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The Raptors are the champs. And it’s because of Masai Ujiri

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15.06.2019

Even in the bad times, in private or in public, he would say it like it was a mantra, an article of his faith: We will win here. We will figure it out.

The mentality of Canadian basketball fans was always a source of consternation to Masai Ujiri, a mystery: Why so prone to defeatism? Why so insecure? Why were they conditioned to expect the worst, no matter what?

I would always tell him, experience. It was what they knew.

• • •

The Toronto Raptors are the NBA champions, and it doesn't feel real, does it? The Toronto Raptors, the purple dinosaur crew, the team whose stars left because of no ESPN, or the weather — as if there isn't winter weather in New York, Chicago, Boston, all over — or the peacock colours of the foreign money, or curling on TV, or taxes or the metric system or whatever else you wanted to give as an excuse … they're the champs. The Raptors. They won.

And the architect is Masai Ujiri. After Game 6 against Milwaukee, as the paroxysms of joy and chaos still rang through the basement hallways of Scotiabank Arena, Ujiri sat alone in the nondescript room across from the locker-room. It's called Multipurpose Room B; it had been the scene of Kevin O'Neill trying to get fired as coach by questioning whether people in the organization wanted to win — he succeeded — and of Sam Mitchell's post-game irascibility, and of then-Star columnist and all-around wiseacre Dave Perkins prefacing a question after a critical late-season loss to Lenny Wilkens with, "Lenny, now that the season's been shot behind the ear …"

Ujiri sat and scrolled through his phone. He had texts rolling in, so many, congratulations from friends and family and colleagues and the occasional president. Like a wedding, where everyone wants to send their love. "This is huge," he said, softly. "This is huge. These guys are fighters." He had just watched his team come back from 15 down late in the third quarter to beat the 60-win, league-leading Bucks four straight and advance to the NBA Finals. He was asked: How do you feel? Ujiri said, I can't describe it. He doesn't speak publicly often, but Ujiri is a natural, exuberant orator. He was nearly speechless.

• • •

July 10, 2013: Traded Andrea Bargnani to New York for Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, a 2014 second-round pick, a 2016 first-round pick (Jakob Poeltl) and a 2017 second-round pick.

• • •

Masai Ujiri didn't grow up in Zaria, Nigeria, as a basketball fan. He played soccer. He had to cross basketball courts to reach his preferred soccer fields, and one day he stayed. A local coach spirited him NBA VHS Tapes — Akeem Olajuwon at the University of Houston, back when he was Akeem, but most notably, Michael Jordan's Come Fly With Me.

It was the first of a thousand connections, a thousand strokes of luck, that along with Ujiri's bold and fearless nature took him from Nigeria to here. He went from Seattle, to college basketball in North Dakota and at Montana State Billings, to brief professional stops in England and across Europe. He cadged his way through doors, talked himself into meetings. He went from being an unpaid scout for the Orlando Magic, sleeping on floors and couches, to a paid scout for the Denver Nuggets, to Toronto's director of global scouting under Bryan Colangelo, to........

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