Raptors president Masai Ujiri never doubted his team could go all the way

This Thursday, June 13, 2019, photo shows Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri holding the championship trophy after the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

OAKLAND, Calif. - When did Masai Ujiri know?

Earlier in Toronto's brilliant championship run, the Raptors president was asked: When in this historic season did you first believe this franchise was good enough to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy?

Ujiri didn't pause before saying it was the day Kawhi Leonard walked through the door after a trade that sent former Toronto star DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs.

The 48-year-old from Nigeria spoke to reporters in the heady moments after Thursday's victory that clinched Toronto's first NBA championship in the team's 24-year history. The locker-room was soaking wet and littered with dozens of empty champagne bottles. There was the sweet scent of champagne — the smell of champions — in the air.

"I said (we'd win a championship). You didn't believe it," Ujiri told reporters. "To be honest as soon as we got one of the best players in the world, you know you have a chance."

"Leonard is just such a smart basketball player and he brings people together. And he's selfless and I'll never forget when we made the trade, he flew in . . . and I spent an hour with him. Everything he said that night said so much about a selfless person. He was willing to hear what he should do, his role, he talked about the entire team."

His selflessness was evident in a video clip that went viral in the early morning hours Friday. Leonard and Kyle Lowry were sitting down for an ESPN interview when Leonard passed his Finals MVP trophy to a teammate.

"Enjoy it man, you deserve it too, you're the most valuable player tonight man," Leonard told Kyle Lowry, who cradled the trophy like a baby. "I don't need it, I just want the Larry O'B. The journey man, the journey."

Leonard's journey has been remarkable. Last year at this time, the 27-year-old wasn't watching the playoffs. He couldn't bring himself to watch after a quadriceps injury kept him out of all but nine games with San Antonio. Plenty of people questioned his future. They doubted his honesty.

Ujiri never did.

"We got a special player and he is unbelievable," he said before rushing out of Oracle Arena to board a flight home — he wanted to be there when his daughter Zahara graduated from kindergarten on Friday.

"Alex McKechnie (the team's director of sports science) was unbelievable. Kawhi's medical people were unbelievable. Everything came together. Everybody worked together and that is not bull--- we are talking here."

McKechnie made "load management" part of the Raptors' lexicon, carefully monitoring Leonard's health so he'd be good to go in the post-season. With a bottle of champagne in one hand, the Scotsman joked in a TV interview Thursday night "Tomorrow, everyone's on load management!"

McKechnie's kid-glove treatment worked. Leonard laid down one of the best post-season performances in NBA history, scoring 732 points. Only Michael Jordan, with 759, and LeBron James (748) have scored more in a post-season.

"Without a doubt, the best thing about this thing is that somehow I wound up on the sideline getting to watch this guy play up close," said rookie Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.

Leonard is the first player in NBA history to win Finals MVP in both conferences (he captured the trophy in 2014 with San Antonio). He's the third player to win Finals MVP with two franchises, joining only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James.

Ujiri was hired as the Raptors' GM in 2013, telling a packed new conference that June day with "I'm home."

He had a hard time watching Thursday's back-and-forth nailbiter unfold. He exited the arena several times.

"I did a Jerry West," he said. "I had to pretend I was on the phone because (people) wondered 'What the hell are you doing here?'"

He admitted "a lot of luck" went into Thursday's extraordinary result.

"You don't know how all those other things are going to go, but at the trade deadline I could tell that Kyle was tuned in. Bringing in Marc Gasol (in a February trade for Jonas Valanciunas) and then all the other players and Nick — Nick is good.

"I tell you what, so many things really had to come together."

Leonard wasn't just the team's star, he was also its Zen master, like the rumble strips on the side of the highway that keep a car centred.

"We just had a different sense of calmness, even in adversity," Ujiri said. "Even when things got tough and rough, they overcame. They always overcame. They always had that strength to overcome."

Thoughts of DeRozan surfaced on social media after Thursday's win. The day of the trade, Leonard had reached out to Lowry and said "I know your best friend (DeMar DeRozan) left. I know you're mad. But let's make this thing work out."

DeRozan and Lowry have kept in regular contact through the post-season.

Toronto's backup guard Jeremy Lin tweeted on Friday: "Having lived in Toronto last 4 months, I've seen by far more @DeMar_DeRozan jerseys than anyone else. Dont rly know Demar personally but the positive impact he had is so obvious. Hope he gets credit for laying the foundation and paving the way! #thankyouDemar."

Toronto's gripping Game 6 victory was emblematic of a post-season full of memorable highlights, from Lowry's "oven mitt" to protect his sprained right thumb, to Fred VanVleet's chipped tooth, to Leonard's remarkable four-bounce shot to clinch the conference semifinals against Philadelphia that's been immortalized in iconic photos.

But for now the Raptors plan to celebrate, and live in the moment as they've been saying all season. The parade — which should be a doozy based on fan pandemonium Thursday night — is Monday.

Then there are numerous huge question marks to be answered in the coming weeks. Leonard becomes a free agent, and has given zero hints on which way he's leaning.

"I was focused on the now, and I wanted to make history here and that's all I did," Leonard said. "I'm still playing basketball no matter what jersey I have on."

Gasol and Danny Green also can become free agents.

And according to an ESPN report, Ujiri is being wooed to the tune of US$10 million by the Washington Wizards.

Nurse will switch coaching hats in August when he assumes the head coaching position of Canada's men's team at the World Cup in China. The event is the main qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

Recommended for you