Lewenberg: Kawhi doesn't seem like a guy who wants to be wooed
TORONTO – What a weird and wonderful and emotionally exhausting year this has been for Masai Ujiri.
The Raptors president made a series of bold and admittedly devastating moves last summer. He watched them play out, mostly from the shadows. As comfortable as he’s always felt in the spotlight, this season was different.
He had put his reputation on the line and sacrificed professional and personal relationships that took years to cultivate in order to give his team a real chance to do something special. He took some heat for it. That’s just the nature of the business.
Then he won a championship, and for a guy whose job is to build championship teams, it all seems worth it now.
After months of letting his work do the talking, Ujiri returned to the spotlight on Tuesday and it was like he had never left. Once a showman, always a showman.
“The trophy is not here, I was just going to come [in] and put it down and walk off and walk back to Africa,” he said early in his end-of-season press conference. Fifty minutes later, the Larry O’Brien Trophy finally joined him on stage.
Ujiri was at the podium for almost an hour. He didn’t even break the seal on the bottle of water sitting in front of him and only (jokingly) needed to dab sweat off his forehead when he was asked if basketball would ever overtake hockey as Canada’s sport (to which he said “I really think so,” and went on to “guarantee” the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup).
Few command a room or deliver a speech quite like Ujiri, that hasn’t changed. Whenever he speaks it’s usually memorable. These end-of-season availabilities, in particular, have given us some iconic moments – from the “culture reset” of 2017 to last spring’s passionate call to action.
This was his victory lap, a chance to remind people why he did what he did and to deliver a new message: he’s not done yet.
“This is why we work,” he said. “We want to experience this moment here again and again and again. And we want to believe in ourselves here and, I think this shows we can do this. It is a huge representation for us to be the only team outside the United States to win a championship because it inspires people all over the world. I feel that it gives everybody confidence that sometimes not everybody had.”
“I said we would win in Toronto and I really believed it. I said that when I got here and I truly believed it, and I truly believe we will win some more. I have no doubt in my mind.”
That declaration, before a question was even asked, squashed idea of him cashing in on this run and going elsewhere. Despite speculation that the Washington Wizards or another team with an opening atop its front office could try to poach Ujiri – who has two years remaining on his contract with the Raptors – he said he’s happy where he is.
“For me, it’s always been about Toronto,” he insisted. “I love it here, my family loves it here, my wife loves it here, which is very important, my kids are Canadians. And you want to win more, for me. And yeah, I can continue to address teams wanting me and all those things, you know, that’s a blessing in life. But for me, the blessing is being wanted here and finding a place that makes you happy and finding challenges that really make you grow as a person. And this place has made me grow as a person. I identify with this place, and I love it. In my mind, I’m here.”
It’s a great situation, and he knows it. He appreciates it. Ujiri already had full autonomy as the team’s primary decision-maker. Then he rolled the dice on Nick Nurse and again on Kawhi Leonard – both of which paid off, regardless of what Leonard decides to do with his future. He brought the franchise its first title and delivered on a promise he made to the city when he was hired. His capital within MLSE should reflect that. Why would he leave now?
The question is where do they go from here? How do you follow a championship? Win another.
Toronto’s top priority, according to Ujiri, is to run it back next year. Danny Green is an unrestricted free agent, Marc Gasol has to make a call on his player option for next season by Thursday, but it all hinges on Leonard’s decision. Does he stay or will he go?
Ujiri has been in contact with Leonard and his representatives – including his uncle, Dennis Robertson – ahead of the start of free agency on June 30 and insists that those initial conversations have been positive.
The Raptors are confident in their chances of keeping the superstar forward and have been for a while, as TSN reported in March. However, like the rest of us, they’re playing the waiting game. Leonard is extremely difficult to read, and if he knows what his plans are, he’s not tipping his hand.
“Our organization feels confident,” Ujiri said. “But Kawhi is his own man. He's shown that since he came here. He's a confident human being, he's an unbelievable person, he is his own person. I'm glad we got him for the year. I said this to you guys, we have to be ourselves. And we were ourselves the whole year. I think he saw that, I think we built a trust there. But at the end of the day, the relationship I've developed with Kawhi, and I know the relationship this organization has built with Kawhi, we will respect his decision.”
Had things broken differently, this decision could have conceivably come to define Ujiri’s time in Toronto. What if Leonard’s legendary Game 7 buzzer-beater rimmed out and the Raptors lost to Philadelphia in overtime? What if they dropped the double-OT thriller in Game 3 against Milwaukee to go down 3-0 and face certain elimination? Maybe Leonard leaves and maybe people wonder whether it was all worth it.
A trip to the Finals vindicated Ujiri. The championship was icing on the cake. Whatever happens from here, Leonard’s Raptors legacy is safe, and so is Ujiri’s.
The sleepless nights, agonizing over those hard decisions he had to make and the real people – the colleagues and friends – he burnt in the process, those seem like a distant memory.
As Ujiri revealed on Tuesday, when DeMar DeRozan made his Toronto return back in February he went into his old locker room, came up to the Raptors boss, hugged him and asked how his family was doing.
“It meant the world,” Ujiri admitted. “People don’t understand how hard [trading him] was for me. I know it was harder for him. He was the one. He was the subject. He’s the person that got traded. But man, I think of the growth of that kid and even my relationship with him and where it got to. I had to walk around this hotel in Kenya for two hours at 4 a.m. just to sum up enough courage to call DeMar DeRozan. That is two hours. It was not an easy thing. I still think about that. So it meant a lot for him to come and give me a hug.”
A couple weeks earlier, Ujiri mended fences with Kyle Lowry during a sit-down meeting just prior to the trade deadline. The two were hardly communicating after Ujiri dealt Lowry’s best friend over the summer and the tension was boiling over. This was a clearing of the air. It wasn’t an easy conversation, but it was necessary. Both exec and player credit it as a turning point in their season.
Ujiri even says he’s exchanged texts with Dwane Casey recently.
“Time heals things,” Ujiri said.
Time and the trophy.