Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri has long been a leader in advocating for Black people to be elevated into positions of power, and the organization was lauded for their efforts in continuing to advocate for Black lives and fighting police brutality while in the Orlando bubble.
For Ujiri and the Raptors, this is just the beginning.
Ujiri held his end-of-year press conference Thursday, addressing the urgency to re-sign Fred VanVleet in free agency, while maintaining flexibility to build his roster for the 2020-21 season. However, Ujiri spoke at length to make it clear that not enough is being done — including in the media sector — to elevate Black people into positions of leadership.
“I think we have to figure out a way to overwhelm,” Ujiri said via The Athletic’s Eric Koreen.
“We have to figure out a way to make an impact, to create programs, to help youth, to see more people in these boardrooms, to see more Black people or minorities in this boardroom. So that’s what’s going to make, I think, the difference. It is important for us now to have a voice because we don’t know when that voice might not be there.
“Now we have a voice. It’s what the players talk about. It’s what you talk about. It’s what we are all talking about. We have to have it now. It’s very, very important. All the rest of the issues, we have to be in front of, we cannot run away from. To me, we know what the two pandemics are now: We have COVID, and we have racism. And Black Lives Matter.”
A new video emerged on August 19, depicting an altercation between Ujiri and Alameda County sheriff’s deputy Alan Strickland that occurred directly after Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals. The video made it clear that Strickland was the clear aggressor in the incident, shoving Ujiri without prompt, as the Raptors’ president attempted to make his way onto the Oracle Arena floor for the customary championship presentation. Ujiri’s legal team also released body camera footage of the incident, and though Strickland is filing a lawsuit against him, the Raptors’ president was certainly vindicated.
Ujiri spoke about how the incident and Strickland’s lawsuit impacted him.
“As time goes on, you begin to doubt yourself. And I doubted myself. What really happened there?” Ujiri said. “And, honestly, I watch all these movies, I watch all these documentaries and I look at these people and I’m thinking, ‘Man, why don’t you just say what happened? Why don’t you just say exactly what happened and you’ll be fine. You know, just say what happened, say how it happened for you.’
“For me, at the end of the day, I’m privileged. At the end of the day, I have support, at the end of the day, I’m able to face this square on and I just started to think about the people that cannot do this. They cannot do what I can do. There are times and things that happen where there are no cameras, there are no people that can see, there will be no video. How do these people get incarcerated? How do these people get wrongfully accused? That began to bug me as a person, and I really struggled in the bubble thinking about all of this — and it was so hard for me.”
There is clearly more work to be done in advocating for Black people at the executive level, at a human rights level and more broadly across the board. Ujiri said that these efforts will start with voting.
“It starts with voting. We cannot be afraid. A lot of leaders are afraid to speak,” Ujiri said. “A lot of leaders are afraid to speak their mind. We all know what the issue is. The issue is leadership, OK? The issue is leadership. We all need to go out, vote and make the change that should happen, and we go from there.”
Ujiri, time and again, proves to be one of the most powerful executives in all of sports not just because of his basketball acumen, personnel development and scouting abilities, but because of his ability to illustrate his beliefs and ideas with clarity and conviction that transcend sports.
None of us are Ujiri, but it’s on everyone to live up to his instruction. We cannot run away from this.
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