Masai Ujiri continues to insist he has not spoken to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment about extending his contract with the Raptors and that there have been no negotiations of any kind on his future in Toronto.
And that, by itself, puts a cloud of sorts, a mystery over Ujiri’s future with the Raptors and quite possibly his future in basketball.
If it is true that Ujiri and MLSE have not spoken — and I have a hard time believing that — then shame on Larry Tanenbaum and the ownership leaders from Bell and Rogers for allowing this to play out and not getting down to business.
The matter becomes even more confounding with the news leaking on Thursday that general manager Bobby Webster is about to sign a new deal with the Raptors just days after coach Nick Nurse was granted a long-term extension after winning the NBA championship and coach-of-the-year in his first two seasons.
Normally, it works this way in sports: The president of the team gets a deal and signs the GM for similar or less term. And then the coach gets signed up, his term either equal to or less than the GM and the president. Here, the opposite is happening.
Nurse has his extension. Webster, unofficially, has his extension.
Ujiri says he hasn’t spoken to anyone about the future, unless he has spoken about the future, just not about a contract.
Those are opposites. Which leaves his future open to some kind of speculation.
If I were in charge, after a championship season, after a wonderful 2020 follow-up, after the emotion of bubble basketball and all that it brought, success and failure, I would want to make a mega-announcement.
The signing of Ujiri. The signing of Nurse. The signing of Webster. When has Toronto done anything on a sporting scale with that kind of pizzazz, that kind of statement of strength?
There have been few teams in this city that have managed what Ujiri’s Raptors have done throughout his tenure and, in particular, the past two seasons. The championship run was like nothing before it. It grabbed the country and pulled it along for a ride. It got non-basketball people caring about basketball. It’s something we’ll never forget.
The Maple Leafs have never done that. The Blue Jays did it on a lesser scale in half of 2015 and all of 2016 and before that — before social media, before national celebrations, before viewing parties — they did it from 1985 to 1993, ending with two World Series victories.
The math may not add up, but the one Raptors championship, in all that it accomplished, in how it changed people, may have trumped the two World Series wins.
That was brought to you by Masai. He traded for Kawhi Leonard. He hired Nick Nurse and fired the NBA coach of the year, Dwane Casey. He made improbable and impossible moves and a country celebrated as it normally celebrates around Olympic hockey time.
That was with Masai leading. That was Masai’s vision, although sports is all about trying things and making mistakes and then adjusting to what you could and couldn’t do.
Once upon a time, Ujiri wanted to trade Kyle Lowry. The same Kyle Lowry he now calls “incredible.” He thought about hiring Mike Budenholzer as coach, and when that didn’t come through, he hired Nurse. He wanted Nikola Mirotic and when Milwaukee got him, he altered his strategy and dealt for Marc Gasol.
That’s what the best sporting leaders do: They plan and adjust and plan some more and adjust some more. And nobody in the NBA and certainly nobody in Toronto does it better than Ujiri.
Which makes him indispensable. Tanenbaum, the chairman of the MLSE board and chairman of the board of the NBA, always insists that Ujiri isn’t going anywhere. He refers to him as a “son.” He laughs off most suggestions that Ujiri is leaving after next season.
But no contract, no deal, no negotiations?
The question was asked directly to Ujiri in his year-ending press conference on Thursday afternoon. About his future.
“No, I haven’t had discussions,” said Masai. “And honestly, you know coming out of this thing (emotions) are a little raw. I’m going to reflect a little bit. We will address it when it’s time to address it.
“It’s not something I’m going to do in the media or publicly. I know I haven’t had conversations. It’s an obligation for me to take care of my leadership team, starting with Nick Nurse and I’m super excited about that. He’s the future and, in terms of me, I haven’t had those conversations and await those in the future.”
This is how I would negotiate with Ujiri. Here’s a contract. Fill in how many years and how much money. Your call.
You want five years? You want 10 years? You want time to work on your Africa projects? You want time off to speak against racism, for Black Lives Matter and against social injustice and police brutality, you have as much time as you want.
Blank cheque here. Same with the term. You can run this team for as long as you want.
And that by itself raises a question: I’ve had this conversation with other leaders in other sports. When do they get too big for their sport or their team? When do they need a bigger job with bigger ideas coming from another place. No doubt, Ujiri would be attractive to all kinds of businesses and organizations and political parties outside of the NBA.
But he’s a Raptor now. At least until the end of next season. But the longer this goes on without an extension, the longer we’re left to wonder.