Twenty-thirteen was a bad year in Toronto sports—and not just the usual bad. The Leafs self-destructed in the playoffs, the World Series-favourite Blue Jays missed out on the post-season altogether and TFC finished in the league’s basement for the seventh straight season. So on April 11 of this year, when the ACC hosted its first playoff basketball game since 2008, 20,511 jersey-clad, foam finger-waving fans responded with a raucous, guttural roar that drowned out the announcer’s peppy intros and the thudding hip-hop bass, and rattled the rivets overhead. The reaction was more than a city celebrating its stars; it was the collective exorcising of four sports’ worth of demons.
High above the action in the team’s executive box sat the man responsible for the transformation: general manager Masai Ujiri. In May 2013, he inherited a dysfunctional team with a superstar ball hog (Rudy Gay) a spineless centre (Andrea Bargnani) and a firm grip on last place in the division. Ujiri quickly shipped both players out in exchange for hard-nosed backups and a slew of draft picks. Almost immediately, the Raps became contenders, led by ascendant stars DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas. Two months after the Gay trade, the team was first in its division. By this spring, they’d clinched a playoff spot.
Raptors fans know that the playoffs are just phase one in Ujiri’s master plan. Already this summer, he’s pulled off more of the same inspired trades and signings that sparked the Raps’ turnaround (and earned him the league’s executive of the year award the previous year for similar alchemy with the Denver Nuggets). As the adage goes in the up-and-down NBA, you’re either selling wins or you’re selling hope. Ujiri has built a good team that’s destined to get great, putting him in a unique position to be selling both.