SIMMONS: Tanenbaum says contract talks with Masai will begin next week


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Larry Tanenbaum’s long-standing premise — that Masai Ujiri isn’t going anywhere — won’t be dealt with in any way until after this Raptors irregular season ends on Sunday.

Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., admitted Monday in a rare e-mail exchange that “Masai and I agreed months ago that we would sit down after the season has concluded to address his contract.

“We are both confident in that approach and Masai has shared that publicly in the past when asked (about it).”

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What Tanenbaum didn’t indicate in the communication is whether his past bold assertion that Ujiri will remain with the Raptors is as certain as he seemed to be in the past.

This Raptors season has been remarkably weird as the only NBA team without a real home, a team not bad enough to tank for a lottery draft pick, a team not good enough or healthy enough to reach the play-in game, a team manipulating its roster night to night, with a coach and general manager working on new long-term contracts while the team’s architect — the man who hired both coach Nick Nurse and GM Bobby Webster — president Ujiri remains unsigned beyond this season.


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And his pending free agency, frankly, is significantly more important than that of Kyle Lowry or any other Raptor whose contract status for the future is in question.

This is Ujiri’s eighth season running the Raptors and what a run it has been. Seven playoff seasons in a row before this one. The delivery of the championship he promised when first hired, maybe the most unlikely and inexplicable NBA championship in history. And the only Toronto big league title of the past 27 years.

That alone, in any NBA climate in which executives and coaches are paid at corporate CEO levels, would assure Ujiri of being able to write his own tickets with the Raptors, especially considering MLSE has hardly been shy about paying its top-level employees.

Really, this should be a fill-in-the-blanks kind of negotiation. How many years? How much money? How much freedom for involvement in other projects?

What exactly does Ujiri want in his life beyond basketball and beyond this season? Does he want more involvement for his work in Africa? Does he want more time for the social causes he is so believing in? More family time? Is his intrigue with the NBA as passionate as it once was?

So much of that he has kept to himself, distanced essentially from the local media and even national media this season, and no matter how many times he has been asked about the future, he has never completely given a clear answer.

Now, within a few weeks, there should be some kind of answer. Ujiri will return to Toronto early next week and, about the same time, he is expected to sit down with Tanenbaum, who may be a minority owner of the Raptors and the Maple Leafs, but is far more influential in the operation of the franchises than his corporate partners, Bell and Rogers.


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Tanenbaum has made no secret in the past that he doesn’t expect Ujiri to leave the Raptors, but he wasn’t nearly so provocative when asked directly about the situation yesterday. That could mean he isn’t sure about where this is going or it could mean that he isn’t saying — which is likely — yet the future, both immediate and long-term with the Raptors, remains sightly unsettled. And the securing of Ujiri is the single most important work the Raptors will need to accomplish rather quickly.

Ujiri has had opportunities to leave the Raptors for other NBA teams in the past and he has never really cashed in on them. But this could well be something different. Not about running another NBA team — he’s doing that right now with his favourite team in a city his family has adored — but about some other kind of work or vision.

In the meantime, Tanenbaum, who also serves without much notice as chairman of the board of the NBA, has been impressed with how the Raptors have handled this season under troubling circumstances.

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“I’m not sure the league will ever see a more challenging and defining year like the one we’ve just experienced,” he wrote in his e-mail. “The pandemic was incredibly difficult for all teams, with constantly changing circumstances and protocols, but the challenges the Raptors faced were unprecedented.

“We couldn’t be more proud of the way every member of the organization met those challenges. They all made massive sacrifices personally to move to Tampa, to do everything asked of them to make this season possible.”

Now one more move to make, the most important one: The signing of Ujiri long term.

Tanenbaum isn’t celebrating anything yet. Their conversations begin officially next week.


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