Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri’s entire career has been an effort in calculation. This is a man who speaks very carefully.
So when Ujiri got up on a podium in front a couple of thousand fans ahead of Game 1 of the Raptors-Brooklyn Nets playoff series, he was not caught in a moment or out of control. Just look at him.
Standing in front of his boss, MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke, Ujiri first asks the fans, “Who’s going to the game?”
There’s a pause. Ujiri smiles broadly. He appears to be leaving. But he stops, takes in the shrieking, and screams, “[Expletive] Brooklyn.”
He figuratively dropped the mic. And a city went nuts.
If the temperature of this series was already edging high, it’s into ‘Get the doctor out of bed, we’ve got a fever’ territory.
The frothing crowd in the Air Canada Centre picked up on this animus. Throughout the game, they riffed openly on the idea that everyone – the Nets, Kevin Garnett, the referees – “sucks.” And that was the least of it. For a moment on Saturday, Toronto got very, very swear-y.
At half time, the Raptors called an emergency press conference in the bowels of the ACC.
Ujiri materialized, looking serene.
It started out with the proper PR script.
“Guys, I apologize. Wrong choice of words out there. This thing is not really about me …”
It is now.
“… it’s about the players and the playoffs. Just trying to get the crowd out there rattled. Wrong choice of words. I apologize to kids out there and to the Brooklyn guys. Nothing against them …”
Remember that one. More on that shortly.
“ …. That’s it.”
Is that how you feel, someone asked.
“You know how I feel.”
Ujiri broke through the scrum, still smiling easily. But he wasn’t finished. He laid down the nut graf as he trailed away.
“You know how I feel. I don’t like them. And I apologize.”
Listening back on the tape, there is a moment of silence. And then everyone breaks into laughter. We were all there, when the Nobel Prize of Non-Apologies was delivered.
I will promise you this much – Masai Ujiri planned this in advance. He knew exactly what he was going to say when he got up on that podium. And he knew precisely how he’d handle it once it blew up.
This is a statement of purpose – regardless of how this playoff series ends. The Raptors lost 94-87 on Saturday. DeMar DeRozan was AWOL. Amir Johnson is clearly hurt. It’s early, but this already looks bad.
What Ujiri’s comment show is that going forward, the Raptors are no longer the league’s kid brother. They don’t absorb insults. They deliver them.
Afterward, Nets coach Jason Kidd seemed deeply annoyed by Ujiri’s provocations. Asked about the comment, Kidd drawled, “I don’t even know who the GM is.”
When you get that sort of reaction, you know you’ve delivered a brilliant piece of theatre.
Even Drake – a man who’d apologize to a meteor if it landed on his house – was in on the act, ribbing Nets rap mascot Jay-Z in a pre-game TV interview.
“Jay-Z is somewhere eating a fondue plate,” Drake said (confusingly). “It’s our time.”
Go easy, Toronto. I’d like to make it through U.S. Customs un-strip searched in a few days time.
Out on the court, the Nets were giving the country all sorts of reasons to fall in line with Ujiri’s assessment.
They got their veteran calls. By contrast, Brooklyn was not called for a single foul in the fourth quarter. Garnett was at his most infuriating – delivering sneaky elbows and looking aggrieved on the rare occasions he was caught.
In the second quarter, Deron Williams draped himself over Kyle Lowry. Lowry tried to swing away. Williams went down as if poleaxed by an elbow. Replays showed Lowry hadn’t touched him.
We’ll reserve judgment on Brooklyn. Brooklyn’s been good to us. But this Nets team is easy to hate.
Ujiri knew that. He knew what the fan base wanted to hear from him. They’re tired of shrugging their way through NBA life. They want to be naughty. They want to be more Brooklyn than Brooklyn.
It’s impossible to say if it’ll work in the short term. But Ujiri, who is always planning, was thinking about more than the next two weeks.
Given a larger stage via ESPN, who broadcast the game, he was announcing this franchise to America. This isn’t the Toronto they expected.