He isn’t Toronto’s mayor, but he might as well be. The president and vice-chair of the Raptors is beloved by the city, not just for what he’s done for the basketball team— the Raptors won the 2019 NBA Championship — but as a symbol of how Toronto sees itself. Ujiri was born in the United Kingdom, raised in Nigeria and eventually ended up in Canada. He’s also classy, with a good dose of swagger. Some of his appeal is a natural disposition, but Ujiri has also unlocked the secret to cultivating respect.
Winning stops the questions
Ujiri joined the Raptors in 2013, and though the team was a top-tier contender in his first few seasons, it could never reach the finals. Over time, the playoff grit of DeMar DeRozan — beloved by fans and players alike — was called out. In a shocking move, Ujiri traded him in 2018 for Kawhi Leonard, a star who’d been injured and barely played the year before. There was mega uncertainty about Leonard’s health, and some Raptors were furious with Ujiri for trading their brother. But then the team won a championship that very year, and all the questions and anger disappeared. The taste of victory does wonders.
Use your clout when it counts
Ujiri keeps things private, but he’s not scared to dip his toes in hot water. After Justin Trudeau was caught wearing blackface, Ujiri appeared with the beleaguered PM during the 2019 election campaign to show his support. Ujiri also spoke up after he was accused of assaulting a sheriff’s deputy after the Championship-winning game (footage later proved the other guy pushed first). Ujiri did a media tour to discuss the pain of being a Black man accused of such a thing. He made his point, made a lasting impression and moved on.
No complaints, no excuses
Canada’s COVID-19 public health measures forced the Raptors to play last season from a new, temporary “home” in Tampa. It sucked — for the players, for everyone. The team struggled all season and didn’t make the playoffs. Ujiri could have complained about just how tough the situation was. He could have used his clout to publicly lobby the government to reverse course. But he ultimately accepted the situation and kept quiet. The team did, too. It was all very…Canadian — and it earned him, and the team, even more respect from fans.
Keep the drama in the family
After the Raps won the championship, former fan fave Kyle Lowry admitted he hadn’t talked to Ujiri for months because of the DeRozan trade. Yet for all the internal dysfunction, the news never leaked. Similarly, the Toronto Star recently reported team co-owner Edward Rogers didn’t want to re-sign Ujiri last year. The drama likely would never have leaked, except for Rogers’s boardroom exploits. Real power comes from keeping the family drama internal.
One of Ujiri’s strengths is finding and developing players who fly under the radar. Fred VanVleet, who is an all-star this year, is the perfect example. Some of the finds have been lucky, no doubt. But Ujiri and his team, which includes general manager Bobby Webster, trust the work they’ve put in — whereas so many other teams just follow the hot trends. As Ujiri told The New Yorker in November: “This league is a copycat league, and, honestly, we take pride in not being that.”
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