It is the elephant in the room, the question that will hover over the Raptors’ off-season until there’s something definitive: Will Masai Ujiri remain in Toronto beyond the 2019-20 season?
Over the course of his tenure with the franchise, he has helped raise the Raptors from drudges of their existence as perpetual cellar dwellers to a rooftop that now holds a championship banner. Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol are all vital free agents, but Priority No. 1 as far as Toronto’s long-term aspirations to contend lies in re-signing Ujiri as team president.
“No, I haven't had discussions, and honestly, coming out of this (Orlando bubble), things are a little raw,” Ujiri said. “I'm going to reflect a little bit and we will address it when it's time to address it. It's not something I'm going to do in the media and publicly, with respect, but no I haven't had conversations. It's been an obligation for me to take care of my leadership team, obviously starting with Nick Nurse. Super excited about that, and him. The future is bright. But in terms of me, I haven't had those conversations and I'll wait 'til those happen in the future.”
Ujiri stressed that while he may be at the top of the totem pole in organizational structure, his preference is to work the other way around and back to himself when the time comes. Nurse was signed to a multi-year “championship level” contract, according to reports, that will see him stand among the top of the heap in terms of head coach salaries. Ujiri confirmed GM Bobby Webster—whose current contract also expires at the end of the 2020-21 season— is close to an agreement on an extension, which would then leave players who he deemed priorities in VanVleet, Gasol, and Ibaka. Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are also free agents.
"Like Kyle (Lowry) said, 'Time to get out of that motherfucker.’”
He explained that the process with player negotiations can only begin in earnest once there is clarification on where the new salary cap stands after adjustments due to COVID-19, as well as revenue losses due to a fracturing of business relationships in China. He also made clear that managing both the short- and long-term future of the franchise is vital to ensure that the free agency class of 2021 can be prioritized.
On a personal level, Ujiri’s priority has been to spend time with his family. After living close to three months in the NBA bubble in Florida, he is more than happy to quarantine for 14 days in the comforts of his own home. While his daughter Zahara learned to FaceTime on her iPad and was ringing Dad up nine times a day even if it came in the middle of his business meetings, his son, Masai Jr., refused to play soccer in the backyard due to his absence.
“That hit home, you know, because he usually doesn’t care, he couldn’t care less,” Ujiri said. “My daughter is the more affectionate one, but when he said that, I could tell. I truly missed my family and missed being home…
“My family and coming back here, to me, after losing and leaving there.... You want to compete, but it was great to see… like Kyle (Lowry) said, 'Time to get out of that motherfucker.’”
Stuck at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, Ujiri and all the Raptors staff—including players—leaned on each other. It proved an extremely vital time for Ujiri, as this was when security footage of his incident involving Alameda Sheriff’s Deputy Alan Strickland during Game 6 of the NBA Finals was released and he was finally vindicated after repeatedly stating his innocence. The Raptors watched the video as a team, and Ujiri looks back on those days as the most challenging of his time in the bubble.
"Let's not make any mistake, there's racism in Canada here. We know there's a focus on the United States, but this is a global pandemic, this is something we are facing everywhere, and as an organization we're going to face it square-on."
“This was the toughest thing in the bubble—I honestly struggled. When this video came out I didn’t sleep for a few days because when these things happen, we saw the rush, we saw what everybody was writing. I mean, you look at these things and you can’t help but question yourself. As time goes on, you begin to doubt yourself and I doubted myself, I doubted myself that ‘What really happened there?’…
“And the second part to this is, when you start thinking about this stuff—especially when you are confined in that space—you have a lot of time to think, right? You have a lot of time. I started to think, 'What if this had gone the total wrong way?' There might have been situations where maybe there wouldn’t have been that outcome—maybe I would have acted a little different. Then it starts to mess with your mind but, for me, at the end of the day, I’m privileged; at the end of the day, I have support; at the end of the day, I’m able to face this square-on and I just started to think about the people that cannot do this. They cannot do what I can do; there are times and things that happen where there are no cameras, there are no people that can see, there will be no video. How do these people get incarcerated? How do these people get wrongfully accused? That began to bug me as a person and I really struggled in the bubble thinking about all of this and it was so hard for me.”
Having the support of his team and the organization undoubtedly meant a lot as he faced this mental battles, and just as they were there for him, Ujiri went out of his way to praise everyone from Lowry to Matt Thomas for their efforts in not only an exceedingly successful Raptors season that fell short of the ultimate goal, but one that saw them step up to the plate in the fight against racial injustice in a big way while coping with the mental challenges of being away from their family.
Ujiri was also crystal clear in his support of Pascal Siakam after a poor run in the Orlando bubble and vowed that—as Siakam has done in years past—he’ll learn from the experience and come back a better player. He also expressed his disappointment over a select group of people going out of their way to hurl racial insults at Siakam.
“We see what's going on with Pascal; we know of his struggles in the bubble and he'll get through that, and we're very confident with that,” Ujiri said. “But the fans, people, they have every right to their opinion and to make judgements on our team, but I feel that to take it that far, where it went, there is racism everywhere. Let's not make any mistake, there's racism in Canada here. We know there's a focus on the United States, but this is a global pandemic, this is something we are facing everywhere, and as an organization we're going to face it square-on, and whether it's calling people out, whether it's developing programs, whether it's hiring people, a focus on hiring Black people, minorities, Indigenous people, we are going to focus on this. I think we are showing that, our players have shown this in their commitment and I feel we were in the forefront of this.
“I'm proud of not only our players, our coaches, everything we're doing with, whether it's voting, whether it's polarizing this, whether it's talking about it, we're going to do whatever we can to continue this conversation.”