Better Together

On a sunny early August day in 2021, Masai Ujiri’s contract extension as President of the Raptors was announced at a glass-enclosed archaeological exhibit of the swanky Hotel X in Toronto. He looked sleek in a white shirt and navy blue blazer, joked that the Vice Chairman addition to his title was just “sexy,” and closed off a 45-minute presser with a dead-panned remark after the final question that if there were any more questions they needed to come immediately as he wouldn’t be seen for awhile.

Fast forward 11 months and on a wet, gloomy Tuesday morning in early July, Ujiri was at Rexdale Community Hub, still looking as sharp as ever and representing the franchise in a classroom-like setting for a roundtable discussion with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, MP for the Toronto riding of Etobicoke North Kirsty Duncan, and several community stakeholders focused on the best plans for curbing gun violence.

It’s quite the contrast but one doesn’t happen without the other. This is part of Ujiri’s plan as he elevates himself to larger circles, using the glitz and glamour of a sexy new title to help provide a bigger platform and voice for the everyday problems faced by everyday people.

“It’s important to me,” Ujiri said. “We are in positions where we can bring people together and offer some kind of leadership with this kind of issue we have in our environment and community. Gun violence, we don’t want to see this rise and it is rising. Whether we call ourselves the private sector, we all have to come together with these community leaders, government, all of us to figure out a way to hear everybody and work together.”

Trudeau moderated a lively discussion that lasted approximately 90 minutes and heard from about 10 community representatives including founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement Louis March, Ali Areesh Somani of BAM Collective (an organization focused on creating accessible pathways for youth to build artistic skills), and both Shamso Mohamoud as well as Shamso Elmi, two Somali-Canadian mothers who organized a group Mending a Crack in the Sky (MCIS) to combat gun violence and hardship while facing cultural and racial barriers after they each lost their sons to violence. Underlying issues discussed included mental health, poverty, and domestic violence among others.

“Yes, we see a debate around gun control but there’s not a debate around whether our communities need to be safer, whether we need to keep kids safe from violence, whether we need to see fewer gun shot victims in our ERs, there’s no debate around that,” Trudeau said. “There are lots of important conversations about how to best do that but as we know there’s no one magic way of doing that. There’s a lot of measures put together, a lot of people working hard, a lot of different angles to come at the problem, and that’s really what this conversation is all about, making sure we’re thinking about everything we can do as a government and a country to protect our kids, to protect our communities.”

Ujiri arrived well in advance of when the discussion was set to happen for a meet and greet with the community leaders and those early conversations ranged from first-time introductions to continuing previous conversations to trade advice based on the latest speculation. When it came time for the main discussion at hand, Ujiri found himself learning plenty about what the community’s main concerns are, where they stem from, and even some key facts and figures such as how even something like a student being excluded from school for a certain period due to an offence can lead them down a dangerous path in that time away.

For as many issues that can be identified, the aim of the conversation was to put heads together towards finding solutions and what each person from a different walk of life can bring to the table. From the standpoint of a sports franchise, engaging with the community in ways that give them hope and inspiration and allowing the youth to see themselves in professional athletes can go a long way in motivating them to spend their time and direct their mind towards positive endeavours.

“When we speak to the young kids in the community and we ask, ‘What would make you feel good, what would make you feel happy?’ They say we would like to see professional athletes come into their community and just say hello, just show up at an event,” March said. “If Scottie Barnes shows up at Jane and Finch, it will bring a lot of excitement for those that have never seen him in that light. This is where John Wiggins, this is where Masai, this is where the Raptors can show they’re a winning team not only on the court, but on the streets.”

That type of impact can’t be ignored. Those interactions leave an indelible impression on youth and the level of positivity that can stem from it is immeasurable. One need only look so far as Pascal Siakam’s recent appearance at Regent Park’s Dixon Hall community hub, where he handed out 150 laptops to girls aged 12-14 in collaboration with his own Pascal Siakam Foundation and Penny Appeal Canada and left each and every last one of them smiling ear to ear.

Wiggins has been in communication with March ever since stepping into his role as Vice President of Organizational Culture and Inclusion and that’s part of how the Raptors started a petition last month to call on Canadian legislators to join the United States in observing the first Friday of June as National Gun Violence Awareness Day in Canada.

There were representatives from the Midnight Basketball League as well, a league that promotes relationship building, teamwork, and basketball skills for those aged 14-18 and has returned for the first time since 2019 courtesy funding from MLSE’s Change the Game campaign. The conversation for them stems around how they can be a positive influence beyond the current game days and workshops.

Ultimately, it would be one thing for community leaders to have these conversations with the MP Kirsty Duncan and Ujiri, it’s entirely another to bring Trudeau into the equation. With friends in high places and his own status to boot, Ujiri is hoping to turn more of these nondescript offseason days into meaningful changes for communities that need much service.

“The good thing about our (Justin Trudeau) friendship is it started even before he became Prime Minister, before I got to this place,” Ujiri said. “Those [relationships] are the ones where you work really honestly and you grind through it. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, all of us, but I know inside the heart what we’re really trying to do and we’ll keep pushing.”