TORONTO – No matter who you are, where you live or what your daily routine generally looks like, your life has been altered over the last three weeks.
At this time of the year, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri would usually be on a scouting trip. That’s what he was doing last month, while his team was on the road and before the world, as we know it, changed.
He and a few of his trusted front-office lieutenants would be scouring the globe looking for talent. They’d be going from gym to gym, watching college or international hoops in the hopes of finding the next Pascal Siakam or Fred VanVleet. Draft night would normally be less than three months away.
Meanwhile, the Raptors should be beginning a crucial home-and-home series against the NBA’s best team, the rival Milwaukee Bucks. After visiting the Bucks on Wednesday and then hosting them in Toronto a couple of days later, they were supposed to have seven regular-season games left before opening the playoffs, likely against Brooklyn or Orlando.
The team would just be starting to gear up for the postseason, maybe considering finding some rest for their key players, knowing what’s around the corner.
This is usually the most exciting time of the year for basketball fans. But it’s not. With the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on the world, basketball – like everything else, in and outside of sports – has been put on hold.
“This is a really unprecedented time, challenging times, extraordinary times, I don’t even know how to describe it,” said Ujiri, speaking on a conference call Wednesday morning. “Usually when stuff happens in the world it’s either a section, a state, a region. This is global and it’s the whole world. We all miss what we do and miss what we love, but I think this is now a time for us to stay together, pay attention to the rules and regulations, listen to leaders and listen to experts with this pandemic.”
“It’s been tough, guys, I’ll be honest. Just being away from everything that you do and you do so well, it’s been tough on everybody. But this is a time for us to rally together, be innovative and figure out a way, a way forward.”
It’s been an adjustment for Ujiri and his team, to be sure, though they’re certainly not alone in that regard.
The 14-day quarantine period for all players and team personnel that were in Utah when the Raptors faced the Jazz onMarch9 came to an end last week. It was a precautionary measure after Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive for COVID-19, even though all of Toronto’s tests came back negative.
While some players remain in Toronto, many have travelled back to their respective homes in the U.S. Still, they’re not able to practice and their workouts are limited to whatever they can do at home or going for runs alone outside.
Ujiri has been keeping busy. His days are consumed by conference calls and video chats with players, team officials, his front-office staff, Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, and the NBA. But it’s not exactly business as usual.
In an alternate timeline, Ujiri might be negotiating a new deal with MLSE – his contract expires after next season. Maybe a Nick Nurse extension would be in the works – the Coach of the Year frontrunner also has one more year left on his deal. Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are both eligible for extensions.
Instead, he’s checking up on the health and well being of his players, he’s going over contingency plans with the organization and the league, and he’s collecting as much information as he can from experts and world leaders.
“I’m basically stalking Dr. Fauci (head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) like he’s the next NBA draft pick,” he joked.
The Raptors have essentially hit pause on the business of basketball.
“Honestly, to be fair, it's not where our minds are at right now,” Ujiri said. “This is a crucial time for the world. Those things will come. I'm fine. We’re fine. It’s honestly the last thing on my mind. I miss the game, man. I miss basketball. You have concerns – I'm concerned for my team, I'm concerned for my family, I'm concerned for the world and I'm concerned about this pandemic and how we beat it, how we fight it. We have to win this one.”
Ujiri is hopeful that the 2019-20 NBA season can be salvaged, at least in some capacity. Maybe it’s just the playoffs. Maybe it’s a condensed version of the playoffs. But the truth is he isn’t sure how, when or even if that will be possible. Nobody is.
In such uncertain times, it’s impossible to know what comes next. The longer the league is in limbo, the more questions there will be. Will the players continue to get paid in full? How will the lost revenue affect the salary cap? If the season is cancelled, what happens to expiring contracts like Ibaka’s, Gasol’s or VanVleet’s? When’s the draft? When’s free agency? Does the NBA calendar get reset or altered permanently?
These are all things that will have to be addressed at some point, but it still seems weird to ask some of those questions, let alone reasonably expect answers. What’s going on in the world right now is so much bigger than basketball. It’s bigger than sports.
“I think the way we salvage the NBA season is to abide by the rules and do everything that we have to do as people, as a community,” said Ujiri. “This is not about the NBA. It's about the whole world. This is global. It’s something that hits globally. We can plan the NBA all we want and for this to come back all we want, but because it affects the whole world something is going to stall that in one way or another if we have not played by the rules.”
“I love the game, I love what I do but right now, honestly, it's not about that. We keep working, we keep trying to do our best, but we have to abide by the rules now. This is the time for us to really isolate and hopefully in the near future we can get back to all doing what we love to do.”