Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors’ culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors’ culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors’ culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

ON A GRAY August morning in 2015, Raptors president Masai Ujiri has had enough of an impromptu lockout. He’s outside a weathered basketball gym in Lagos with a camera crew and 55 young men clad in teal T-shirts that read “Nigeria Dreams Big.” Because of the cameras, facility staffers believe there’s money to be made and have barred the doors. Instead of sending staff to deal with them, Ujiri goes himself. What the men in charge don’t know is that Ujiri grew up with their boss.

Born in the U.K. but raised in Nigeria, Ujiri founded this camp, Giants of Africa, in 2003 to use basketball to mold young African boys into men. Fifteen years later, the organization has spread to 10 countries throughout the continent, including war-torn Darfur, and expanded to include girls. Ujiri’s responsibilities have multiplied as well, as the first African GM and team president in the four major North American sports, but he is still known for the hands-on care he takes with each of the campers. One moment, he’s making sure that star player Sodiq Awogbemi, who left school because of Boko Haram, is getting an education. “Any way we can help,” he says. At another, he reminds the boys to respect women. “It’s a problem in Africa and all over the world.”

He’s also known for his passion for the cause, a trait the campers are about to witness once the gates creak open. “Change this f—ing country because this country is bulls—,” he tells them. “It’s ego, it’s bribery, it’s bulls—. You must be better. Even if you don’t grow up to be a pro basketball player, you might be the manager of this stadium. You might be the president of the country.

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

“You might be the president of the Toronto Raptors.”

UJIRI, 48, APPLIES patience and passion in Toronto, where he has steadily transformed the Raptors into one of the NBA’s top teams. Since he arrived in 2013, he has built a tight-knit roster that has won 64 percent of its regular-season games, made the franchise’s first conference finals in 2015-16 and last season notched a team-record 59 wins.

“Masai looks at it like, ‘We’re building something here. These players are a part of the group,'” a Western Conference scout said in late February, when Toronto was on top of the East and rolling. “That’s rare in our league; he can talk to players not just about basketball but about life in general.”

That best season in franchise history relied heavily on the league’s best bench, who led the NBA’s reserves in assists per game and had the second-best field goal percentage in the second half of the regular season. Five of those reserves — Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and CJ Miles — all played in the G League at some point before making up Toronto’s second-most-used lineup last season.

But when the Cavs swept the Raptors in the conference semis for a second straight year, Ujiri’s ideals of stability and commitment met a hard reality. Winning consistently isn’t enough to win it all.

“At some point, we can’t keep doing it over and over again. The definition of insanity,” Ujiri said in September, his voice heavy. “You have to change, you know?”

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

Changing Raptors for good

In July, two days before Ujiri will trade for Kawhi Leonard — changing the Raptors for good — he stands on a court in rural Kenya with the 44th U.S. president. They are celebrating a children’s center opened by Barack Obama’s half-sister, Auma, with a basketball court funded by Giants of Africa. Ujiri, wearing a No. 44 T-shirt, and Obama address the crowd of 600, about 150 of whom are local children. Obama takes — and makes — his only shot on the way out.

The next morning, Ujiri flies to Nairobi weighing a tough decision. Leonard’s schism with the Spurs has been widening for months. He could become the Raptors’ best two-way player ever. But would jettisoning DeMar DeRozan, a loyal, lifetime Raptor, undercut the franchise’s ethos — everything Ujiri has worked so hard to build?

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

Ujiri decides to act. He swaps DeRozan; Poeltl, a sub who embodies his faith in the everyman; and a protected first-round pick for Leonard and Danny Green. From a hotel room in Kenya in the middle of the night, he swings the East’s balance of power to its northernmost point.

The move meets immediate backlash. That day, DeRozan posts on Instagram: “Be told one thing & the outcome another. Can’t trust em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing…”

Two days later, Ujiri admits to “miscommunication” with DeRozan but speaks of pragmatism to reporters. “I know I’m loyal, and you build relationships in this business over the years,” Ujiri says, tapping his heart. “The human part doesn’t make it easy at all.”

“I understand sports, and sports is about winning, and I have a mandate to win.”

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

TO ACQUIRE LEONARD,

Ujiri had to come to terms not just with the disruption of a team that took five years to build, but also the potential fracturing of a culture he has cultivated since the earliest days of his career.

After playing pro in Europe, he scored an unpaid gig with the Orlando Magic in 2002 as an international scout. He paid for his own travel and sometimes couch-surfed with friends to save money. After a year, then-Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe hired him and found money in the budget for extra practice uniforms Ujiri could use for his Giants of Africa campers. Ujiri also set up a bin in the middle of the locker room, where players such as Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin could donate old shoes.

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

One day, Nuggets veteran Marcus Camby, who had a deal with apparel company AND1, asked Ujiri, “How many pairs of shoes do you want? Give me your address.” Ujiri didn’t think much of it, but when he got home, he found boxes of shoes outside his door. Eighty pairs, to be precise, exactly the number he’d asked for.Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors’ culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

ON A GRAY

August morning in 2015, Raptors president Masai Ujiri has had enough of an impromptu lockout. He’s outside a weathered basketball gym in Lagos with a camera crew and 55 young men clad in teal T-shirts that read “Nigeria Dreams Big.” Because of the cameras, facility staffers believe there’s money to be made and have barred the doors. Instead of sending staff to deal with them, Ujiri goes himself. What the men in charge don’t know is that Ujiri grew up with their boss.

Born in the U.K. but raised in Nigeria, Ujiri founded this camp, Giants of Africa, in 2003 to use basketball to mold young African boys into men. Fifteen years later, the organization has spread to 10 countries throughout the continent, including war-torn Darfur, and expanded to include girls. Ujiri’s responsibilities have multiplied as well, as the first African GM and team president in the four major North American sports, but he is still known for the hands-on care he takes with each of the campers. One moment, he’s making sure that star player Sodiq Awogbemi, who left school because of Boko Haram, is getting an education. “Any way we can help,” he says. At another, he reminds the boys to respect women. “It’s a problem in Africa and all over the world.”

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

He’s also known for his passion for the cause, a trait the campers are about to witness once the gates creak open. “Change this f—ing country because this country is bulls—,” he tells them. “It’s ego, it’s bribery, it’s bulls—. You must be better. Even if you don’t grow up to be a pro basketball player, you might be the manager of this stadium. You might be the president of the country.

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

“You might be the president of the Toronto Raptors.”

UJIRI, 48, APPLIES patience and passion in Toronto, where he has steadily transformed the Raptors into one of the NBA’s top teams. Since he arrived in 2013, he has built a tight-knit roster that has won 64 percent of its regular-season games, made the franchise’s first conference finals in 2015-16 and last season notched a team-record 59 wins.

“Masai looks at it like, ‘We’re building something here. These players are a part of the group,'” a Western Conference scout said in late February, when Toronto was on top of the East and rolling. “That’s rare in our league; he can talk to players not just about basketball but about life in general.”

That best season in franchise history relied heavily on the league’s best bench, who led the NBA’s reserves in assists per game and had the second-best field goal percentage in the second half of the regular season. Five of those reserves — Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and CJ Miles — all played in the G League at some point before making up Toronto’s second-most-used lineup last season.

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

But when the Cavs swept the Raptors in the conference semis for a second straight year, Ujiri’s ideals of stability and commitment met a hard reality. Winning consistently isn’t enough to win it all.

“At some point, we can’t keep doing it over and over again. The definition of insanity,” Ujiri said in September, his voice heavy. “You have to change, you know?”

Ujiri never let his expert desire meddle with his devotion to Giants of Africa. In 2010, when he was the Raptors’ partner general supervisor, he had an opportunity to end up the main African general chief in the NBA – with the Nuggets. He flew from Senegal to Nigeria to Toronto to Denver, leaving Basketball Without Borders to meet face to face. He thought he’d hit it out of the recreation center.

Pieces official Paul Andrews offered Ujiri the activity. Ujiri countered by requesting an additional $50,000 per year over his pay to finance his camps, which he got in Toronto.

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

“Indeed.”

“So for $50,000 you would surrender being the official VP of the Denver Nuggets?” Andrews inquired.

Andrews guaranteed to think it over. After four minutes, the telephone rang once more: “You’re the new official VP of the Denver Nuggets.”

Did it enter Ujiri’s thoughts that he may have relinquished an open door no other African had ever had? “No,” he says now, eyes narrowing. “I was simply pondering the significance of doing those the camps. It has implied such a great amount for me. That was the main thing in my mind.”

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

Ujiri will rely upon his own identity and the way of life he has worked to persuade Leonard, whom many accept will join LeBron in L.A. next summer as a free specialist, to remain in Toronto. “Masai will become friends with Kawhi as a more seasoned sibling compose,” said David Thorpe, who helped Ujiri get his begin in the NBA. “Folks who aren’t anything but difficult to converse with [are] running groups at an abnormal state. Masai is on the opposite end of the range. He’s anything but difficult to converse with. He will give things a chance to develop, to converse with individuals, construct the procedure and let the procedure occur.”

ON THE EVE of preparing camp, the media assemble at Scotiabank Arena (even the name of the Raptors’ house is new) for Leonard’s first words in a Toronto uniform. Be that as it may, Kyle Lowry, who TSN revealed has evaded Ujiri’s brings over the mid year, is up first and is gotten some information about his closest companion, DeRozan. “Our relationship is greater than ball,” he says, “He’s as yet my kid.”

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

The group ejects once more.

Fans accumulate on a gallery inside the field. Ujiri shows up, flanked by Leonard and Green. The group emits. After Leonard graciously avoids inquiries concerning his wellbeing, the show in San Antonio and his new colleagues, he is inquired as to whether his landing will change the NBA’s impression of Toronto. Ujiri rings in. With his club at an affectation point, he protects a place, a people and a culture deliberately created from a diagram utilized a large portion of a world away.

“Folks, the story of not having any desire to result in these present circumstances city is gone,” he says. “Put stock in this city, put stock in yourselves.”

“Here in Toronto,” Ujiri proceeds with, “we need to have confidence in ourselves, right?”

AGAINST THE CELTICS, in the second session of the season, Leonard indicates Raptors fans why they ought to accept. Subsequent to shooting 3-for-11 in the main half, he amazes in the second from last quarter. A fast drive past Jaylen Brown for a dunk; a face-up jumper over Marcus Morris; a fadeaway over Kyrie Irving; an across the nation layup off a protective bounce back. Serenades of “MVP! MVP!” pour down from the upper scopes of Scotiabank Arena.

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

Driving Toronto

“Do we have 80 diversions to follow today around evening time?” ESPN investigator Hubie Brown says, laughing, on the amusement’s communicated.

“You don’t send in your tally after today around evening time?” Ryan Ruocco answers.

Leonard closes the diversion with 31 points and 10 bounce back, driving Toronto to a 113-101 prevail upon Boston. He’s averaging 27 points and 8 bounce back through his initial five amusements – all Raptors wins. What’s more, he hasn’t exactly achieved the stunning physical mastery of his Spurs days.

Masai Ujiri wagered Raptors' culture for Kawhi Leonard, but will it work?

“On the off chance that he can get Kawhi to play as he did in San Antonio, at that point [Ujiri] may pull off the best exchange since Carmelo,” David Thorpe stated, alluding to Ujiri’s time in Denver. “Consider it: Masai could pull off two of the best exchanges NBA history.”

Ujiri put his establishment’s way of life at stake this late spring. Up until this point, his bet is by all accounts satisfying.

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