Masai Ujiri is working from home like many of us, hopping between conference calls, playing with his kids, and one other thing.
“I’m basically stalking Dr. Fauci as if he’s like the next NBA draft pick,” the Toronto Raptors president said with a laugh.
With basketball on hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ujiri is not out travelling the world scouting players as he usually does in early April of a typical season. Watching for and following the latest advice of health experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci – America’s familiar, white-haired infectious disease expert – has taken priority over the business of basketball.
The Raptors president is doing what he can to help his self-isolating team members stay connected – lots of video calls with players, ownership and every department from coaches to scouts and analytics staff.
“I know six, seven months ago we brought the world together in a really special way, and now I think it’s time we stick together, bring people together by staying apart. This is the opposite of the parade,” Ujiri said on a conference call Wednesday with sports reporters, his first public comments since the NBA suspended play indefinitely three weeks ago.
“I think there is also some good for us, you know, spending time with family and slowing down. Maybe God tells us that the world was moving too fast and we need to slow down a little bit.”
When the season suddenly halted, his hot-rolling Raptors had played to a 46-18 record and sat second in the Eastern Conference, mere months from a shot at defending their title in the playoffs. Ujiri wouldn’t wager a guess about when the NBA season could restart and what that could look like. He said it could be salvaged if the world puts global health first.
“This is not an earthquake that hit in only one part of the world or a disease that is only in another part of the world or a tsunami – pardon me for mentioning all of these things – but this is affecting the whole world,” Ujiri said. “We can want to plan the NBA all we want, and [want] it to come back all we want. [But] because it affects the whole world, something is going to stall that one way or the other if we have not played by the rules.”
Ujiri reflected back on the night of March 11 when the NBA announced its season would stop indefinitely, prompted by Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert testing positive for COVID-19. The Raptors had just played the Jazz in Salt Lake City a few days earlier. Ujiri was on the road scouting at the time and returned home to Toronto immediately. He praised the Jazz for communicating so well with the Raptors during that time, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver for doing the right thing.
“I think people, players and everybody were really calm, but concerned,” Ujiri said in describing how his team reacted in those days.
All the Raptors players and staff tested negative, but they still self-isolated.
Ujiri said he kept Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posted on the status of the Raptors during those anxious days. The Nigeria-raised Raptors president has established a strong relationship with Trudeau over the years. The Prime Minister took Ujiri to Africa with him in February to help lobby politicians there as Canada hoped to win support for a seat on the UN Security Council.
Ujiri expressed concern about how African countries will be able to cope if the virus hits hard across that continent and he is keeping in touch with politicians he knows there. He said Trudeau messaged him to say he is also talking about pandemic preparedness with Africa’s leaders, such as Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Ujiri said that during their travels, he saw the attention Trudeau was giving to coronavirus already.
“It’s doing the right thing, having the right heart to do the right thing now for people in general, and paying attention to the experts,” Ujiri said. “I think he’s done a great job.”
Ujiri said his charitable organization, Giants of Africa, must decide soon whether to cancel its youth basketball camps and events planned this summer across Africa.
He said this shutdown has not been a time for basketball negotiating. Ujiri said neither he nor head coach Nick Nurse have used this time to talk to the Raptors about contract extensions. The contracts for both Ujiri and Nurse expire after the 2020-21 season.
"No. It’s not kind of where our minds are right now. It’s a crucial time for the world,” he said. “It’s honestly like the last thing on my mind. I miss the game, man. I miss basketball. 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. We have to win this one.”