Lewenberg: Ujiri to fans, "We need you guys to push us"

Josh Lewenberg
10/19/2013 2:52:49 AM
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TORONTO - If things don't work out for Masai Ujiri as president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors, he could have a career in motivational speaking.

Ujiri followed an uplifting speech from his boss, Tim Leiweke, with one of equal - perhaps even greater - passion on Friday night when the Raptors hosted an event for season ticket holders.

His message to the fans in attendance at the Air Canada Centre and to those watching online: "we need your help."

"We have to make this place a living hell for [opponents] to come play here," he told them, standing centre stage in the middle of the ACC court. "And you guys can do it."

"When you come play here on [a] Sunday at 1:00, guess what, you're getting your ass kicked. That's what we need to do here. That's how we need to build it here. When you come here, play here on a Friday night, you're getting your ass kicked."

For over 30 minutes Ujiri held court. He preached, he joked and he shared a story or two.

One such story occurred when he visited Toronto as GM of the Denver Nuggets three years ago. It started off with an anecdote about having dinner at the house of Bryan Colangelo, playing him and his kids at ping pong and kicking their butts (he also challenged the crowd to take him on). When he returned to the team hotel, the Four Seasons, at 1am he ran into 10 of his Nuggets players who were just about to head out on the town 12 hours before their Sunday matinee with the Raptors. They were not worried. "We will win tomorrow," they told him.

That can't happen going forward, Ujiri insisted. Opposing teams shouldn't be able to get away with taking the Raptors or their fan base lightly.

Ujiri's third-seeded Nuggets were recently upset by Golden State in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. The difference, according to Ujiri, was the advantage the Warriors had at home thanks to their fans and the environment at Oracle Arena. That's the impact he believes home-court advantage could have in Toronto.

"You know you guys can win us five, you can win us 10 more games, do you guys know that," he asked. "You can. You can. We've got energy that you guys give us and we have to do it here."

This was the first time the Raptors have ever hosted a "season preview" event in which the team's high-powered executives were able to address and interact with some of its most loyal fans face-to-face. The goal for the organization, per Leiweke and Ujiri, is to strengthen the team's relationship with its supporters. Friday night's meet and greet was the first step.

"This crowd, everybody talks about it around the league," Ujiri told following the event. "How do we get their support even more? That's what we're trying to encourage."

"When there are hard times I'm going to interact with them, when there are good times I'm going to interact with them. For me that's the nature of the business and there are going to be hard times, we have to be patient here but we have to be spirited, I think, as an organization."

It all starts with honesty and respect, Ujiri explained. Although he acknowledged there is always going to be certain information that cannot be shared with the public, he stressed the importance of being up front and avoiding false promises or expectations.

"For me there's no spin to it, I don't believe in all that, for me everything is from here," he said pointing to his heart. "You say what your plan is, you say what your direction is and you go execute. We have to be accountable and that's what [fans] want, that's what I think we are supposed to do."

"These are the people that pay, these are the people that support the team, these are the people that fight for these guys and we have to be accountable, I truly believe that.

Ujiri, like Leiweke before him, thanked Raptors fans for sticking it out through hard times but promised to deliver change. The caveat: it may take some time for the results to reflect that change. This year the measurement will not be wins and losses, the Raptors GM told the crowd, instead success will be contingent on growth. Accordingly, the plan will be determined based on that growth.

"We have to figure out our team and evaluate everything and that evaluation starts October 30," Ujiri explained. "Is there chemistry? Is there growth? Are we moving in the right direction? Are players getting better? Are we giving them the right opportunity?"

"You try that and when you see that doesn't work, then we'll figure it out. Trust me, we'll figure this thing out."

For at least one night, the Raptors' brass had fans drinking the Kool-Aid. Whether it was Leiweke taunting a fan for wearing a Celtics jersey - "How is the preseason going for you," he joked - or Ujiri regaling us with a tale of executive VP Jeff Weltman attempting to fleece him in a trade a few years back, they put on a show.

The culture around this organization has certainly changed, but when will the results follow suit? The answer to that question could go a long way in strengthening the relationship this new regime is working to build with an already restless fan base.

"We're one team, one country," Ujiri preached to those fans. "Together, one team, one country. We don't care what the 29 other teams think of us. We're here and I'm telling you it's going to take patience [but] we're going to win. We're going to build it here, we're going to work and we're going to work hard and build this team."

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