Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri has had an unforgettable 2019. But while it was the year that his team won its first NBA championship, Ujiri says he was proud of the squad from “day one.”
Ujiri sat down with Metro Morning‘s Matt Galloway to reflect on how winning has changed the team, Toronto’s self image, bringing more women into the Raptors organization and why he’s staying in the city.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the entire audio of the interview below.
Matt Galloway: When did it sink in for you what you’d actually accomplished?
Masai Ujiri: Right away you see that you’ve won. But when you say sink in, it’s a little difficult.
I’m beginning to realize it now.
But you’re joyous and you’re happy at the time when it happens, it’s really an unbelievable feeling.
Matt: How do you process that? Many months later, you have that kind of pinch me moment?
Ujiri: My parents, they were over at the house one Sunday. They were not here when it happened and they were watching everything on TV. I was passing through one time, and I saw that moment of when we’re playing Golden State and the Freddy scream. And for that two minutes, it got me. It grabs you.
This is when you look at it and feel, man — those guys played unbelievably hard. These coaches coached their butts off. You remember more of those moments … where you were at that certain time.
Matt: When you came here, what was your impression of the city as a sports town?
Ujiri: People ask me that and expect me to, I think, be negative. But honestly, I just saw positive.
You saw hope, you saw huge potential. I said it from day one that we should be proud of who we are, what we have.
The ability for this unbelievable city to carry four teams … [and] have enough for all of them, whether it’s ownership, whether it’s fans, whether it’s following, coverage, everything.
It’s an abundance. And what more can you ask for other than the challenge of ourselves to put a better brand on the court? So honestly all I saw was huge potential, with the bias that I had worked here before too.
Matt: People will beat ourselves up in this town. We’ll cut ourselves down, even if there is success or the potential of success. What do you think is behind that?
Ujiri: That’s not believing in yourself, in my opinion.
We gotta learn that. And I think while learning it … we can look at ourselves and just be discouraged all the time.
Yeah you could see that in this city, you could see that in the vibe. But it’s something we’ve worked hard to try and give people more confidence.
And that’s our jobs. As leaders we have to put ourselves in that position to get people to believe.
Matt: After the Kawhi [Leonard] trade … you were very clear in saying, believe in this city, believe in yourself. Why did you say that, particularly about the city?
Ujiri: It’s not anything that’s rocket science. Sports goes and comes around. That’s just the nature of life.
And if you work hard — we have players that work unbelievably hard, coaches that are talented, work unbelievably hard, we try to get the best talent that we can get — and you do your job honestly, we are not afraid of anybody.
I don’t care if you come from anywhere. They can make as much noise as they want about “the States” and “blah blah blah.” This is the same basketball team as they have over there. We want to win same way, wear our shorts the same way. And that’s what we believe in. That’s what I believe in.
Matt: How do you think winning has changed how people see this city?
Ujiri: Winning changes a lot. To be honest you can see how it’s changed with the team.
You’re not scared to lose anymore. If you lose, you lose. You come back and play the next game.
If we don’t win for the next hundred years we always think we can win. You always believe that you can. That’s what a championship does and that’s what it does for the city. People believe more and people outside respect more. That’s just what winning does. We play sports to win. It’s very simple.
Matt: We’ve won and people expect us to win again. How do you handle pressure?
Ujiri: I have a friend I played with in Belgium and he once told me … somebody asked him about that.
He’s from the Congo. And at the time there was the war in the Congo and his uncle would call him all the time crying. [His uncle] had a wife and 11 kids and they lived in this little kind of place and the kids were from ages, I think six months to 13 or 14 years. And the wife had AIDS. And the uncle had AIDS. And he didn’t know how he was going to feed those kids every day.
That’s pressure. Not throwing the ball in the damn hoops.
Honestly … I’ve never felt pressure working in basketball. There’s no pressure at all. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.
What is there to feel pressure about? Yeah you get into your team and you get upset if you win or you lose but honestly since I’ve come here, since I started working in sports, I’ve felt zero pressure because if I’m not doing this I’d be doing something else that I love.
Matt: Tell me about Pascal Siakam. An amazing story, and this kid just gets better and better. What is it like for you as somebody who’s been deeply involved in helping him create that story to see that work?
Ujiri: He’s worked unbelievably hard. Great character person and somebody that really believes in himself. He believes in what he’s trying to do.
Pascal has always believed that he’s a superstar and that’s half the battle. From day one he hasn’t told me anything different. He knows where he wants to get to. And he goes on, he busts his butt every single day. You see the character of the guys on the team. It’s high level and I’m proud of that. And I’m proud of Pascal for that.
Matt: We had [assistant coach] Brittni Donaldson on the show at the beginning of the season. She talked about young girls looking up and seeing that if she’s there then they could get there. How important is that for you to try and change a bit of the culture of the sport?
Ujiri: That was a priority for me. And the first person I called when I got the job was Teresa Resch [Raptors vice president] because I knew that I needed a woman, a strong woman here. A chief of staff that is going to come and really make an impact. But that impact for me was creating more opportunity for other women.
I have a daughter, I have a wife, I have a mother, I have sisters. And I see that sometimes we’re not as motivated or believe in them as much as we believe in them at home.
Every man, they say, “oh my wife is my boss.” So why can’t they be bosses at work?
Because we don’t give them the opportunity. I had to do that here.
And I’m proud that we went from one woman working here to I think about 30. I’ve lost count of them now in the organization. But from Jennifer Quinn to Teresa to Brittni … I’m super, super proud of them and the work they are doing.
They contributed to our winning a championship. There’s no doubt about that because they bring a level of calmness, they bring leadership and they bring camaraderie, cohesiveness, everything that you need to get there. And I’m proud them.
Matt: I saw you at a Toronto Life event, you were named most influential person in the city. You gave a speech and you talked about the opportunity and the responsibility of this city to bring more goodness and kindness and positivity to the rest of the world. What can we offer? What can Toronto offer?
Ujiri: Honestly the best thing that we can offer is just showing people more about our city, of our country.
We have this beautiful country here. And I just don’t think we’ve extended it enough to other people, to show other people that man, this is what you can do.
It’s great being here and other people come. We have incredible diversity and they are welcome. We have to extend it out a little bit more and teach these countries … being together, being kind, being loving, creating such a diverse community — I think there’s so much to that.
Matt: You could go anywhere. You could do anything. Why do you stay here?
Ujiri: My kids were born here. That’s a big draw. For me it’s been a great city. People have been unbelievable to me and and I appreciate that. I love that about the city, the organization, ownership.
There’s something special, unique. It’s a huge challenge for me to come here and to win. I want to prove to everybody that you know what, we can win too. And to have that following behind us, for me is truly special.
Matt: Giants of Africa [Ujiri’s basketball program for youth in Africa]. It grows and grows.Taking the trophy back to the continent is a big thing as well, and people see potential and see opportunity through you. What sort of responsibility is that?
Ujiri: It’s huge. I will be forever for me because God has created this path for me and it’s all about bringing people along.
Because the people that have helped me along the way, I can’t even believe and I can’t even say how much it has affected who I am, not only in my career but also as a person.
So to go bring the youth all over the world, not just Africa … but very, very important that we give opportunity to those that don’t have.
To give women more opportunity, women’s empowerment is very, very close to my heart. And that continent is gonna be great. I know, I feel it. You can see it. And I want to be a part of it.