Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri said his physical confrontation with an Alameda County, Calif. sheriff’s deputy after his team’s win in the 2019 NBA Championships was the beginning of a frustrating ordeal. Still, it has spurred him to work for racial justice.
Speaking Wednesday (Feb. 24) to ABC’s “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts, Ujiri described what happened in the moments after the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors for the team’s first ever championship at Oracle (now Oakland) Arena.
“The game ends — I hurried behind the benches to go and meet my wife. Found her, we hugged, cried, prayed. That brought a sense of calmness,” Ujiri recalled. “There’s a lot of chaos going on on the court — I walk up and that’s when I actually got stopped.”
The sheriff’s deputy, Alan Strickland, stopped Ujiri, saying that he had not properly shown his credentials. As he reached for them, Strickland was seen on camera shoving Ujiri.
“I was confused, you’re taken aback, and you don’t even know how to react,” Ujiri said. “You just don’t buy a championship in Walmart or something. It’s something you’re trying so hard to do — you’re trying to figure out, ‘how do I go and celebrate with my guys?’ — You get this confrontation, and it confuses you.”
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Ujiri did join his team to celebrate their win, but eight months later, Strickland sued him, saying Ujiri attacked him, striking him in the face and alleged that he was injured. But Ujiri countersued, which led to body camera footage being released last August.
“Seeing that tape, you are vindicated; you feel that yes, this is the right story,” he said. “People said you punched a policeman; you hit his jaw, you punched his jaw and all kinds of things, you begin to doubt yourself. As time goes on, you start to actually wonder what really happened.”
Both parties dropped their lawsuits, but it put in Ujiri’s mind that he must now fight for racial justice.
“As much as we say this happened to me, it’s worse that happened to other people, right. George Floyd — I lost a moment; people lost their life,” said Ujiri. “I say it as humble as I can. There are some people who don’t have privilege or job to fight this. They’re wrongly accused, no bodycam, nobody sees what happens, they’re incarcerated, accused or charged. We have to fight for them.”
He said that he wants to work for a future in which humanity can move forward without the burden of discrimination.
“I want people to really think about humanity and who we are as human beings,” he said. “It’s really important that we treat each other well.”
Ujiri, 50, was born in England to a Nigerian family and played his professional basketball career in Europe. He began in the NBA as a scout and wound up the Denver Nuggets general manager before eventually becoming president of the Raptors.
He has committed much of his career to philanthropy through his organization Giants of Africa.”We want to teach basketball – basic basketball fundamentals of it and we want to find talent,” he said. “They are incredibly young girls and boys who need a pathway. My job that the NBA has blessed me with I have to continue to do this – we teach the kids more life skills, being honest, on time, respect your elders and respect women.”