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Masai Ujiri still wants to talk about racism, even as the NBA plans its return

The NBA’s plan to return is under immense scrutiny, and the Raptors’ Masai Ujiri is using that attention as a chance to address racial equality, prejudice, and justice.

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2019 NBA Finals Cares Events Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

Not one to mince his words, Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri joined ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski last week for what, at face value, was set to be another episode on the Woj Pod. Instead, what ensued was a call heard around the basketball world, one expressing grief, anguish, frustration, embarrassment, and a demand for change.

“Have you ever had to worry about the colour of your skin,” Ujiri asked poignantly. “Everybody has to ask themselves that question.”

Ujiri, born to a Nigerian father and Kenyan mother, came to the U.S. with a different understanding of the racist experiences he would soon become all too familiar with. A young scout turned franchise president over the course of an impressive 18-year career, the Toronto executive has made waves around the league for nearly a decade with one league- altering move after another. However, despite his success, racial discrimination was still unavoidable for Ujiri.

It was only a year ago that a San Francisco police officer soiled the memory of what could only have been a lifelong dream for Ujiri. Demanding an access pass (which was present in Ujiri’s hand), the cop obstructed him from entering the court to celebrate as the Raptors clinched the franchise’s first championship. It’s a bitter memory to say the least, and an experience that has left Ujiri wondering if the same event would have occurred if he had been white.

On a much more dangerous scale, it was the same discrimination that befell George Floyd — only his was fatal. Floyd suffered the harshest of injustices when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck in an 8 minute, 46 second video resulting in Floyd’s death.

“Who are we as human beings,” questioned Ujiri on the Woj Pod. “When I look at that cop stepping on George Floyd’s neck, who are you as a human being?”

The disgust still remains fresh for the Raptors president who only weeks ago published an op-ed piece with the Globe and Mail revealing his angst after first witnessing the troubling video of Floyd’s death. As Masai notes, a disproportionate representation of Black people and other minorities is often the calling card for such tragedies, an emotive thread laced through the NBA too.

Much to his chagrin, Ujiri is the only Black team president in the NBA. What’s more, there are only eight other Black general managers across the league. “I might be one of two Black presidents in all of sports,” said Ujiri on the pod. “How is that possible? That distinction is disgraceful. It’s embarrassing. it’s not something that I should even be talking about.”

With the league composed of predominantly Black rosters, the NBA comprised itself of 81.9 percent of Black or players of colour last season alone, but only a third of the leagues head coaches are people of colour — a league high since 2014. “We have to look at ourselves, and how we hire,” Ujiri added. “There is institutional and systemic racism, it happens, and you don’t even see it.”

The numbers reveal a problem not only in sports, but much of the greater world — opportunity still does not come equally, and neither does justice. With the league set to return to action in just over a month’s time, much of the players are divided on whether a return to play is even appropriate.

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to take shape around the world, the return to action in Orlando has been seen by some players — and by fans — as a potential distraction to the cause. But Ujiri is certain that whichever direction the NBA takes, the conversation won’t stop there.

“I’ve heard everyone’s opinion on whether to play or not play. We have to use this opportunity, and it starts in Orlando. We have to continue this conversation. We can’t stop, this cannot stop in Orlando.”