I love listening to Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri speak. Even when he doesn’t say a whole heck of a lot—and, no lie, he doesn’t drop any bombs or anything this time out—you almost always learn something, whether it’s about the Raptors or a life lesson or business advice. And not only that—he clearly wears his emotions on his sleeve. His passion always comes through. He’s just great to listen to.
So let’s run down a couple of the key talking points from Ujiri’s appearance on Adrian Wojnarowski’s ESPN pod, which you can listen to right here or through your favourite podcast app.
On the Spurs Trade
Naturally, Ujiri spoke highly of DeMar DeRozan, and reiterated the point he’s made a few times about the “human side” of the business. He said that trades and free agency departures are the hardest things to to manage in his role, but again went back to the point he’s made more than once: After five years climbing the mountain and not reaching the top, it was time to take a different road.
In terms of how the trade broke, it started with Bobby Webster engaging the San Antonio Spurs’ front office, and eventually Ujiri and R.C. Buford getting involved. Ujiri said there was plenty of back and forth, moments where the trade seemed likely to happen and then unlikely to happen and back again, but eventually it came to a head—and in a rare occurrence, both sides walked away happy.
On DeMar DeRozan
Ujiri said it was a tough conversation to have with DeRozan, telling him he’d been traded, especially as it had to be done over the phone and not in person. Woj didn’t let Ujiri off the hook—he went back to Ujiri’s press conference, and asked what Ujiri was apologizing for, and what would he do differently in hindsight.
Essentially, he was asking if Masai did indeed promise DeMar he wouldn’t be traded, as DeMar has hinted.
And Ujiri.. well, he sidestepped it, really, and said he was apologizing just for trading DeRozan, and promised to celebrate DeRozan’s achievements, but he didn’t say what was or wasn’t promised to DeRozan.
On the Risk of Trading for Kawhi Leonard
Ujiri also said this was a unique trade to manage, because it wasn’t just negotiation—it was fact-finding, in terms of Kawhi Leonard’s health and mindset.
Ultimately though, with Toronto’s goal—to win a championship—he has to be willing to take the risk, and to put himself out there, to take the team to the next level.
On Re-signing Kawhi Leonard
As you’d expect, Ujiri spoke highly of Toronto’s culture, both within the organization and the city, as the key factors in retaining Leonard’s services past this season. There won’t be a “fake sell job”, Ujiri said, “no promising what we don’t have.” Ujiri and the team will keep doing things the way they’ve done them, and be real and genuine, and hopefully Leonard will see that—although Toronto might not have the best weather—we might just have the best culture, the the best city, the best fans and the best atmosphere.
And a pretty good team, too.
On Getting to Know Kawhi Leonard
Ujiri doesn’t think getting the know the infamously quiet Leonard will be a challenge—human beings are not all made the same way, he said, and that’s the beauty of life: people are different. Being quiet is not a bad thing. Ujiri said the Raptors will figure it out in a good, respectful way, and he’s confident that if the Raptors are genuine and respectful, Leonard will feel that.
On Kawhi Leonard’s Health
Although Ujiri has not seen Leonard work out, the coaching staff has, and the reports Ujiri has heard are “unbelievable.” He said the medical staff feels comfortable, that Leonard has ramped up his training, and that the organization will see how he feels and just keep moving forward.
On the New-Look Raptors
Ujiri is as excited about this Raptors team as you and I are. He’s so excited about the impact Kawhi will have on the team, especially on defense, you can hear it on his voice—he’s like a little kid anticipating Christmas Day.
On Nick Nurse
Ujiri said they met with many great candidates during their coaching search, and that Nick Nurse stood out; he loved the preparation Nurse had done, and the same preparation and communication has continued throughout the summer. Of his first coaching search, Ujiri said picking a coach is much harder than picking players; coaches deal with so many people and personalities, and it’s difficult to measure that side of things. Whereas with players you can see who can play. Ultimately though he said it was a fun experience.
Ujiri also offered some good management advice here, about not basing your hiring decisions on interviews. It’s important to do your research, and find out about what a candidate has done in their actual work, rather than what they do in an interview; after all, you’re not hiring someone for their interview skills.
On Barack Obama
Ujiri and Barack Obama traveled to Africa this summer as part of Basketball without Borders, and Ujiri spoke about their shared backgrounds: both being half-Kenyan, and both being basketball lovers. Ujiri thinks Obama could run his own basketball team, he’s got such a sharp mind and he’s such a great leader and great person.
When Woj asked about Obama’s leadership skills, Ujiri offered up a great example of how leaders need to be “receiving” people. He spoke about how, when you go to meet Obama, Obama doesn’t wait for a third person to bring you into his office—he comes out of his office to meet you. I found that fascinating. I’ve never heard anyone say that before, but it makes perfect sense - to make someone feel welcome and wanted. Chalk another one up to the leadership advice category.
As noted above, there are no truth bombs here that are gonna make you wanna whip out the Wee-Bey gif, but nevertheless, it’s an excellent listen. Fire it up over the weekend to hear it for yourself!