These should be the salad days for the Toronto Raptors.
NBA defending champions. Second in the East despite a skeleton crew. Top-to-bottom, the most likeable local team, well, maybe in history.
But this city has a way of manufacturing turbulence out of what should be a dead calm. Maybe that’s how we know the Toronto Raptors have really really arrived on the Canadian sports scene – they can’t get out of their own way.
The problem at the moment is the architect of all this wonderfulness – Raptors president Masai Ujiri.
The man and the team exist in a symbiosis that is fairy-tale stuff for sports. He got his first real executive job here back when no one knew his name. He returned the favour by taking on the top job when no one else in their right mind wanted it.
Ujiri took a franchise plagued by basketcase-ism and professionalized it. The Raptors in turn gave Ujiri a blank canvas and invited him to paint whatever and however he liked. It turned into a Chrysler-after-Iacocca moment. The club got rich and the man was put on a pedestal in the wider culture. Ujiri became more than a sports executive. He became a national shorthand for “smart.”
The old presumption – that anyone who got this big in Toronto could not possibly want to stay – went out the window. This was all too good to fail.
Somehow, it’s in the midst of failing.
Here’s a thing about rumours. They are impossible to avoid. Everyone loves making mischief. Mischief – rather than gigantism or fourth-quarter comebacks – is why you watch the NBA. The league is in constant, delightful turmoil.
So the Ujiri-to-New-York rumours that keep popping up like weeds are not the problem. The fact that no one from the Raptors has stood on a podium with a big bottle of DDT and a pressure sprayer, is.
Another rumour sprouted this week after the New York Knicks fired their president. All these off-the-record tidbits have the same basic parameters – that Knicks owner James Dolan has been after Ujiri for years and will do anything to have him.
Two issues – Ujiri is under contract until the end of the 2020-21 season; and Dolan is a troublemaking-verging-on-demented fussbudget with no off switch. Neither man is capable of giving the other what he wants.
There have now been at least four distinct iterations of this story over a couple of years. That Dolan is totally crushing on Ujiri and Ujiri should know that because Dolan won’t stop giggling and flipping his hair whenever they run into each other in the NBA cafeteria.
Commissioner Adam Silver is carrying notes between the two of them and Ujiri keeps saying, “You’re a totally nice guy James but I’m with Larry right now.”
Dolan goes off and has a little pout and eventually screws up the courage to humiliate himself all over again.
You can’t stop the rumours, but you can stop the story. It’s easy. You go out in public, acknowledge the rumour in specific rather than vague terms, scoff at rather than just deny it, and then – here’s the important part – sign a new contract.
Why is Ujiri unsigned?
That is the Raptors’ existential question. No one has ever done a better job. There is no shortage of money. Ujiri already has absolute and final word on every single thing the Raptors do. They can’t swap out a garbage can in the training room without figuring out whether Masai prefers black or red.
Ujiri gets huge swaths of time off in the summer to pursue his charitable interests. And money for that, too. He wants to have a big party honouring Nelson Mandela? MLSE makes sure that everyone is there, including hockey players who have no idea who Nelson Mandela was. The entire organization is designed to fit around one employee.
Ujiri has done his part – talking up Toronto, gushing publicly about his bosses and generally being the sort of person who makes those born here feel proud to be that way. We can all say, “This is the sort of person who wants to be Canadian.”
But something’s clearly wrong. Because if you or I ran MLSE, we would’ve handed Ujiri a blank contract on the flight home from San Francisco last June and asked him to fill it in at his leisure.
Nobody did that. Months went by without negotiations of any sort. There is still no basis for an agreement, though everybody continues to say that’s what they want.
Shortly before the Raptors won their title, the Maple Leafs re-upped club president Brendan Shanahan to a new long-term deal. So we can at least be sure that the problem isn’t that the MLSE has run out of pens at its 50 Bay St. headquarters and no one can sign anything.
At some point, you might’ve said that such business is best done amid a dignified silence. Since no one else in the NBA is returning the favour, that time has passed.
Left unchallenged, all this talk has a way of becoming real, however fanciful it was when it started. People start thinking. They don’t tell other people what it is they’re thinking about. And grudges are born from nothing. We’ve all done this in our small ways.
Why wouldn’t Ujiri consider New York? It’s perfect for him. The team is in tatters. You’d have an endless supply of rope. And it’s New York.
Ujiri thinks in bigger terms than basketball. He’s good buddies with the likes of Barack Obama and Rwandan President Paul Kagame. You want a good answer from him? Ask an off-the-record question about the free-agent market. You want to see his eyes light up? Ask him about sport’s role in rural development in Africa.
A few athletes leverage sport to build global brands. Ujiri may be the only team boss who’s leveraged sport to make himself a global player. He’s more Davos than Las Vegas.
This is not to say he should leave. Nothing’s killed more careers than grass-is-greener-ism. It’s just saying that you’d probably be thinking the same thing.
The New York job is off the table as of Thursday, but that doesn’t solve the bigger problem.
Does Ujiri want to leave? If so, there’s no nice way of saying that. And Ujiri has always taken great pains to be nice.
Is there a way for Ujiri to get out of this with everyone still loving him and all his honour intact? No. He’d be bailing on a promise.
People do that all the time in sports, but just because it is a commonplace doesn’t make it right. The moral math is simple – people who break deals are deal breakers.
Should MLSE let him go if that’s what he wants? Absolutely. There is no sense in forcing anyone to stay anywhere, regardless of their contractual status. Nothing ruins a good thing faster than having people in charge who’ve lost interest.
If Ujiri is committed to Toronto, he needs to say that. Because not saying it has become a way of saying the opposite.
There’s also a clock on how long this drama can be left to fester. That clock ran out this week.
If Ujiri hasn’t signed a contract in short order, we’ll know where this is headed.
What we may never know is how Ujiri and the Raptors managed to take something so easy and turn it into something difficult.