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Masai Ujiri believes in Toronto, and you should too

With Kawhi Leonard in a Raptors jersey, the tenor around the team has changed. What that means for the future is still up in the air, but for president Masai Ujiri nothing has changed: just believe.

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Not that anything Masai Ujiri says is lost on the people who listen to him speak, but these recent words were particularly hard to miss.

Last Monday, the Toronto Raptors officially began their 24th season in franchise history with their annual Media Day meet-and-greet. As the team’s president, Ujiri was on hand. This time, however, he was joined on the podium by two of his newest acquisitions: veteran sharpshooter Danny Green, and the two-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA first teamer, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and 2014 NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard.

The Raptors have had some talented players on their teams before — some past their prime, some just on the upswing, some not quite as good as advertised — but, despite having not played a single second in a Toronto uniform yet, Kawhi may be at the very top of the list.

Given Toronto’s history with star players (across all sports), the many disappointments, flameouts, and out-right disasters, this city has seen, reporters naturally began to question Kawhi’s future with the Raptors. With one year left on his contract, could Masai convince Leonard to actually stay in Toronto? It was an expected, if unkind question — especially with Kawhi sitting right there.

So, instead of demurring, Ujiri decided to get fired up.

“The narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone,” said Ujiri. “I think that’s old and we should move past that. Believe in this city, believe in yourself. We can stop talking about coming to the city or wanting to come to the city that’s old talk. We want to win. We have a privilege and an opportunity to be one of the NBA teams here. That’s a huge privilege for us and it’s our jobs here to try and get these players. It’s our jobs to try and sell it to these players here, but we’re proud of who we are, we’re proud to have these guys. We’re proud to have the young guys we have. We’re proud of what Kyle [Lowry] and everybody has done here. So let’s move past that narrative of wanting to stay here or wanting to come here.”

As I said: flames.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Ujiri go off. As his stature in Toronto has grown, as the Raptors have risen from the basement (or the grave), it’s been Masai leading the way — taking credit, sure, but also bearing the blame. After various playoff disappointments in Toronto, it’s been Masai in front of the camera talking about the need to to stay the course, to be patient, to continue to believe in what he and his staff are trying to build. It hasn’t always been an easy line to accept.

So what’s different about Ujiri’s response this time? It doesn’t feel like management lip service, or a wild fantasy, or the words of a man cajoling people to buy into a delusional vision. Even with all the added scrutiny and risk the Kawhi Leonard trade has brought to Toronto, Masai has earned the right to sound comfortable in his position. He knows it was the logical next step, for himself as president, for the franchise, and for the city.

“I’m not irritated by that at all,” Ujiri said later, after he’d moved from the podium to a more relaxed media scrum. “I understand why people ask that, people ask that a year before Kyle’s contract was over or any player’s contract is over. You ask that. That continues to be the question. I just don’t want the narrative to be, man, Toronto, Toronto, Toronto. We’re tired of that crap. I can say that.”

This is where the lines of old and new Toronto meet, where the established local media and long-time jaded fans meet new management armed with a fresh attitude. Ujiri knows it too — he went on to mention the rising Leafs, and the recent MLS champion Toronto FC. He also continues to trumpet what makes Toronto great aside from its sports scene, calling it a top three city in the NBA, a beautiful place, a goldmine. “We’re not overselling,” said Masai. “This is who we are.

“To continue to hear about people not wanting to come here is actually irritating after a while,” Ujiri continued. “It is. Come on. Let’s be real. People like it here.”

Now, as training camp continues on, as the Raptors take their first steps together on the court for the 2018-19 season, and as Kawhi appears to seamlessly integrate with his new team, it feels fair to wonder: what were we all so worried about? That old Raptors mindset, that old Toronto mindset of just cobbling together whatever kind of team and hoping for the best, of never expecting anything more, really should be considered a thing of the past. This should be who we are now.

Maybe this is just insane optimism, or maybe Ujiri has been right all along. Cast aside the cynicism, forget about the past, and just believe in Toronto.