the here and now, Ujiri has pushed the discussion of Black executives in the NBA with commissioner Adam Silver. There are currently six Black general managers across the 30 teams and Ujiri represents the only Black team president.
At a team level, a committee has been formed consisting of players, coaches, and members of the front office. Kyle Lowry, VanVleet, Bobby Webster, and Nick Nurse—among others—have all been putting time in individually to brainstorm the best course of action, before they can all come together and arrive at collective conclusions. Ultimately, the message will be sent that Black lives do indeed matter.
“People are concerned, people are engaged, and we have to be,” Ujiri said. “Because there is a huge problem and as I said before, people have to address it. We have to address racism. It’s also in Canada, we’re not immune to it. There is the issue here, and we’re going to pay attention to it and attack this matter the best possible way that we can.”