Silver had been speaking as part of an HBO feature on Ujiri, who rose from youth coach in Nigeria to the architect of an NBA champion. When the Raptors’ Game 6 win over the host Golden State Warriors clinched Toronto’s triumph, Ujiri was halted from joining his team’s on-court celebration by Alameda County sheriff’s deputy Alan Strickland, and the two got into a physical altercation.
When HBO filmed its interviews with Silver and Ujiri, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office was still considering charges against the Raptors executive. By the time the episode of “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” aired the following month, prosecutors had decided against filing charges, but Strickland filed a lawsuit in February 2020 seeking $75,000 and punitive damages.
Strickland claimed he was attacked by Ujiri, who he alleged failed to show the proper credential and then hit the deputy “in the face and chest with both fists.” When Ujiri filed a counterclaim in August, his legal team released body-cam footage and other video from the arena that appeared to show Strickland initiating the contact.
During the 2019 HBO segment, Silver said of Ujiri, “It’s part and parcel of what comes with someone who is living on the edge a bit and is hard-wired to sort of march forward with incredible energy. And I think lessons learned for him — without assigning culpability or blame to anyone — as a leader, those are the kinds of situations he needs to learn to avoid.”
In Thursday’s comments to Sportsnet, the commissioner declared, “I apologize to Masai for what I said in that interview. … Believe me, when I look at that now, I cringe when I watch it.”
“I should have known better, as a lawyer, not to comment on a pending investigation, which was the case at the time,” added Silver, who has known Ujiri since well before they reached their respective perches in the league. “Even as I watch myself in that interview, I can see myself searching for the appropriate words, and now see that I clearly misspoke.”
In June 2019, Silver had said of the incident to TMZ Sports, “I’ve known Masai Ujiri for a long time. I don’t have all the facts yet. I know he’s a very decent person. But, at the same time, we of course respect law enforcement that does a great job protecting our fans in the arena. So, there’s been an allegation here, so it’s our job to look into the facts and make sure that everything’s handled appropriately.”
Ujiri, born in England to Nigerian parents, has said he felt racially discriminated against by Strickland. In a statement accompanying his August counterclaim, he said, “I was reminded in that moment that despite all of my hard work and success, there are some people, including those who are supposed to protect us, who will always and only see me as something that is unworthy of respectful engagement. And, there’s only one indisputable reason that is the case — because I am Black.”
Silver told Sportsnet that a lesson he drew from the episode was to “check my own built-in implicit biases around a particular situation.”
“I don’t have the lived experience of a Black person,” he continued, “particularly a Black male who may have a very different experience with law enforcement.”
In the wake of the incident, the NBA decided that for future major events it would place its own security personnel at access points such as the one Strickland was manning, to ensure that “something like what happened to Masai doesn’t happen to other Black executives in our arena or at any NBA event,” said Silver.
Asserting that the commissioner’s comments to HBO were not an “issue,” Ujiri told Sportsnet via text message, “I know I have Adam’s support and he has mine. Let’s move forward from this and focus on what we can do to make positive change.”