Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri formally addresses his team three times a year. The start of the season, the eve of the playoffs and when it's all over.
He's two weeks from delivering his next message. What will it be?
"I don't know yet," Ujiri says, sitting in his office at 50 Bay St.
We've been talking for an hour, but this is the first time Ujiri leans back in his swivel chair. He's working this out on the fly.
"We believe in them. We honestly believe in them. Even in the down times. When we're losing games …" – Ujiri goes through the first names of every one of his regulars – "… they're hurting. That's a good start. That's a really good start."
Before it all gets frantic, this might be the time to consider that that's the key word when it comes to the Toronto Raptors – "start." The past two years have been the beginning of something. But we understandably want to rush toward an ending. Toronto's greatness as a sports market is directly proportional to its tendency toward hysteria. This city comes to games holding a tub of water and live wire. In three-quarters of NBA markets, this Raptors season would have been a non-stop tailgate. Never in doubt. Yet, the mood of this fan base fluctuates like a New England barometer. Up, up, then down, downer, downest. Stormy throughout.
We're no longer accustomed to nice sports things. It takes getting used to.
"As a city, as a country, we have to learn how to win, too," Ujiri says. "I know [the fans] are starved for something. I understand that. But be a fan of the game, be a fan of the team and the culture, and grow with it. Don't put it up at a level it's not …" – Ujiri indicates a point high above his head – "and don't kill us at a level it's also not …" – and Ujiri holds his hand down to the floor.
The atmosphere that emotional see-saw creates may be unmatched in the NBA. After a game in Toronto this year, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich found Ujiri and told him, "I hope you understand how special this is. Enjoy it."
It's good advice for the rest of us as well, because history suggests getting beyond the current stage is going to take a while. The arc of the NBA is long, and it often bends away from success.
Consider the early favourites going into these playoffs. Golden State has won two playoff series in 23 years. Houston? One in 17 years. Portland? One in 14 years. The Clippers? Three since the mid-70s. All four are among the best teams in the league.
"There is no way to learn how to win, but to win," says Ujiri gnomically. It's the key dilemma to building an NBA club.
Take one small example in Raptorland.
This year, the team went to all-star DeMar DeRozan and asked him about his most frustrating tendency – giving up on drives and taking impossible two-point shots. DeRozan worries about it, but he can't rewrite his competitive DNA on demand. That's what he is – a guy who makes tough twos. He's also never been on a team that won big at any level.
The team set him a small challenge: get one foot in the paint. As long as he has one foot in the paint when he takes a shot, and whether it's preceded by infinity pump fakes, it won't be questioned.
DeRozan just had a career game against the Rockets. Perhaps it was motivated by a challenge – either his own, his team's or the energizing presence of James Harden. Until he's doing it on the regular, who can say? But that's how improvements are made – incrementally, night after night, often in stuttering fashion.
Given where the team sits, none of it means anything until it's accomplished in the hothouse of the postseason. Quite literally.
"The playoffs? I'm thinking of how it feels for me. I can't even imagine what it's like for the players out on the court," Ujiri says. "Everyone takes it up. The players, the refs, the fans. Even the building is warmer …"
Because there's no hockey, though the implication goes unsaid. That's a whole different story, and another reason to hold tight to what we've got.
But this is still Toronto. We have to get the worst-case out of the way before we can live in the moment. What happens if this team wins two straight division titles, and goes out in two consecutive first-round series?
"I don't want to think about it in a negative way," Ujiri says. "If guys give up on you, well, then. But if guys go out and fight? … I have to read it when it happens."
In other words, a series win is not a prerequisite, but an improvement on last year's battling loss to a far more experienced Brooklyn Nets team is. It's hard to imagine how they could do that, and yet still lose.
That sounds like pressure. It certainly should to the players.
But it is not Ujiri's style to issue threats. He is a man with an endless supply of carrots. Once you see the stick, it's already too late.
His attitude is 'show me.' The Raptors have showed him something all year – good and bad. Mostly good. But it hasn't really mattered until now.
"What's pressure? All these guys that play ball – this is what they dream of. This is their moment. It's the most intense, most dramatic, most fun time," Ujiri says. He's close to vibrating with paternal anticipation and hope.
"They're going to be fearless. I love that about them."