Eight years into his tenure in Toronto, Masai Ujiri is no longer a sports executive. Like certain actors or a band you really love, he is an experience.
The Raptors president saves his most bravura outings for his annual end-of-season address.
These often have a strong tent revival vibe. They start soft and end loud. They eventually wind around to Ujiri urging Canadians to think bigger and expect more from themselves.
At a time when woo-hoo’ing about the glory of the nation – any nation – has gone out of fashion, Ujiri has been this country’s loudest cheerleader.
In that spirit, it’s time to pay it back.
On July 1, Ujiri’s contract is up. If he wants to go – and it’s beginning to sound like he might – the city should accept with grace.
It might even go so far as to encourage him to move on. He’s conquered this corner of the map of the known world. There are a lot more dragons out there.
First things first – nobody wants or should want Ujiri to leave Toronto. His ability to move the pieces around on a basketball team is the least of it.
Ujiri is a visionary, a community builder and the country’s most beloved resident non-citizen. You can’t form a hiring committee to find those sorts of people. You just luck into them.
He’s also a good soldier. He had never before said a cross word about his employers or shown any frustration with his job.
But on Wednesday, after a dismal season spent in a southern swamp, you could feel the irritation beginning to seep in.
The first mystery: how has Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment not signed Ujiri already? Was it hoping to whittle down his asking price? Because the asking price for a guy who took a North American laughingstock and turned it into an NBA champion is however many zeroes he can fit on the cheque.
Ujiri is the one who refused to negotiate during this season, but that doesn’t explain the two or three seasons before that. Now it’s advantage: Ujiri. You could call that a failure of vision on the part of MLSE. Or you could call it an insult.
It sounded like the second thing as Ujiri went on a long sidebar about the organization’s commitment to basketball.
“Everybody has forgotten about what happened here two years ago. Yes, we won. Nobody cares any more. We want to win another one,” Ujiri said, his voice quickening and rising. “So what’s the next lift here? What’s the next five years? What’s the next 10 years? What are we doing to put ourselves in conversations with all the great teams?”
It’s an unusual way to begin to your job interview – “Thanks so much for having here me today and WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING TO MAKE THIS COMPANY GREAT?”
But Ujiri can do that. That he feels he should is a problem.
This newly revealed angst is presumably down to changes in the MLSE command structure.
As long as chairman Larry Tanenbaum is around, the billionaire super-fan perspective will get a hearing. But Ujiri lost a strong backer in George Cope, the former Bell Canada CEO and a hoops obsessive.
What happens if the two corporate ends of ownership decide a money-making basketball team is preferable to a winning basketball team?
So on Wednesday, Ujiri was writing a PowerPoint presentation. Not the one he’s going to use, but the one he wants to see.
Elsewhere, Ujiri talked about the ineffectiveness of Canada’s pandemic response; he talked about his many “options”; he made it very clear he will be listening to other offers; and he gave the strong impression this isn’t going to end any time soon.
In between, there was the usual big-upping of the city of Toronto. But this time around, it wasn’t the focus.
As usual, the presentation was hypnotic. Nobody gives better press conference. At one point, reminded of all the kind things said about him by his players in recent days, Ujiri wept.
“To hear them say that? I honestly sometimes don’t know what to say … I love them like they’re my family.”
This was part-homily, part-elegy and part-threat. It takes a truly three-dimensional thinker to spin something like that off the top of his head. Or was it planned? With Ujiri, you never know.
The takeaway – that Ujiri likes Canada a lot, would be happy to stay and knows he should probably leave.
Whatever mission he arrived with, it’s been accomplished. He’s 50 years old. Still young for his level, but he soon won’t be. If he’s going to make a move, now would be the time to do it.
And think about the moves he could make. In Toronto, we think too parochially when it comes to Ujiri – another reason for him to go.
Sure, he could go to another NBA franchise. To any NBA franchise, with any amount of power, for any amount of money.
But he could also go anywhere at all.
If he wants to, Ujiri can slip into a political role on either of two continents, or both.
He could fill his current role – team president – in other sports. Just as a for instance, there are a few gigantic American-owned soccer teams in England that could very badly use some of that Ujiri charm right about now. What’s to stop him doing that?
It’s hard to imagine any role in any field that would be too big or too challenging for Ujiri. It’s even harder to imagine any organization that would not want him.
Put it this way, if he was your buddy and you were advising him, would you seriously tell him to stay put and start another rebuild – because that’s what it’s going to be in Toronto.
He’s done that once. Who builds two houses one after another on the same piece of land? If you build for a living, and you’re good at it, you move on.
Nobody wants Ujiri to go. There’s every possibility he won’t go. Maybe he’s going to be Canada’s Red Auerbach, and never leave.
But if Ujiri decides he wants to strike out for the horizon, no fair-minded Toronto basketball fan could hold it against him. He’s earned that much at least.