A week after the end of another mediocre season, it was time to bring out the Toronto Raptors’ closer.
Team president Masai Ujiri showed up projecting sober elegance in a camel sport coat. He saves the real finery for winning years.
He came into the room doing his sporty Shecky Greene act. “You brought your lunch?” Ujiri said before the room had found its balance. A little joke at his own expense to get everyone relaxed.
“How about those Leafs,” he said as he settled into his chair. “Yeah, baby. Championship!”
To a man and woman, Ujiri’s interlocutors were now squirming with pleasure. What a great day to be alive and be together. This is Ujiri’s real magic.
There are several representative types among successful sports leaders – the technocrats, the wonks, the foghorns and a few remaining charismatic bullies. Ujiri is the only proper flirt. MLSE could rebrand his media availabilities as “An Intimate Afternoon With …” and sell tickets.
For example, he spotted some writers he hadn’t seen in a while: “Thanks for coming to cover us. I’m calling you out.”
Someone’s phone went off and the ringtone had an Erykah Badu vibe: “Are we supposed to dance to that or something? Afrobeats?”
He is the only person I know who can turn what should be a bit of a grilling into an Academy Award acceptance speech: “All the great people we have … the scouts. The scouts are like detectives!”
Every time Ujiri speaks, it’s an occasion. Everyone comes away from it feeling seen. That’s not what sports pressers are about. But you can’t help how you feel. Also, he talked a little about basketball.
It’s hard to say exactly where the Toronto Raptors are in the eternal boom-bust cycle of sports franchises. They are okay, but definitely not great. They have a suspiciously 2017 feel about them – a team that’s good enough to get there and not nearly good enough to do anything important once they’ve arrived. Being good in this way is a bad place for an NBA franchise to find itself.
Ujiri might have spent his time justifying his choices. Instead he let the reporters do it for him.
Someone asked a long question that was in fact a statement about choosing to build around the team’s current core.
“Correct,” was Ujiri’s one-word answer.
Someone else pointed out that a team that played its top five guys more than any other in the league might want to work on accumulating some depth.
“Correct,” Ujiri said.
He’s figured out something fundamental – the less you say, the less defensive you sound.
While the Raptors are back to being a work-in-progress, their boss is very much in his dynastic phase. When corporations eventually start building their own sports executives from strands of DNA, Ujiri will be the template.
That’s not because he’s a winner (though he is), but because he can make a team that doesn’t win sound like one that does.
The trick is taking two conflicting ideas and making them sound complementary.
“We still preach patience and growth here. Sometimes the expectations became day-to-day … but we’re thinking the long game here,” Ujiri said.
“This game is about winning. Simple. Winning is all that matters,” Ujiri also said.
Those things don’t go together in a sports context. By definition, patience is for those who’ve lost. Winners don’t have to wait.
It doesn’t stop executives from every sport from trying to wrap a speech around this cognitive dissonance. Getting people to pay up front for a winner that may arrive three, five or infinity years from now is now a go-to sports sales tactic. But most executives provoke rage when they deliver it.
A local example would be the Blue Jays leadership. They said it would take a while, and it has. They said the team would be eventually good, and it is. Everything they said would happen has so far happened, but they got heads bounced off the walls for five years while they were saying it.
Ujiri doesn’t have these problems. When he delivers one of his Dalai Lama-vs-Vince Lombardi mash-up speeches, the crowd nods along. By the end of one of these things, you’d think the whole point of basketball was to put off winning for as long as possible in order to properly savour it.
It’s also important to toss in a few alternative storylines. Ujiri started one observation with “I hope this isn’t controversial …” It’s a great way of diverting attention. Then he said that Black coaches had done a great job across the NBA this year – which is objectively true and not in the least bit controversial.
He practically licked his lips when someone brought up the rumours that the L.A. Lakers want to play footsie with Toronto’s very-under-contract coach, Nick Nurse.
“I dream like they dream,” Ujiri said, to general laughter. “I want Messi. I want Ronaldo.”
He toggled between moods and personalities – giving the half-time pep talk, getting choked up when talking about his players’ struggles, joshing with his favourites in the audience. This wasn’t a postseason update. It was a really great episode of Inside the Actors Studio.
By the end, you weren’t worried about the Raptors. Those kooky kids are going to be just fine. I just know it (because Masai Ujiri told me so).
Though he doesn’t talk about it, Ujiri does make one thing very clear whenever he speaks at length.
It’s that sports regimes don’t collapse because their team loses. They fall apart when there is a failure of storytelling.
Regimes that control the story control their own fate. Nobody in this country – and maybe any other country – tells a story that people want to hear better than Ujiri.