TORONTO – The architect of the Toronto Raptors’ championship team is staying with the NBA squad.
A team spokesperson confirmed to The Canadian Press that team president Masai Ujiri has signed a new deal to become the team’s vice-chairman and president. Ujiri’s previous deal was set to expire this summer.
“On the court, our goal is clear: to bring another championship to Toronto,” Ujiri said in a statement.
“Our team is united in that mission. Nothing else will do. We will bring young talent to this city. We will value the veteran players who got us here.
“I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: We will win in Toronto.”
The team released a video on social media with Ujiri saying he is “here to stay” with the team and also lays out the philanthropic work he aims to continue doing.
“Masai and MLSE share the goals of bringing another NBA Championship to Toronto, and off the court, working towards making our city, country and world a better place,” said Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, in a statement.
“These are exciting times, and we look forward to all that comes next for our team, for Masai and for his family.”
Ujiri guided the Raptors to the 2019 NBA title after a series of bold moves, including the trade of star DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard and the decision to fire coach Dwane Casey and replace him with Nick Nurse the previous summer.
Under Ujiri, the Raptors made the playoffs seven consecutive seasons before missing the post-season this year during a campaign in which they had to play home games in Tampa, Fla., because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Ujiri was on the verge of tears when speaking about the team at his post-season press conference on May 19 after a reporter asked him about the praise heaped on him by guards Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Nurse and others.
Ujiri said he loved them “like they are my family.”
Ujiri signed Nurse and general manager Bobby Webster to extensions during the last year, but said he preferred to wait until after this season to begin contract negotiations for himself.
An assistant general manager in Toronto in 2008 before becoming the GM of the Denver Nuggets, Ujiri was rehired by the Raptors to run basketball operations in May 2013.
The Raptors began their seven-year playoff run in Ujiri’s first season.
The executive made headlines before the team’s first playoff game, shouting “(Expletive) Brooklyn” to the delight of fans at an outdoor rally on the day of Game 1 against the Brooklyn Nets. Ujiri was fined US$25,000
He drew similar loud cheers from fans the next year during a playoff series against Washington when he responded to Wizards guard Paul Pierce saying the Raptors don’t have the ‘it’ factor by responding “We don’t give an (expletive) about it.”
The Raptors won their first playoff series under Ujiri in 2016, but eventually bowed out against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference final.
James’ Cavs also eliminated Toronto the next two years, prompting Ujiri to make his franchise-altering moves in trading DeRozan and firing Casey.
With Leonard leading the way, the Raptors attracted huge television numbers across Canada en route to the 2019 title.
After the clinching win in Oakland, Calif., Ujiri was involved in an altercation with a law-enforcement officer while trying to get onto the court, resulting in a lawsuit that was eventually dropped.
“Masai has been completely vindicated, as we always knew he would be,” the Raptors’ ownership group said in a statement.
While Leonard bolted for the Clippers in free agency after the championship, Ujiri’s Raptors remained a force in the pandemic-interrupted 2019-20 season. Toronto finished the regular season with the league’s second-best record before losing to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of a second-round series in the league’s bubble in Orlando, Fla.
The team took a step back in 2021, becoming thin at centre after Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol left in free agency. Despite being the only team not to be playing at home this season, the Raptors stayed in the playoff hunt before a COVID-19 outbreak hit the squad, resulting in a drop down the standings.
Raised in Nigeria, Ujiri has been a major advocate for Africa. His Giants of Africa basketball tour has been his passion project since 2003.
“We as Africans have to go back and do more,” said Ujiri, who travelled with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Africa. “I have to continue to do more and more, to create more opportunity. It’s very important that we tell the story and create the narrative there rather than somebody else create it for us.”
The Raptors also have amplified the Black Lives Matter movement.
They rolled up to the NBA bubble in Black Lives Matters buses last year, and have practised in BLM shirts. They also urged and helped the 650,000 Americans living in Canada to register to vote in last year’s U.S. election.
Ujiri also has been vocal about women in the workplace, and has nearly tripled the number of women in Toronto’s front office since he took the top job.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2021.