Masai Ujiri says youthful Raptors are 'a growing team'
Core of Toronto squad remains intact coming off most successful NBA season
The decision to sign a multi-year extension with the Toronto Raptors was an easy one for MasaiUjiri.
Coming off of the franchise's most successful season ever certainly helped. But the city itself made the choice to stay put a no-brainer for the club's president.
"I love it here. I really do. Toronto is home for me," Ujiri said in an interview this week at his office overlooking the courts at the Raptors' training facility. "We don't go to another home in the States or somewhere else. This is our home. And I love the organization, I think they've treated me well. They've given it their all.
"It's humbling for me for them to come to me and say: 'Hey, let's do this.' And then the city, the fans, everybody — what else can you ask for?"
Under his new deal, which was announced Sept. 2, Ujiri continues to oversee basketball operations as club president, with Jeff Weltman assuming the general manager title Ujiri previously held. Bobby Webster was also named assistant general manager and vice-president basketball strategy.
There were 29 teams that did not win [an NBA title] last year, and we were one of them. The goal is to win.- Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who recently signed a long-term contract extension
The Raptors have captured three consecutive Atlantic Division titles and had three straight seasons of franchise-high wins, including 56 victories last season when they lost to the eventual NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference final.
"We have 10 players who are 25 years and younger. We are a growing team," said Ujiri. "To build a winning culture, you are going to have to prove yourself. You are going to have to go and grind it out.
"The last time I checked there were 29 teams that did not win last year, and we were one of them. And so the goal is to win."
The core of last year's team remains intact, led by guards Kyle Lowry and recently re-signed DeMar DeRozan.
"What an unbelievable year for both of them," Ujiri said of the duo. "They're all-stars, they get to the Eastern Conference finals, they're gold medallists [with the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team.]
"When I texted with them and we talked about the championship, that's where their minds should be, to be set. They're building themselves to be that calibre of players. They should start thinking about competing to the highest level.
"Many things have to come together, but you had what we had last year. Now you have to build again and figure out a way to win, because everybody's coming at you in the NBA."
The Nigerian-born executive, who joined the Raptors in 2013, is keeping busy with his responsibilities outside the Raptors' head office as founder of Giants of Africa, which seeks to educate and enrich the lives of youth in countries throughout the continent.
Ujiri spoke of his passion for the non-profit organization ahead of Friday's world premiere of the documentary "Giants of Africa" at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Award-winning Canadian documentarian Hubert Davis turns his lens on the philanthropic efforts of Ujiri, as well as the camps organized in several African countries to help youngsters hone their skills in basketball and as the next generation of community leaders.
Retired Congolese NBA star Dikembe Mutombo stopped by a camp in Senegal this year and "got the kids all jacked up," said Ujiri. Many Raptors have also an expressed an interest in participating, but Ujiri said he doesn't want anyone to feel it's an obligation as part of the team.
"It's a fine line, because this is personal to me," said Ujiri. "I'm from there. This is something in my heart, and I don't want to impose that on others. So, I'm respectful to them, and I've never really built it around players going over there.
"I'm sure they have their foundations, they have other things that they have to do, and right now, I just keep it at coaches and instructors that will go back and help as you can...
"I'm sure we'll get players here and there as it grows."