We Want To Win: Ujiri, Raps, Gear Up For A New Season

by Chris O'Leary

Sitting in front of a backdrop in a hotel in Tampa Bay the day before team practices begin in early December, normalcy seems like a distant memory for Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors. 

Last season ended in the bubble three months ago, after a pandemic-induced four-month hiatus that has shifted the world in many ways, the sports calendar being just one of them. 

Ujiri doesn’t know exactly when his team will be back in Toronto. As it was pointed out to the team’s president on a call with reporters on Saturday morning, it could be at the midpoint of the season in March. It could also be as far as seven months from now if the Raptors were playing in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. 

It’s different, it may be a little weird and it’s something that the other 29 teams in the league aren’t dealing with but when it comes down to it, it’s still basketball. 

“I remember walking into the ballroom in the bubble almost the same time as Kyle (Lowry) and Fred (VanVleet). I’ll never forget that, that image in my head,” Ujiri said. 

“Right away, they dribbled the ball and got to it. These guys are hoopers. There was no complaint, there was nothing they thought about, all they wanted to do was play. That's how I believe our guys are and I believe that's how basketball players are. They see that hoop, they see that wooden floor and they just want to play and this is no different.” 

The hoop and the wooden floor are over 2,100 km further south than everyone is used to, but the Raptors will make the best of their unique situation when they start practicing this week. 

“We want to win. We want to win, we want to play basketball,” Ujiri said. 

“Whether we're in Naples (Florida), whether we're in a bubble in Orlando, whether we're here, whether we're coming back (to Toronto) we play sports to win. That's what we do here. 

“You are going to have adversity, you are going to have things that get in the way. But we have that mindset as an organization. I'm really proud of them. Wherever we end up: Home, Toronto, we love you guys there and we’ll do everything for you guys and we'll do everything for Tampa. Now wherever we're playing that Game 7, we’ll try our best.” 

Over an almost 40-minute chat with media, Ujiri answered a broad range of questions about his team, his and his staff’s future and what the coming season might hold. Here are some of the main takeaways from the call. 

GOOD NEWS COMING 

It’s been discussed throughout this short off-season, after coach Nick Nurse signed his contract extension, that GM Bobby Webster and many of the Raptors’ front office weren’t far behind on new deals as well. Ujiri shed some light on that. 

“My staff is pretty much done,” he said. 

There's just been so much (happening), honestly. It’s not a matter of not doing it. I think there's just been so much that...I know, I've pushed it out until we get through a lot of this. There’s just so much going on with this relocation and the focus (on that). I don't want to be distracted that way. In terms of staff, there was even some distraction with that because Bobby was the last one. But I think...there's no issue. I would consider that done soon enough.”

He was a little more guarded about his own situation. 

“I don't know what the timeframe will be but I go into this thing with a very positive mind and an attitude that we hope that it goes that way,” he said. 

WHAT A POST-BUBBLE PASCAL LOOKS LIKE 

Pascal Siakam’s bubble troubles have been well-documented. It’s something the All-Star forward addressed himself earlier in the week. On Saturday, Ujiri said he felt like Siakam would bounce back this year. 

“I’ll say it upfront: Pascal didn’t enjoy the game in the bubble,” Ujiri said. 

“Honestly just seeing Pascal the last couple of days here, I know it's going to be different. He’s back enjoying himself and I saw him during the break also in Los Angeles and you can tell that he's not only learned from this experience but gone through that experience which I think is a big thing. 

“I'm confident we'll get our old Pascal back. We know these things, we all have family, we all have friends, we all know people have dealt with this whole pandemic and these tough times differently. The bubble was not Pascal's favourite place but I think this was not his favorite experience, but I think he's learned from it and I feel confident that he’ll come out of this fine.” 

HAPPY TO SEE OG EMERGE 

Ujiri was happy to see OG Anunoby have a good 2019-20 season, one that was highlighted by his playoff performance in the bubble. 

“We’ve always believed in OG,” Ujiri said. 

“(In 2019) not many people know what OG went through. I know he wouldn't want me saying this, but OG and his dad are close to my heart. He went through a real hard time with the death of his dad. Then he's coming back and I think it was an ankle sprain or a bad ankle injury and he gets through that, then he has a busted appendix that keeps him out (of the playoffs). 

“I think when he started to make progress last year, it was some sort of a surprise, but you go back to his rookie year and all the excitement we had. He was starting if I remember right and there was plenty of excitement coming out of that. Then he had this (year where) many things happened and he comes back strong. 

“I believe the progress is going to continue. He’ll continue to grow as a player and do different things, like we saw with his rim protection in the bubble. He moves his feet and he can guard from one to five, that’s an incredible advantage now in this game today. I know we're all excited about OG's progress and what he can possibly do for our team.”  

KYLE LOWRY, HALL OF FAMER 

Reminded of his post-championship-win embrace with Kyle Lowry in 2019, Ujiri had plenty of superlatives to heap on his point guard. 

“That boy is grand, man,” Ujiri said. 

“I don't want to push his retirement but in my opinion he's a hall of famer. He’s heading there to be one of the best Raptors of all time. 

“What Kyle has done in this organization, the growth I’ve seen, you guys know what we’ve all gone through in the last six years. I will say this of Kyle: He’s been incredibly respectful to the organization and we will give that same incredible respect to Kyle any time, every day. We’re proud of him, that he’s lifted us like this, he’s lifted himself like this and we’ll continue to support him as much as we can with our basketball team. 

“Kyle is a winner, he wants to win. Even the times when we’ve gone through hard times, there was never a question of trying or not trying. He’s always given it his best. He has our support.”  

WHAT THE RAPTORS’ SOCIAL JUSTICE WILL LOOK LIKE IN 2020-21 

The Raptors organization was a prominent voice in the NBA this past season in its quest for civil rights and social justice. From the team’s Black Lives Matter buses in the bubble, to protesting and speaking openly and honestly about racial inequality, the Raptors were at the forefront of a historic movement within the league this past year. 

As a friend and advocate of Nelson Mandela -- the seventh anniversary of Mandela’s death fell on Saturday -- Ujiri has worked to deliver the same message through his Giants of Africa charity for the last 17 years. In a non-pandemic world, Ujiri would have hosted a GOA event this past week that would have brought people together to celebrate Mandela’s legacy and build toward a better future. Instead, he held a virtual youth forum on Friday with Toronto-area MP Ahmed Hussen to discuss the idea of humanity. 

“We remember Madiba today, Nelson Mandela, what a great man he was,” Ujiri said. 

“In a time where I know, I want everybody to celebrate humanity and celebrate him. We will always do whatever we can and I will always do whatever I can to continue to remember him. I hope he’s watching us and shining a light on us. This is a time where we need a lending hand. We need kindness, we need love.” 

As powerful as the busses, the jerseys with the messages on the back of them and the player unity on racial injustice was in the bubble, Ujiri said it’s time to take the message forward. 

“We have to continue this conversation as we get back to our normal lives. We have to continue this conversation and go and actually make all the things that we've talked about work,” he said. 

“That's why I wanted to speak on humanity. I'll continue to tell inspirational stories. How do you speak to the youth? How do you continue to help? What are we doing in our organization with giving more opportunity to do the BIPOC? It’s left to us. 

“Now it’s actually doing those things and seeing them happen. We have to be accountable and call out the things, the injustices that are done in these countries and globally.” 

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