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Lewenberg: Ujiri overwhelmed to be returning to Raptors

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Josh Lewenberg
6/4/2013 2:43:45 PM
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TORONTO - Masai Ujiri could not hide his emotion when he was introduced as the incoming president of basketball operations and general manager of the Toronto Raptors Tuesday morning.

Ujiri, 42, met with local media at the Air Canada Centre for the first time since accepting the job four days prior.

The NBA's reigning Executive of the Year, formerly with the Denver Nuggets, was at a loss for words facing the realization that he'll be returning to Toronto, where he spent time as director of global scouting and assistant GM from 2007-10.

"I'm overwhelmed," said Ujiri. "I don't even know where to start. I don't have anything written guys, I'm going to speak straight from the heart."

"I'm home. I came home."

Sitting to the left of Tim Leiweke, new president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ujiri expressed humility and gratitude to be given the opportunity to head up basketball operations in a city he is passionate for but didn't hide from the challenge that is now in front of him.

Mired in a five-year playoff drought, the longest in franchise history, the Raptors have failed to live up to recent expectations while struggling to achieve a consistent level of respectability throughout their existence.

"Why can't I change it," asked Ujiri, the fifth GM in the franchise's embattled 18-year history. "It's our job. It's our job to make it better, it's our job to make it good, it's our job to create a winning environment and that's why I'm here."

Leiweke has pursued Ujiri aggressively since the Nuggets granted Toronto permission to meet with their top executive late last month. Terms have not been disclosed but the deal is reported to be in the neighbourhood of $15 million over five years.

"This is not an organization that wants to make the playoffs, this is an organization that would like to win championships," Leiweke said. "We understood that we needed fresh new thinking, dynamic thinking and leadership in order to get us to where we want to go to and we clearly understood that we have not had the success that the owners, the fans or this team deserves and so we set our sights on bringing in a new leader, a new chemistry and culture for the organization."

"When we set our sights, we decided to set our sights high."

Ujiri remained tight-lipped in regards to philosophy and player personnel, speaking generally about the organization's goal to build the right way and choosing not to discuss specifics until he has a staff in place. Ed Stefanski, former executive vice president, was relieved of his duties on Saturday along with a number of scouts and several others will be evaluated by Ujiri in the coming days. Head coach Dwane Casey is under contract for one more season and is expected to be kept on, pending further conversation with Ujiri to get on the same page.

The elephant in the room was the team president, who was not in the room. According to Leiweke, Bryan Colangelo -- who was stripped of the GM title but kept on in the role of president last month -- was present in Toronto and met with Ujiri this morning, but was not asked to join the two executives on stage.

"This was not meant to send a message," Leiweke insisted. "I know there's a lot of controversy and a lot of opinions out there about our reporting structure but there's no confusion from within, this is simple. [Colangelo's] going to be there to advise and give input when Masai asks for it."

Ujiri thanked Colangelo, one of his mentors, for bringing him to Toronto and giving him an opportunity back in 2007 but firmly denied the prospect of a power struggle with his former boss.

"There's no issue with Bryan Colangelo [and I]," Ujiri said. "There's no issue. None whatsoever."

"I'm on the [hot] seat now and I'll take Bryan's input when I feel it's necessary," he continued. "At the end of the day, I'm going to put my staff together and we're going to figure this all out collectively but my decisions, like Tim said, basketball decisions are going to be my decisions."

Masai Ujiri (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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