When Masai Ujiri was introduced as the general manager of the Toronto Raptors in 2013, he summed up the decision to to come back to Toronto as GM by saying, "I'm home."
On Friday morning the organization announced that Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka had re-signed with the team. As Lowry — entering his sixth season as a Raptor — and Ibaka— having spent just three months with the team — spoke with the media, each mentioned Toronto feeling like home.
Ujiri, now team president, recently announced that Bobby Webster had been promoted to general manager. While Ujiri, Webster, head coach Dwane Casey and the rest of the staff have spent much of the previous four seasons leading the team deeper into the playoffs than it had ever gone before, they've also remained steadfast in their desire to create a winning culture and carve out the Toronto Raptors identity. Listening to Ibaka and Lowry speak about their decisions to return to Toronto, it was clear that the organization has done well in their quest to create that culture and identity on and off the floor.
"On a personal note, I'd like to thank the Raptors organization, who have allowed me to come back to a place I call home," Lowry said. "It's been a great five years and for the next three years [I'll have the opportunity] to take this organization to new heights. I want to thank Masai and Bobby for giving me the opportunity to keep leading the team and keep going. I think we started something and I think we're going to continue to grow and try to finish something and continue to get better."
After arriving in Toronto following the trade deadline in February, Ibaka adapted quickly to the system. Despite only a handful of games played with Lowry before the postseason began, due to Lowry rehabbing from a wrist injury, Ibaka liked what he saw from the Raptors on and off the floor. He felt good about his fit.
"First I want to thank the ownership for confidence and trust," Ibaka said. "I want to thank Masai and Bobby for their trust. It means a lot to me. Also I want to thank all of my coaches, coaching staff. I was here for half a season, playoffs, but what they showed it, it was more than just basketball. They made me feel like I was home. Also, I just want to thank all the fans here. Even before I got here, it was a lot of fans, media supporting me. And then when I got there, they really shows me the love. This is one of the things that really make me feel at home. That's why I'm very excited and happy to be back."
Both Lowry and Ibaka spoke about getting a full season with each other and how gaining a better understanding of the other's game will help their familiarity on the floor. While Ibaka mentioned getting to go through training camp and preseason as something that will help this season, Lowry was talking about continuing to improve and helping younger guys on the roster.
"I think me, fully healthy, being a better shooter, being a better leader, being just a better basketball player, making decisions better … there's a lot that goes into it," Lowry said. "It's mentally strengthening. You have to go in there mentally strong, and say, 'Okay my guys need this, or they need that.'
This will be Lowry's 12th season. Getting to lead a team has been a source of pride for the point guard.
"It means a lot," he said. "It means these kids, these young guys, they count on me. The organization counts on me. Every day it's coming in with the greatest of attitudes, the greatest of work ethics. Coming in and showing these guys that we have to work hard, we have to be on the same page to be a championship-level team."
While Lowry has helped Toronto reach a new level of on-court success, he credits Toronto with helping him away from the court as well.
"I've been here five years," Lowry said. "My kids are here. It's been a place I can grow as a man. Go from the age of 26 [when I arrived] to now 31, to be a better basketball player, to learn about the different cultures, different people in Toronto, and then having a great fanbase behind me? The fanbase has always been supportive of us and me and I'd like to thank them and show them that I'm happy they've done that for me."
The decision-making time of free agency provides athletes with quiet moments of reflection that disappear during the rigours of the season. As Lowry reflected on all that he's done in Toronto thus far, he explained how his mindset has changed.
"Now it's about making sure I get everyone else better and continuing something that I started five years ago," he said.
"I just want to continue to make sure that I give every last ounce of effort I could and make sure I've given everything I could."