For several weeks, speculation has persisted about the Wizards’ interest in Ujiri. By late Thursday night, various news outlets detailed the proposed offers: close to $10 million annually, six years for $60 million or even a percentage of ownership and control over other Monumental Sports & Entertainment properties. The Post also reported on the Wizards’ link to Ujiri and that “a potential offer would have to include a pathway to an ownership stake.”
Such lucrative offers do not appear to be forthcoming, however. As president of the NBA champions, Ujiri has more leverage than ever, and even more reason to stay put.
Lawrence Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which oversees both the Raptors and the NHL franchise among others, was watching the champagne-soaked celebration in the Oracle Arena visitors’ locker room when he shared his devotion to Ujiri. A small cluster of Toronto reporters inquired about the ESPN story that detailed the Wizards’ pursuit of Ujiri, and Tanenbaum’s response left no doubt about where he stands on the matter.
“I know Masai. He’s . . . like my son. There is no chance he’s leaving Toronto,” Tanenbaum said, according to Rogers Sportsnet’s Michael Grange. “I think if you ask Masai, he’s got everything he wants” in Toronto.
Everything includes a highly functioning G League franchise that nurtured a few of the Raptors’ top players (Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet), a 68,000-square-foot practice facility constructed a short drive away from their downtown arena and a willing ownership group with deep pockets.
In the District, Monumental Sports & Entertainment has a powerful and wealthy chairman board. Three members of the ownership group — Laurene Powell Jobs (estimated net worth of $21 billion, according to Forbes), majority owner Ted Leonsis ($1.2 billion) and Sheila Johnson ($820 million) — are some of the richest people with Washington ties. Even so, the Raptors are worth more at $1.675 billion, per Forbes, and operate at lower debt (7 percent) than the Wizards.
As Ujiri has been trusted with the keys to run this popular franchise, the Raptors also have given him free rein to pursue his passions.
Across the NBA, the ones who hold “president of basketball operations” titles have the final say over the department but do not necessarily handle the day-to-day minutiae. Which is to say, the boss does not have to be chained to the office. In Toronto, however, Ujiri has the control but also the freedom to work on initiatives unrelated to the Raptors.
For instance, in July when Toronto was drawing close on making its franchise-altering trade for superstar Kawhi Leonard, Ujiri was on another continent. As the founder of Giants of Africa, Ujiri attended the grand opening of the custom basketball court at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resource and Vocational Training Centre in Alego, Kenya.
Also last November, as the Raptors were in the throes of regular-season action, Ujiri was a featured panelist at the Africa Investment Forum in Johannesburg.
Ujiri, the first African team president in the NBA, holds his roots dear and draped a green and white Nigerian flag over his shoulders after the Raptors’ win Thursday night. He’s a global ambassador with friends such as former president Barack Obama, who joined Ujiri at the July camp in Kenya. He also speaks out against international atrocities, as in 2014 when he penned an op-ed calling on the world to help Nigeria after 300 girls were kidnapped from their school in the village of Chibok.
While Washington might suit someone with a wider worldview, the team requires greater, and urgent, attention. With the Raptors, however, Ujiri has created a space where he can leave some of granular management tasks to others while also operating the best team in basketball.
After making visionary moves — trading for Leonard and hiring Coach Nick Nurse to replace Dwane Casey — to get Toronto to the NBA’s mountaintop, Ujiri is in an enviable position.
Even if Leonard bolts in the upcoming free agency, the team will take a hit but still will be in a better position to attract new talent and remain competitive in the Eastern Conference.
Ujiri remains under contract and, after winning the title, it’s not a stretch to envision the Raptors restructuring his deal this summer. But they probably won’t have to be outbidding a rival in Washington anytime soon.