Raptors GM Masai Ujiri on the key to being a “fierce” leader

“In a leadership role it’s about finding that balance between being aggressive, fierce and competitive, and treating people well”

Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri

Toronto Raptors president and GM Masai Ujiri. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty)

With the NBA All-Star Game being held in Canada for the first time this year, the president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors talks about leadership on the court and off, the “Drake Effect” and when to drop the F-bomb:

There’s been a lot of excitement around the NBA All-Star weekend coming to Canada. Is this a sign that Toronto has finally arrived as a basketball city?

You could look at it that way. I think it’s huge for all parties—it’s huge for the Raptors, it’s huge for the city, it’s huge for the NBA to go global for the first time, and it’s exciting for the fans. [The commissioner’s decision] to go out of the U.S. feels like a great commitment to Toronto.

You are both the president and the general manager of the Raptors. What are the challenges of wearing both hats?

Well, I have to think about building success for the organization, not just the team. Overall though, I try not to let the business side get in the way of the basketball side. Of course [it’s my job] to think about selling tickets, to be in front of investors and all of that. But what goes on on the court is kind of the engine of everything. Everyone wants a winner. Once you’re winning, a lot of the challenges take care of themselves.

How do you explain a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs, which is the most lucrative team in the NHL but far from the winningest?

That comes with history, which is something we don’t have as much of with the Raptors. It’s a challenge. We’ve got a great team, great fans. Now we have to be the ones that create our history, so the team can grow a really dedicated fan base.

You came on as GM in 2013, shortly before Drake joined the team as global ambassador. What involvement did you have in the decision to bring him on?

It’s not anything I have done. Drake had been a big fan of the team—in good times and in bad. So when [former Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment CEO] Tim Leiweke brought me in, we sat down and discussed the best way to engage Drake. Tim organized a dinner. I remember all of us sat there and really felt the potential. Drake is the guy here in Toronto, and every time people see him, they think, Raptors. That’s huge for the ball club.

The Drake effect has been so massive for the Raptors. Why aren’t more pro sports teams bringing on celebrity ambassadors? 

I think these things have to be in natural sync. There is no fakeness to Drake. He was coming to watch our team when [our record was] six and 12.

So you can’t just put Beyoncé or whoever in your front row.

Exactly. When you try to create something that isn’t there, fans can tell.

Last year, the Raptors killed it in the regular season and then crashed and burned in the first playoff round. What do you take from that experience?

We got our butts kicked. I take responsibility for the team. I think the personnel was somewhat flawed—we were not that great defensively. And then with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry getting hurt—when those guys go, we go. That’s the truth about our team. And I think the Washington Wizards had a great momentum going into the playoffs. We didn’t.

Paul Pierce, the Wizards forward, said the Raptors didn’t have “it,” to which you famously replied you didn’t “ give a shit ” about them—right before they crushed you guys. Is that type of psychological warfare effective?

In sports there are many things you do to try to get an edge. Sometimes it works for you, and sometimes it doesn’t. In my case, it didn’t work.

So does that mean you plan to retire the potty mouth?

For me, it’s all about winning and competing at the highest level. Sometimes that gets a little edgy, feisty.

How would you describe your personal leadership style?

I know it’s a business, but being personal is very important for me. I don’t micromanage—I just give my people the best possible platform and let them do what they do. [I try to] treat people like they want to be treated. It’s very easy to say and sounds like something everyone would [want to] do.

So why do so many leaders employ less admirable tactics?

When things go wrong or you have to make tough decisions, there is a tendency to become an asshole. Every day I think, What mistakes did I make in how I treated people? You can’t be perfect every day, but in a leadership role it’s about finding that balance between being aggressive, fierce and competitive, and treating people well. It’s a huge challenge.

Toronto hasn’t always had a great rep in terms of players wanting to come or to stay . Do you have any advice on retaining top talent?

I think you want the people on your team to feel great ownership of what they are doing and their success. Management plays an important role, and there are little things we do here and there, but with guys like Kyle or DeMar or Jonas [Valanciunas] or so many of the players, I give the credit to them.

The Raptors have gotten attention recently for on-court chemistry. How do you build that up?

It comes with time. You have to build continuity and let people get used to one another. It’s not just on the court; maybe someone doesn’t like getting emails at 2 a.m. I think when everyone gets the personal attention and you [add] consistency and support, everyone can be their best.

It makes managing pro athletes sound like managing toddlers.

Ha—that’s right.

A gig like yours is pretty stressful. Got any tips for managing that?

Family helps. I look forward to going home every day to the people I love. That takes everything else away. I also like to wake up early to think the day through and spend time reading. I’m generally not a person who stresses. We’re blessed to be where we are. I pinch myself every day.

Do you engage in any superstitious behaviour?

I’ll say no, but then—I’ve been wanting to change my BlackBerry. It’s broken; it keeps dropping calls. I’m supposed to get another phone, but because we’re on a winning streak I’m not going to do it. Not yet.

The 2016 NBA All-Star weekend takes place in Toronto from February 12 to 14, with all events airing on Sportsnet.