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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – The irony was not lost on members of the Raptors organization.

On Wednesday, the team hosted its first live event in Toronto in almost a year and a half – a press conference for newly re-signed club president, and now vice-chairman, Masai Ujiri.

It was held on the main floor of Hotel X, located along the city’s waterfront on the grounds of Exhibition Place, just a few minutes east of their practice facility.

A catered lunch preceded the afternoon presser. Initially, it was supposed to be served on the hotel’s fourth floor terrace, but with some rain in the forecast, it was moved to the third floor lounge, where, 17 months earlier, the team held its last event. Just down the hall, on the evening of March 11, 2020, Nick Nurse hosted a couple hundred guests to launch his foundation. It was the night the NBA stopped.

The Raptors have been operating remotely ever since. They spent a few months in the league’s Orlando bubble and then an entire season playing home games out of Tampa while conducting all of their media availabilities virtually over Zoom.

So, this was a homecoming of sorts. It felt surreal, even a bit eerie, but it was refreshing. Even with COVID-19 protocols in place, it was a rare moment of normalcy during an otherwise chaotic time, and it may have been a taste of what’s to come.

“It is so good to see everybody’s face,” Ujiri said to the assembled local media. “I wish I could tell you to take your masks off but it wouldn’t be the right thing to do as a leader here.”

“Man, we can’t wait to get back to Toronto. We can’t wait to get back to playing. We can’t wait to get back to basketball, [back to] life, and I am really, extremely excited about this.”

As the league gets set to release its schedule later this week, Ujiri still doesn’t know where his team will be playing its home games to open the 2021-22 season; not for sure, anyway. They need the green light from the provincial government, something they were unable to get ahead of training camp last December. The recent returns of TFC and the Blue Jays have set a precedent that the Raptors are hoping to capitalize on, but there are still some obstacles to overcome.

Ujiri isn’t just hopeful, he’s adamant that they’ll be back in Toronto when the campaign tips off in mid-October. Every time the NBA calls to ask if they’ve got a backup plan, Ujiri’s answer, plainly, is: no.

“I told [MLSE chairman] Larry [Tanenbaum] and [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] and even Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau that playing away set us back a couple of years,” Ujiri said. “We know that and we are ready for that challenge, [but] playing another year somewhere else will set us back five years. We are not trying to do that.”

“We have no interest [in playing anywhere else]. We have not looked elsewhere, we are not going to look elsewhere, we’re playing at home; we’re trying to play at home. That’s the goal for us.”

The Raptors and their ownership group have made it clear; they’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen. Earlier this week, MLSE announced that – effective next month – anybody who enters its arenas, stadiums and restaurants will need to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result. Given the rising case counts in Ontario and the looming threat of a fourth wave, it’s unclear how many fans would be permitted to attend games if the team is cleared to return. However, barring an unexpected turn of events, that seems to be where things are trending for the club, and that’s fantastic news for an organization that could really use some semblance of stability.

A lot’s happened since they last played in Toronto. In February of 2020, they were defending their championship admirably, boasting the second-best record in the NBA. Now, they’re coming off their worst season in a decade and are in the process of turning the page to a new era. They’ve said goodbye to Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol and, now, Kyle Lowry, the most important player in the franchise’s history.

To fans that may have checked out over the past year or so, the Raptors team that will make its return to Canada – whenever that happens – should look a lot different. Excluding 35-year-old Goran Dragic, who may or may not open the season with the club, all 10 of their roster players are under the age of 29. Seven of those players are between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9 in height, with enormous seven-foot wingspans.

They’re young, they’re versatile, and if nothing else, they should be interesting this season. They’re not a championship team. The jury is still out on whether they’re even a playoff team, as currently constructed. But Ujiri – one of the lone constants amid all of the changes – has a plan, and it’s one that’s worked for him before. He’s not worried about who they are now; he’s focused on what they can grow into.

“First of all, we are going to create our own direction, we don’t have to go with the wave of what the NBA is doing,” Ujiri said. “And we have to ride opportunities and, for now, I think our opportunities are building around the young players that we have. We have very young veterans, they are almost at the same age as when we had Kyle and DeMar [DeRozan]. There’s Fred [VanVleet], there’s OG [Anunoby], there’s Pascal [Siakam]. We want to build around these guys and the [Chris] Bouchers, the Khem Birches. All these players, they have a level that they need to get to, and then there’s the young crop. We just drafted Scottie Barnes and Dalano [Banton]. We just got Precious [Achiuwa] in a trade, Malachi [Flynn]. All these guys we want to really develop in some kind of way, and I think we have some good history from doing that.”

“I said it when I sat here eight years ago [and] I’m saying it again: We are going to continue to develop these players and we’re going to find a way to win a championship here based on our development of our players, and whatever comes from that, sometimes trades, sometimes you acquire [players] through free agency.”

After months of speculation regarding his future, and whether it would come with Toronto, Ujiri made his intentions clear when he recommitted to the Raptors earlier this month. His multi-year contract extension comes with a big raise and a new title.

What does a vice-chairman do? The job description remains unclear.

“Vice-chairman is sexy, it’s cool,” Ujiri joked of his new title.

By all accounts, it doesn’t come with ownership stake. It should give him more time, and greater resources, to tackle his grand ambitions away from basketball. On Wednesday, he spoke about growing the Raptors’ brand globally, fighting for social justice locally and abroad, creating opportunities for the BIPOC community, and continuing his philanthropic work in Africa – causes that are all near and dear to his heart. He’ll have the chance to do all of that and more, while also chasing a goal that’s defined his entire eight-year tenure in Toronto, a goal he’s never wavered from.

“I want to win, we want to win,” Ujiri exclaimed. “And I said it from the beginning when I came here, we want to win in Toronto, we want to win another championship. All that stuff is from the past. Yeah, you can celebrate and be cool about what you’ve done in the past, but the NBA is about now. We have to put ourselves in a position to win another championship. In some ways there’s unfinished business [here].”

“We thank Tampa. They were incredible, accommodating us in their arena. But man, it’s time to come home. It’s time to come home to these fans and everyone here. They mean the world to us, not only in Toronto, but in Canada. We’ve travelled everywhere, and the support is like we’ve never seen. I want to appeal to them to all come back and support this team, this young team. We can grow again and start to build up to the championship-calibre team that we want to be.”​