Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, the brains behind Toronto’s most exciting team, on instilling city pride and being pals with Drake

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, the brains behind Toronto’s most exciting team, on instilling city pride and being pals with Drake

Q&A: Masai UjiriThere’s an odd sensation in the air right now—I believe they call it “not sucking.” As Raptors GM, how does it feel to be responsible for those good vibes?
The players, coaches and ownership are responsible for creating a winning culture, and the fan base is responding—I think we only had to wake them up. When we played the Nets in the playoffs last year, 5,000 fans stood in the rain watching on the giant screen outside the ACC, and it was an away game! Our fans are the best in the world.

And you’re at the centre of the frenzy. Can you still shovel your driveway without getting accosted by neighbours wanting to talk shop?
Well, my wife tells me I can’t pick my nose in the airport anymore—too many people watching! I really love to interact with fans as much as I can, but you’re right: it’s pandemonium. Family grounds me. I try to spend as much time as possible with my two princesses—my wife and my baby girl, who just turned one. 

Tim Leiweke hired you, and now he’s leaving. Did you ever consider joining him on the train out of town?
No. For me the train is stopped right here, and it’s not moving until we win a championship. 

Sports execs tend to rent here, knowing their stays might be short. You bought.
Yes, because I’m here to stay. My wife was the boss of the house hunt. I was settling into my job, and she was running around the city at seven or eight months pregnant, and she found a house in north Toronto that we love.

What else do you like about Toronto?
I’m one of those people who’ll go to one place and be like, “Wow, that’s really cool.” And then I’ll go to the next place and be like, “Wow, that’s really cool too!” That kept happening: I liked Yorkville. The Beach is cool. Downtown was the best. My wife and I would have great experiences at Buca or Pizza Rustica, or just walking around.

The U.S. media still largely ignore the Raps. Instead of, “The Raptors Are Winning,” the headlines are, “Why Are LeBron and the Cavaliers Losing?” Does that offend you?
Not at all. You get respect by winning. We have to get there.

Last year you made headlines for yelling “Fuck Brooklyn” during a fan rally. Any regrets about that one?
No, but that wasn’t about Brooklyn. It could’ve been any team. I was trying to get us to believe in ourselves, to give our team a little edginess.

Do you and Drake, the Raptors’ global ambassador, hang out?
We’re very close friends, and we’ll have dinner, but no. I don’t really hang out.

Does he give you advice about how to run the team?
No. He asks general NBA questions, how we do certain things.

Do you give him rap advice?
Ha, no. Though if he wants my thoughts on African beats, I’m happy to share.

You grew up in soccer-mad Nigeria. How did you get into basketball?
When I was 13, my friends and I would pass the court on our way to the soccer fields, and we’d shoot with our soccer ball for a few minutes. We started staying longer. Eventually, I was hooked.

Did you have NBA aspirations?
Actually, my dream was to be a detective, like Columbo. I think that’s why I’m intrigued by scouting. It’s picking up clues, figuring out how people are motivated and fit together.

You played professionally in Europe for years. How good were you?
Not very. I couldn’t even shoot at first, though I could defend. The money was declining and I wasn’t getting any better, so I had to reassess my career choices.

Were you a trash talker in your playing days?
A little bit, but I don’t know how much I could back it up.

You decided to become a scout. When did you get your big break?
I was hired as an international scout by the Orlando Magic, with no salary. I did a lot of couch surfing. I remember getting locked out of a friend’s place in Serbia, so I slept on the pavement. Those were challenging times, but they helped get me where I am today.

Which looks to be the verge of the playoffs, again. What rallying cry are you work-shopping for this year?
It comes naturally, so it’s hard to predict. You’ll have to wait and see.