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Fans back in arena top priority: Raptors president

TORONTO – Even as the NBA’s trade deadline on Thursday was approaching, Masai Ujiri has kept his priorities in order.

“Trying to get fans back in the arena,” Ujiri said Friday when asked what was more important between fans back in Scotiabank Arena or the trade deadline.

The Toronto Raptors vice-chairman and team president held court with the media on Friday where he made clear that getting a full-capacity arena is among the very top of his to-do list.

But the Ontario government won’t lift its large-arena capacity limit of just 500 people until Feb. 21. Scotiabank Arena, home of the Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs, is included in this rule.

Ujiri is hopeful, however, these capacity restrictions might be rescinded earlier than planned.

“We’ve had conversations. MLSE is in conversations. I’ve had lots of high-level conversations,” said Ujiri of the capacity limits his team is facing.

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“With these things, there are a lot of studies, there are a lot of unknowns. They tried to take their time to do the right things. The way it’s trending, I’m hoping maybe we can get back sooner than the proposed dates.”

The Raptors will once again play inside of a near-empty Scotiabank Arena Saturday night when they face the Denver Nuggets. After that, they’ll embark on a five-game road trip, not returning home until March 1.

The hope for Ujiri is that 19,800 fans will be allowed to enter the building and participate in game action by then.

“Just like anything, you struggle for energy. You struggle to adjust to it, overall,” Ujiri said of playing in empty arenas. “For me, I feel this game is all about playing, winning, human interaction. It’s the biggest thing I feel sometimes, and it’s lost.”

Winners of their last eight games straight, and sitting in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors are rolling right now and want to be able to share their success with their fans.

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Ujiri addressed speculation that, before the Omicron wave peaked in Ontario, the Raptors may have been considering playing elsewhere again.

“The conversation is we’re never going anywhere. We’re staying here. We’re not playing anywhere else but Toronto,” Ujiri said.

“And I say that firmly and sternly that this is where we’re going to play. Our fans will be back and we’ll be back rocking in our building. I think we’re one of the highest approval teams in terms of fans and support and attendance to the games, atmosphere, and we love that.

Last season, the Raptors played their entire pandemic-shortened campaign in Tampa, Fla. They ended up going 27-45 and missed the post-season for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

“We loved Tampa but we’re not doing that again,” Ujiri said.

Toronto has already racked up 31 wins this season and that’s largely because of the rapid development that Ujiri has seen from the Raptors so far.

“I think we can all agree there’s been good growth. That’s what we wanted,” Ujiri said.

“We had a tough year (last season), the Tampa tank happened. … I think we can all agree here and say Pascal (Siakam) has grown as a player, Fred (VanVleet) has grown as a player, OG (Anunoby) has grown as a player, (Chris) Boucher has grown as a player, Precious (Achiuwa) — we can go down the line, all of them, Scottie Barnes.

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“I think we can see growth. We are excited about our players. Hopefully they continue to grow and continue to play like they’re playing.”

Added to the Raptors mix was Thaddeus Young, a veteran forward whom the Raptors traded for on Thursday and who fits the mould of the positionless brand of basketball that the Raptors want to play, as a six-foot-nine player who both plays and defend multiple positions.

This play style the Raptors have been experimenting with all season long has appeared to work so far, but because of how odd it can look at times to see an entire five-man lineup all around the same height, with no true point guard, centre, nor designated sharpshooter on the floor, it’s come with questions.

The way the roster has been constructed, however, has always been the plan.

“I feel strongly that we can create our own style of play and bring these type of players and figure out a way to do it,” Ujiri said. “Will it succeed? I pray it does, I’m hoping it does and I think it will.”

Part of the success of the Raptors so far this season has been the emergence of the team’s young players such as the rookie Barnes and starting guard Gary Trent Jr.

The productivity they have from those two perhaps wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for Goran Dragic’s strange tenure with the Raptors, though.

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Dragic was sent to the San Antonio Spurs as part of the Young deal on deadline day, and while he only suited up for five games for the Raptors, he appeared to have left to mark on the team.

“I think Goran was looking for a contending team that would contend (for) a championship,” said Ujiri. “But Goran came in here and I think he was a great professional and did everything we asked and really exceeded every expectation that we had, first, as a person.

“Then Goran had a personal situation that I can’t elaborate on and we respected that and on our part, we wanted to develop our young players and Goran also respected that.”

Dragic first came to the Raptors as part of the off-season trade that saw franchise icon Kyle Lowry leave Toronto for the Miami Heat. After the trade was made, there were reports that Dragic didn’t actually want to play for the Raptors, but he ended up reporting for training camp and got into five games for Toronto before the team granted him a leave of absence to attend to a personal situation in November.

And while Dragic wasn’t playing, the Raptors started taking off and, thus far, haven’t really looked back.

“We’ve won here, and we’re going to win again,” said Ujiri to end his press conference. “I truly, truly believe that.”

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2022.

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