Who is Masai Ujiri? Meet the Man Many Are Crediting for the Toronto Raptors’ NBA Championship
During a crucial moment in the pivotal Game 3 of the NBA Finals, an immaculately dressed man is furiously pacing in the bowels of Oracle Arena checking his smartphone.
He’s usually too nervous to watch the game courtside or up in a suite. After all, it was his calculated high-risk, high-reward moves that got the Raptors here in the first place. Eleven months ago Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations, stunningly traded away his best player, and then shockingly fired his head coach, who ironically was named the league’s coach of the year.
Fast forward nearly a year later, the Raptors are now the 2019 NBA champions. A champagne-soaked Ujiri’s reaction on Thursday? “Unbelievable.” Ujiri’s also being hailed as a “genius” for executing arguably two of the boldest deals in recent sports history.
The usually reclusive Leonard, the Finals MVP, revealed in a postgame press conference late Thursday that he texted a then-despondent Lowry shortly after the trade. Leonard told Lowry, “Let’s go do something special. I know your best friend left. I know you’re mad, but let’s make this thing work out. And we’re here today.”
Ujiri is simply a “genius for such a boss move,” said Jalen Rose, a former Raptors star and current ESPN personality as he stood courtside watching scores of Raptors fans celebrating inside Oracle Arena Thursday night.
“I just told Masai that again—he’s a genius,” Rose said. “He changed the game and he rolled the dice like nobody we’ve ever seen in his position before. And, remember, he let Dwane go, too!”
That would be former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, who Ujiri fired last May after leading Toronto to a franchise-record 59 wins before being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight year. Casey was later named the 2018 NBA Coach of the Year and hired by the Detroit Pistons.
But Ujiri’s bold move was seen almost maniacal. Some thought it might soon be his job on the line when he dismissed Casey and hired the relatively-unknown Nick Nurse, a respected coach among players and his peers who had won championships in the NBA’s developmental league.
Before Thursday’s title-clinching victory, Nurse praised Ujiri for taking a huge chance on him.
“(Ujiri) set the goals very high for our organization, similar to what the goals that our staff and our players set, so that’s good to be in alignment with where we’re thinking, where we want to go,” Nurse said. “He’s put together a heck of a roster, and some great players and the blend is really good.”
Ujiri returned the praise to his team. “For me, it’s not all about the moves I made or we made, it’s about the players and the coaches and how they performed under such intense pressure,” he said. “I tell you our jobs isn’t as hard as their jobs.”
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