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Raptors' Masai Ujiri on winning, losing Kawhi Leonard, 'the shove,' and his own future with the team

In an exclusive interview, Raptors president Masai Ujiri talks about winning, losing Kawhi Leonard, that controversial shove in Oakland, the fallout from the DeMar DeRozan trade, and his perspective on his own future with the team.

Heading toward a new season, team president answers the big questions on the minds of Raptors fans

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, seen here at a 2018 news conference about acquiring player Kawhi Leonard, describes how he was travelling in Rwanda when Leonard told him by phone that he was leaving the team. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press)

As the Toronto Raptors' training camp in Quebec City nears, Canadian basketball fans may be asking themselves whether the Raptors have any chance of winning another NBA championship without star forward Kawhi Leonard. 

Raptors president Masai Ujiri's optimistic answer to that is simple: "100 per cent," he said in an interview with Adrienne Arsenault, co-host of CBC's The National

"I look at what this team has done and what we can learn from it. We learned how to win. And Kawhi taught us that. He brought us into that space," Ujiri said.

He couches that by saying the team may not dominate the league this season, but adds he's confident the Raptors will win again now that they've tasted victory. 

'A win for Africa'

Arsenault sat down with Ujiri in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he was running a camp for young basketball hopefuls.

Ujiri founded Giants of Africa in 2003 to organize camps across the continent to teach both basketball and life skills, in the hopes of developing the sport and developing young African leaders. 

At the camp, Ujiri repeatedly told the young players that the Raptors' NBA win was a win for Africa — using the momentum of the championship to encourage them to aim high.

He pointed out there are two African-born players with the Raptors: Pascal Siakam was born in Cameroon and Serge Ibaka in the Republic of Congo.

Many of the coaching staff are African-born as well, and Ujiri himself is widely touted as the only professional basketball executive from the continent. He was born in London but moved to Zaria, Nigeria, when he was two and spent his formative years there. 

All this, he emphasizes, means the Raptors' win is also an African win. 

Here, Ujiri talks about his first reaction when the Raptors won that final game in Oakland, Calif., on June 13:   

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri describes his reaction and first thoughts when his team won the final game in Oakland, Calif., to clinch the NBA championship. 0:55

The shove

Shortly after the buzzer went off in Oracle Arena and the Raptors clinched the NBA championship, video surfaced of Ujiri trying to get down to the floor to celebrate with his team.

It appeared some kind of altercation happened between him and a deputy sheriff in the arena, who was checking credentials. 

More than three months after the event, the Alameda County District Attorney's Office still hasn't decided whether to file charges against Ujiri. The D.A.'s office said the deputy was injured in the incident and still hasn't been cleared for full duties. 

Arsenault asked Ujiri about that alleged shove: 

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri gives his perspective on the controversy around his altercation with a sheriff's deputy courtside after the team's big championship win in Oakland, Calif. 1:48

Losing Kawhi 

The big question of the Raptors' post-season was whether Kawhi Leonard would stay or go.

In the end, to the disappointment of Toronto fans, he decided to join the L.A. Clippers for the upcoming season. 

Here's what Ujiri says about losing Kawhi: 

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri reflects on losing star player Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers. 1:43

Will Ujiri leave Toronto, too? 

With an NBA win under his belt, the next question on fans' minds is perhaps whether Ujiri himself will leave.

He was reportedly courted by the Washington Wizards. Godwin Owinje, his friend and the co-founder of Giants of Africa, is based in D.C. And his mentor, Barack Obama, is there, too. 

Might Ujiri be wooed away? Here's what he says: 

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri discusses his relationship with Barack Obama and his own future with the franchise. 2:01

Trading DeMar

Arsenault also asked Ujiri about a tough moment as Raptors president, which resulted in him being called all kinds of names — trading player DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio in 2018 as part of the deal to bring Kawhi Leonard to Toronto.  

Here are Ujiri's thoughts on the controversial trade, in hindsight:

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri talks about his controversial trade of DeMar DeRozan and how he handled the backlash that ensued. 1:19

Watch The National's story on the Giants of Africa basketball camps:

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri's Giants of Africa basketball camp brings kids hoops, hope and a little heartache 12:07

Corrections

  • This story originally reported that the Raptors' Serge Ibaka was born in Democratic Republic of Congo. Ibaka was born in the Republic of Congo.
    Sep 23, 2019 8:35 AM ET

About the Author

Sylvia Thomson is a producer with the CBC in Toronto. She spent several years as a producer covering politics in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa and has covered major international stories. @thomsoncbc Sylvia.thomson@cbc.ca

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