Masai Ujiri wagered the Raptors’ culture for Kawhi Leonard. Will it work?

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ON A GRAY August morning in 2015, Raptors president Masai Ujiri has had enough of an impromptu lockout. He’s outside a weathered basketball gym in Lagos with a camera crew and 55 young men clad in teal T-shirts that read “Nigeria Dreams Big.” Because of the cameras, facility staffers believe there’s money to be made and have barred the doors. Instead of sending staff to deal with them, Ujiri goes himself. What the men in charge don’t know is that Ujiri grew up with their boss.

Born in the U.K. but raised in Nigeria, Ujiri founded this camp, Giants of Africa, in 2003 to use basketball to mold young African boys into men. Fifteen years later, the organization has spread to 10 countries throughout the continent, including war-torn Darfur, and expanded to include girls. Ujiri’s responsibilities have multiplied as well, as the first African GM and team president in the four major North American sports, but he is still known for the hands-on care he takes with each of the campers. One moment, he’s making sure that star player Sodiq Awogbemi, who left school because of Boko Haram, is getting an education. “Any way we can help,” he says. At another, he reminds the boys to respect women. “It’s a problem in Africa and all over the world.”

He’s also known for his passion for the cause, a trait the campers are about to witness once the gates creak open. “Change this f—ing country because this country is bulls—,” he tells them. “It’s ego, it’s bribery, it’s bulls—. You must be better. Even if you don’t grow up to be a pro basketball player, you might be the manager of this stadium. You might be the president of the country.

“You might be the president of the Toronto Raptors.”

UJIRI, 48, APPLIES patience and passion in Toronto, where he has steadily transformed the Raptors into one of the NBA’s top teams. Since he arrived in 2013, he has built a tight-knit roster that has won 64 percent of its regular-season games, made the franchise’s first conference finals in 2015-16 and last season notched a team-record 59 wins.

“Masai looks at it like, ‘We’re building something here. These players are a part of the group,'” a Western Conference scout said in late February, when Toronto was on top of the East and rolling. “That’s rare in our league; he can talk to players not just about basketball but about life in general.”

That best season in franchise history relied heavily on the league’s best bench, who led the NBA’s reserves in assists per game and had the second-best field goal percentage in the second half of the regular season. Five of those reserves — Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and CJ Miles — all played in the G League at some point before making up Toronto’s second-most-used lineup last season.

But when the Cavs swept the Raptors in the conference semis for a second straight year, Ujiri’s ideals of stability and commitment met a hard reality. Winning consistently isn’t enough to win it all.

“At some point, we can’t keep doing it over and over again. The definition of insanity,” Ujiri said in September, his voice heavy. “You have to change, you know?”

In July, two days before Ujiri will trade for Kawhi Leonard — changing the Raptors for good — he stands on a court in rural Kenya with the 44th U.S. president. They are celebrating a children’s center opened by Barack Obama’s half-sister, Auma, with a basketball court funded by Giants of Africa. Ujiri, wearing a No. 44 T-shirt, and Obama address the crowd of 600, about 150 of whom are local children. Obama takes — and makes — his only shot on the way out.

The next morning, Ujiri flies to Nairobi weighing a tough decision. Leonard’s schism with the Spurs has been widening for months. He could become the Raptors’ best two-way player ever. But would jettisoning DeMar DeRozan, a loyal, lifetime Raptor, undercut the franchise’s ethos — everything Ujiri has worked so hard to build?

Ujiri decides to act. He swaps DeRozan; Poeltl, a sub who embodies his faith in the everyman; and a protected first-round pick for Leonard and Danny Green. From a hotel room in Kenya in the middle of the night, he swings the East’s balance of power to its northernmost point.

The move meets immediate backlash. That day, DeRozan posts on Instagram: “Be told one thing & the outcome another. Can’t trust em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing…”

Two days later, Ujiri admits to “miscommunication” with DeRozan but speaks of pragmatism to reporters. “I know I’m loyal, and you build relationships in this business over the years,” Ujiri says, tapping his heart. “The human part doesn’t make it easy at all.”

“I understand sports, and sports is about winning, and I have a mandate to win.”

TO ACQUIRE LEONARD, Ujiri had to come to terms not just with the disruption of a team that took five years to build, but also the potential fracturing of a culture he has cultivated since the earliest days of his career.

After playing pro in Europe, he scored an unpaid gig with the Orlando Magic in 2002 as an international scout. He paid for his own travel and sometimes couch-surfed with friends to save money. After a year, then-Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe hired him and found money in the budget for extra practice uniforms Ujiri could use for his Giants of Africa campers. Ujiri also set up a bin in the middle of the locker room, where players such as Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin could donate old shoes.

One day, Nuggets veteran Marcus Camby, who had a deal with apparel company AND1, asked Ujiri, “How many pairs of shoes do you want? Give me your address.” Ujiri didn’t think much of it, but when he got home, he found boxes of shoes outside his door. Eighty pairs, to be precise, exactly the number he’d asked for.

Ujiri never let his professional ambitions interfere with his dedication to Giants of Africa. In 2010, when he was the Raptors’ assistant general manager, he had a chance to become the first African general manager in the NBA — with the Nuggets. He flew from Senegal to Nigeria to Toronto to Denver, leaving Basketball Without Borders to interview in person. He thought he’d hit it out of the park.

Nuggets executive Paul Andrews offered Ujiri the job. Ujiri countered by asking for an extra $50,000 a year on top of his salary to fund his camps, which he received in Toronto.

“So for $50,000 you would give up being the executive vice president of the Denver Nuggets?” Andrews asked.


Andrews promised to think it over. Four minutes later, the phone rang again: “You’re the new executive vice president of the Denver Nuggets.”

Did it cross Ujiri’s mind that he might have sacrificed an opportunity no other African had ever had? “No,” he says now, eyes narrowing. “I was just thinking about the importance of doing those the camps. It has meant so much for me. That was the only thing in my head.”

Ujiri will be banking on his own personality and the culture he has built to convince Leonard, whom many believe will join LeBron in L.A. next summer as a free agent, to stay in Toronto. “Masai will befriend Kawhi as an older-brother type,” said David Thorpe, who helped Ujiri get his start in the NBA. “Guys who aren’t easy to talk to [are] running teams at a high level. Masai is on the other end of the spectrum. He’s very easy to talk to. He’s willing to let things germinate, to talk to people, build the process and let the process happen.”

ON THE EVE of training camp, the media gather at Scotiabank Arena (even the name of the Raptors’ home is new) for Leonard’s first words in a Toronto uniform. But Kyle Lowry, who TSN reported has dodged Ujiri’s calls over the summer, is up first and is asked about his best friend, DeRozan. “Our relationship is bigger than basketball,” he says, “He’s still my boy.”

Fans gather on a balcony within the arena. Ujiri appears, flanked by Leonard and Green. The crowd erupts. After Leonard politely deflects questions about his health, the drama in San Antonio and his new teammates, he is asked if his arrival will change the NBA’s perception of Toronto. Ujiri chimes in. With his club at an inflection point, he defends a place, a people and a culture carefully crafted from a blueprint used half a world away.

“Guys, the narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone,” he says. “Believe in this city, believe in yourselves.”

The crowd erupts again.

“Here in Toronto,” Ujiri continues, “we have to believe in ourselves, right?”

AGAINST THE CELTICS, in the second game of the season, Leonard shows Raptors fans why they should believe. After shooting 3-for-11 in the first half, he dazzles in the third quarter. A quick drive past Jaylen Brown for a dunk; a face-up jumper over Marcus Morris; a fadeaway over Kyrie Irving; a coast-to-coast layup off a defensive rebound. Chants of “MVP! MVP!” rain down from the upper reaches of Scotiabank Arena.

“Do we have 80 games to go after tonight?” ESPN analyst Hubie Brown says, chuckling, on the game’s broadcast.

“You don’t send in your ballot after tonight?” Ryan Ruocco replies.

Leonard ends the game with 31 points and 10 rebounds, leading Toronto to a 113-101 win over Boston. He’s averaging 27 points and 8 rebounds through his first five games — all Raptors wins. And he hasn’t quite reached the jaw-dropping physical domination of his Spurs days.

“If he can get Kawhi to play like he did in San Antonio, then [Ujiri] might pull off the best trade since Carmelo,” David Thorpe said, referring to Ujiri’s time in Denver. “Think about it: Masai could pull off two of the best trades in NBA history.”

Ujiri put his franchise’s culture on the line this summer. So far, his gamble seems to be paying off.

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