Ujiri, Leiweke view Raptors training facility as basketball "mecca"
Plans unveiled Friday for $30-million practice facility
Masai Ujiri and Tim Leiweke envision a training facility that will be both the talk of the NBA and a home to young Canadian players — a "Field of Dreams" facility that they say will help bring basketball's best to Toronto.
Ujiri and Leiweke unveiled plans on Friday for the $30-million practice facility that will be built on the grounds of Exhibition Place, pending a city council vote on Wednesday.
The deal for the 65,000 square-foot facility, which is set to open in time for the 2016 NBA all-star game in Toronto, was approved unanimously by the city's executive committee on Wednesday.
"One of the major reasons we're building this is to keep our guys, so for a guy like Kyle Lowry (who signed a multi-year deal in July), he knows exactly what we're doing here and that was important to his thinking about the commitment that this ownership group has made toward our basketball team," said Leiweke, the outgoing CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
MLSE's soccer club Toronto FC practises at the KIA Training Ground just north of downtown Toronto, while the MasterCard Centre just west of downtown is the training home of hockey's Maple Leafs and Marlies.
The Raptors practise and play at the ACC, where players have the added off-day hassle of concert crowds or hockey games, and the training room is so small that Ujiri said three players getting treatment is a crowd.
Ujiri and his staff took a peek in top facilities across North America to gather ideas.
"We took ideas from everybody," said the Raptors' GM.
"Masai turned out to be a really good thief," Leiweke added.
"We visited the best facilities in football and basketball, pro and college, and I think I went to maybe five or six of them. I know combined, my whole staff, we probably went to 12 or 13 of them, which is awesome," Ujiri said. "We get to see the University of Oregon, it's spectacular, you can't even believe that's a college. You go to some of these facilities, you go to the Clevelands [the Cavaliers' training ground], you go to the University of Virginias… there's some really good new high-performance centres that you can really take a lot out of."
The two-storey facility will be available for groups such as the Ontario Basketball Association and Canada Basketball, and it's been a long time coming, said Leiweke and Ujiri, for a basketball-mad city that has boasted the last two NBA No. 1 draft picks in Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins.
Leiweke arrived in Toronto from Los Angeles, where "you have all these great meccas" of basketball such as the Lakers' Toyota Training Centre and USC's Pauley Pavilion.
"Now name me what people think of when they talk about the great breeding grounds, the great facilities when you think about Bennett and Wiggins and all those kids playing," Leiweke said.
"And Canada Basketball has no home," he added. "They are vagabonds. This gives us a place ultimately to make a statement about what kids can aspire to be and where they want to play. I think this will have as big an impact on amateur basketball as it will on what [Ujiri] is trying to do with the Raptors."
Opening its doors in time for the all-star game was key.
"For the guys [Ujiri] wants to get here, whoever that might be, they're all going to be here during all-star week. It is great we get to showcase this to an entire league in 2016, and that bodes very well in making people understand the kind of organization we aspire to be now," Leiweke said. "It's huge to keep players and to get players."
Leiweke met with the media a day after he confirmed he was leaving his job as CEO of MLSE as of next June at the latest, but said he didn't regret the timing of the announcement.
"I think the reason we're doing this today is to prove that this is business as usual, we plow straight ahead, and anyone that has been in this organization for the past 16 months and has seen what we're doing here, what they understand very clearly is that ripple caused more of a ripple in the media and the public," Leiweke said. "But internally here, we plow straight ahead and we are as damned and determined as every to finish our mission statement here.
"So there will be not one change in our attitude and that won't change in our commitment and our dedication to getting our projects done, and this is one of my highest priorities."