By his own admission, Masai Ujiri was dripping a different kind of sweat when he met with the media on Tuesday than the sort saturating his forehead when he sat in front of them almost one year ago.
Last July, the Toronto Raptors president wiped away stress sweat as he answered for the huge gamble he had just taken. He had traded away long-time star DeMar DeRozan for enigmatic NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard who, if healthy after an injury-shortened season in San Antonio, might lead the Raps somewhere the franchise had never been.
Fast-forward to Tuesday and Ujiri sat dabbing at his glistening face again, this time making light of it at his season-ending press conference. Maybe it was the remnants of the morning workout he did before what would be a packed, hour-long media availability to reflect on the Raptors’ first championship season. Maybe it was the lingering question in the air surrounding the megastar who spearheaded one of the most remarkable postseasons in recent Canadian memory: Namely, will Leonard re-sign in Toronto once the NBA’s free-agency period opens at 6 p.m ET on June 30?
“Our organization feels confident, and we do feel confident that he will,” 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.”
The Raps president said he has had “good meetings” with Leonard, and the player communicated the factors that are important to him. The team president said he’s also spoken with Leonard’s representation and with his uncle, the star player’s long-time confidant. Ujiri said he does not know anything about the California native’s plans to meet with any other NBA teams or when he will announce his decision.
“Once their scheduling is done, I’m sure we’ll figure out a time that we’ll definitely meet with Kawhi,” Ujiri said.
Since the Raptors’ championship parade wrapped last Monday, fans have watching for any clue about which way Leonard is leaning. There have been reports he purchased a house in Toronto. The superstar was photographed visiting Niagara Falls, eating at a local restaurant and buying boxes at a Home Depot. He even went to watch the subpar Toronto Blue Jays.
Each sighting intensified the hurricane of speculation. Was the two-time Finals MVP building his affinity for a city where he plans to live? Or was he merely squeezing in a sightseeing tour before leaving Toronto for good?
Toronto Mayor John Tory and Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia held a press conference to ask fans to give Leonard his privacy. In lieu of approaching the superstar and swarming him for photos and autographs at Toronto’s hot spots, Tory and Bhatia pleaded with fans to sign a petition on their newly launched website KawhiUShouldStay.com.
Several Toronto restaurants got in on the “Keep Kawhi” craze, too. In a promo they call “Ka’Wine & Dine,” and united by the slogan “Wine’m, dine’m, let’s re-sign’m,” many local eateries proudly slapped a sticker on their doors proclaiming: “Kawhi eats free here.”
Like everyone else – from fans across Canada to other teams who want him, such as the Los Angeles Clippers in his home state – the Raptors must now wait patiently.
“I think he had a great experience here. He won a championship here,” Ujiri said. “I believe winning a championship, him seeing who we are, working with his medical staff combined with our medical staff and getting him to where he wanted to be. His priority, when he sat in [his first Raptors] press conference, he said was getting healthy. You see where he was coming from. I’ve had moments with him and we’ve talked about this – about from last year, his confidence getting back to this year.”
As he reflected on the way Leonard was embraced by the city and the team, Ujiri made sure on Tuesday to hark back to DeRozan – the player cast off in the trade. The beloved Raptor of nine seasons had very publicly expressed his pain when he was traded. Ujiri revealed that the two shared a sort of conciliatory moment when the Spurs and Raptors met during the season.
“When San Antonio came here – I’ve never said this to anybody – but something unbelievable happened,” Ujiri recounted. “DeMar came into our locker room and to show you the classy human being he is, he came up to me and he hugged me and he asked me how my family was doing.”
Those huge decisions made on trades and free agents, those are the toughest parts of the job, Ujiri stressed. He added that the Raptors have plans in mind if Leonard leaves, and if he stays.
“I think our team is always very well prepared, that we would be able to deal with whatever comes our way,” Ujiri said. “I know the relationship this organization has built with Kawhi. We will respect his decision.”