For those who are glad to hear that Masai Ujiri will stay on as Toronto Raptors president, there’s some unsettling news: By this point a year from now, I suspect he could be the prime minister of this country.
Ujiri’s postseason remarks are always an occasion, but this iteration hit Churchillian heights.
Here’s the Coles Notes version: Canada is the greatest country in the world; the Toronto Raptors will be the biggest sports franchise on Planet Earth; anything is achievable; everyone is amazing; it’s possible you might be getting a championship ring.
If one of our politicians gave a stump speech this rousing, they’d cancel the election. There’d be no point in holding it.
Ujiri’s hour-long comments were so capacious, it is difficult to pick just one quote from his remarkable stream of consciousness.
“One day, I’m going to tell an unbelievable story,” Ujiri said at one point, voice rising, eyes misting. “I shouldn’t be here. I’m from Zaria in northern Nigeria. I find myself getting phone calls from presidents … I’m sorry to rant on, but man, Canada, here, what an opportunity, what a country. It bothers me that we’re not confident enough that we don’t think we can do it. There’s so much opportunity here to do it even bigger, even bigger than us.”
Ujiri spoke of the Raptors franchise in terms reserved for European soccer elites – truly global teams as likely to be followed in Taipei or Kinshasa as they are at home. This is a team that for years struggled to articulate why it should even exist.
Are the Raptors now bigger than the NBA?
“Yes. There’s no doubt about it,” Ujiri said, then referenced Liverpool FC: “We’re the new Reds. We’re going to capture the world.”
This is dizzying stuff. Nobody in this country talks this way. Too show-offy. Too treacly. Perhaps we should ask ourselves: Why not? Because it sounds kinda nice.
Along the way, Ujiri pledged his long-term future to the franchise (“For me, it’s always been about Toronto”), said basketball will soon be bigger than hockey in this country, guaranteed more championships, announced that the Raptors will be the first NBA team to play in Africa and committed his bosses to buying a WNBA franchise.
It went on like this for a solid hour. Ujiri started out in a sweat. He moved to tears. He said his kids were Canadian. He said he wouldn’t go to the White House. He told a story about making up with DeMar DeRozan. He said he’d been talking to former coach Dwane Casey, and those two aren’t exactly best pals.
That’s a month’s worth of columns. That’s a summer-vacation killer.
He said he’d like to give everyone a ring, including the wretches in the press. We all laughed. Then Ujiri turned to the dean of the beat, the Toronto Star’s Doug Smith, and turned serious, “Doug, you’re getting one.”
Oh, you better believe that’s a column.
I’ve been to some great news conferences. Someone once slapped me at an absolutely bonkers presser with soccer legend Diego Maradona. I figured nothing could top that.
But in terms of feats celebrated, promises made, stories told out of school and hearts swollen, this was the pinnacle. We have experienced championship-level basketball. Now we are enjoying championship-level media content.
By the time the show ended, you’d forgotten that the reason so many people showed up to see Ujiri speak was to hear about his altercation with a sheriff’s deputy two weeks ago.
He brushed that away: “I am confident about who I am as a person, my character, and as a human being. For now, I’ll just respect their process there and wait for the next steps.”
You know how you kill a story? You bury it in time. Weeks of it. Four or five usually does the trick.
Ujiri’s unfortunate Equalizer moment will pop up again as a news item when it’s resolved, probably with a sizable cheque. But it’s not going to be a Thing any more.
You know how else you kill a story? By crushing it with a bigger story. Preferably several of them.
Ujiri has always been grandiose. That’s part of his charm. Until a few weeks ago, that’s all it was – charming.
He’d bang on about Canada being the best and what Toronto could do if it really believed in itself.
Were this sort of shine-on-your-brother stuff being uttered by a native Canadian, he or she would be laughed out of the shop. Canada? The best? At what? Losing with dignity?
Ujiri got away with it, not just because he was a foreigner but because he was a visitor. Sports executives never stay for long. It was assumed he would eventually move to a bigger (i.e., American) club.
But now he’s right up in Canada’s face. He’s staying, and since he was talking in terms of a decade out, maybe for a long time. He’s got the silverware to back up his claims.
In its way, this was just as seismic a moment as the actual winning of an NBA championship.
Manchester United is probably the biggest sports franchise in the world. Manchester is a quarter the size of London. Many of the team’s tens of millions of supporters probably couldn’t find the city on a map.
How’d they manage that?
A plane crashed, they won a few things, and – this is the important bit – they keep telling people it’s true.
Ujiri just put the Raptors in the Manchester United bracket. He just said that a team playing basketball outside the United States, with an international roster, using the NBA’s platform, could be the biggest thing going. Anywhere.
It’s a revolutionary idea. Is it possible? I have absolutely no idea.
But a year ago, before Ujiri got to work, I’d have told you that the Toronto Raptors winning an NBA title was impossible. So maybe it’s worth listening.