Masai Ujiri and DeMar DeRozan shared a special moment on the pitch in the NBA bubble


It’s been just over a month since the 2020 NBA playoff bubble closed, the Los Angeles Lakers crowned champions and the mass of NBA players and staff released to return home to their families. .Now that the dust has settled, more details have started to emerge about life in the bubble and the endless storyline of the game’s best mix and mix in everyday life off the pitch.

For the Toronto Raptors, that meant Masai Ujiri and Co. crossed paths with championship leader-turned-opponent Kawhi Leonard and former franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan, with the two former Raptors running for the Clippers and the Raptors respectively. Spurs.

A piece of Taylor Rooks, published in GQ on Tuesday, sheds light on these special moments and countless other intriguing instances of bubble life.

Here are some highlights for Raptors loyalists:

Masai and DeMar reconcile in court

In July 2018, DeRozan’s nearly ten-year tenure with the Raptors ended when he was traded to San Antonio as part of the deal that brought Leonard to Toronto. It was a complicated split, to say the least, as DeRozan has publicly stated his feelings of shock and frustration with the move, and the way it was effected. He was particularly unhappy with Ujiri, opening up publicly to the fact that he felt betrayed by the president of the Raptors with whom he had a close relationship.

In the bubble, however, the two were able to move on. Rooks wrote about a particularly special moment between Ujiri and DeRozan:

Meanwhile, a few players have used the new closeness to let go of their old grudges. Raptors chairman Masai Ujiri said his favorite moment off the pitch came as he stood on the sidelines, watching his team take on the Lakers, and one of his former players walked away. approached him. “I’m sitting there and I see this person walking straight towards me in a blue tracksuit,” Ujiri said. It was DeMar DeRozan, who had spent nine seasons with the Raptors before being traded to Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. The trade had left DeRozan feeling “extremely hurt” and betrayed, but won the Raptors the franchise’s first championship.

“And he walks up to me,” Ujiri continues, “and he gives me a really big hug. It was really the first time we really had this kind of contact since trading. I left the game and felt that we had come through a certain… we had reached a new place.

Masai withdraws Kawhi from his game

The split between Leonard and the Raptors was more amicable. While loyalists from the Raptors and Toronto as a whole hoped Leonard would take him back after helping lead the club to the first title in franchise history, they understood and respected the Los Angeles native’s decision to return home. .

While there was no hard feelings, that didn’t stop Ujiri from removing Leonard from his game once the two found themselves in the bubble – albeit unintentionally.

Wrote Rooks:

Professional athletes are already creatures of habit, but the limitations of the bubble have forced many inside people to adopt routines in order to maintain their sanity.

For example, every day at 5 a.m., in room 950 of the Gran Destino (where all the seeded teams stayed), Masai Ujiri would wake up, read his book, get on the Peloton and train before to go downstairs for breakfast. . He thought nothing of his daily ritual until the morning, several weeks after the bubble started, when he received a text from another former player from him: “Hello boss, are you okay up there?”

The text was from Kawhi Leonard – MVP of the final with the Raptors, now a star of the Clippers – who was staying in room 850, just below his former boss. Ujiri had been waking Kawhi up with his loud workouts for weeks, but Kawhi was reluctant to say anything.

Ujiri told Kawhi he would stop for now and joked that he would continue again when the Raptors meet the Clippers in the final, disturbing Kawhi’s sleep. Kawhi responded with the kind of trashy speech that’s best read aloud in Kawhi’s dry monotone: “Haha, you know the saying ‘Don’t sting the bear’? I’ll call the NBA on you… get you out of the bubble. “

The Raptors were planning their own boycott

While there were some light moments in the bubble, there was also a lot of turmoil and pain stemming from the staging of the playoffs coinciding with a powerful global movement seeking to end systemic racism and injustice. racial. The two crossed paths directly after the police shootout of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, prompting the Milwaukee Bucks to tie up the post-season and ultimately the sports world as a whole.

Rooks reports that the Raptors, then in a playoff series with the Boston Celtics, were also meeting to discuss whether to boycott their own games and that they might have ended up there too, regardless of the Bucks’ decision.

… If George Hill hadn’t been absent, there was a strong possibility that a league-wide strike would still have taken place. The Raptors were scheduled to face the Celtics the day after the Bucks decided to stay in the locker room. As the Bucks deliberated, Raptors players Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry quietly met with Celtics members to discuss what they should do, and Masai Ujiri met with Celtics coach Brad Stevens, and the two. talked about not playing.

“It was going to happen, to be honest,” Ujiri said. If it wasn’t the Bucks who started the strike, it probably would have been the Raptors and Celtics.

For Ujiri, after going through his own experience of unfair treatment by the police in the moments after his team won the NBA Championship in 2019, Blake’s death and all that followed were hard to navigate. – especially after what had come before. .

Rooks recounts an emotional moment with Ujiri this week:

For me, there was a moment in the bubble that surpasses all the others. It was the week Jacob Blake was shot, and I was sitting outside the ballroom at the Coronado Springs Convention Center waiting for the Raptors to finish training. Masai Ujiri approached me and another journalist uninvited and said, “We should never have come to the bubble.”

Ujiri was moved. He knows intimately what it feels like to be wronged by the police just because you are a black man. The previous week, body camera footage from the 2019 NBA Finals had surfaced, showing a white policeman grabbing and pushing Masai as he attempted to walk the field after his Raptors beat the Warriors for the championship. It was there, clear as day: even a powerful black man, the president of an NBA team, was not immune to being brutalized by the police.

Ujiri knew he had to show his players before they saw him elsewhere. “I cried when I showed my video to the players,” he says. “And I cried when I got the video from the lawyer. And when my wife looked at him [with me]… It was touching and I cried again. Looking back, Ujiri says he doesn’t regret being back in the bubble: “Honestly, Taylor, sport brings us all together. We have the ability to tackle these issues head on, to galvanize and hope for change and to try to create that change. We have to be in this space, and the bubble was that space then.


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