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The Rise of Masai Ujiri and the Unassuming Art of Disagreeableness

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Masai Ujiri and Kyle Lowry celebrate beating the Golden State Warriors in game six of the 2019 NBA Finals in Oakland. Photo: Kyle Terada / USA Today Sports

By Benre J. Zenarosa |

Thousands of bottles of various drinks have been consumed. A red sea of confetti covered ‘The North.’ And the Toronto Raptors are the reigning NBA Champions.

It was a classic David and Goliath story witnessed by tens of millions of basketball fans all over the world. Today, it’s perfectly valid to announce that the NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard is the crux in the historic run of the Raptors. But how did he become part of the team in the first place? Are we simply going to ignore the architect behind the spark of transcendence that shocked the basketball world this season?

On July 18 last year, Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri bravely traded Raptors star DeMar DeRozan, the unknown Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick to San Antonio Spurs for Leonard and the veteran Danny Green. Prior to this, in his willingness to impose metamorphosis for his team, Ujiri had replaced Dwane Casey with Nick Nurse as the head coach. Nurse spent the past five seasons as a Raptors assistant under Casey’s leadership. Casey has been recognized as the Coach of the Year, but it didn’t help his case. Naturally, Ujiri received tons of criticisms from sports columnists, commentators, and known figures on the planet. But do these still matter now?

They say that championships cover everything. And that’s exactly what transpired.

All doubts, confusions, and prejudged lapses vanished in a blink when the Raptors convincingly defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the Finals. If we’ll look at the dimensions beyond basketball, winners dictate what should be written on history books. They are in control of the phase, texts, and narratives. By silently examining the elements and the organic make up of Toronto Raptors right now, we can sense that they embody a solid group of players with one savant two-way assassin in their midst. They can’t be considered a superteam which is the accepted trend nowadays.

Given that news reports surfaced that Leonard had allegedly expressed his distaste in joining the Raptors, their championship is on a league of its own. They say it’s because of the climate; that the man has just bought a house in California; or simply put, it’s because it’s Los Angeles – the entertainment hub in the universe. Who wouldn’t want to live and represent a team from that area? The man is a “fun guy,” and it suits him well. But Ujiri rolled his dice and weaved every fiber of disagreeableness in his humanity.

Yes, disagreeableness. This valuable personality trait has been discussed by acclaimed Canadian author and thinker Malcolm Gladwell in his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. He mentioned that disagreeableness has brought seemingly unknown individuals to rise at the top of their fields and reach the pinnacles of triumph.

Humans are social creatures. We love being part of a group, of a cause, of a goal. That’s the norm. We romanticize the idea of being in one with the majority as we go through life. We don’t want conflict. We are uncomfortable with going against the tides. There is calmness in aimlessly following the waves. But isn’t it true that creativity is being guarded in that approach? Change can never be realized and molded by stiff, closed minds.

While it is true that there are some aspects where we’re expected to say “yes,” that shouldn’t always be the case. Sometimes, to win and to succeed, we have to listen to the voice deep within that tells us: “Why are we sticking with what has been done before? This is insane.”  

Ujiri personified Gladwell’s idea. While the world tells him to refuse change, he did otherwise. He didn’t adhere to the beliefs and behaviors that were treated as normal in his universe. He didn’t rely on the opinion of others before taking any action. Of course, as an intelligent executive he must have considered a lot of factors before he arrived at his decision. But still, he kept his composure and did what he’s supposed to do for the organization’s sake.

These days, it’s no secret that other NBA teams are recruiting Ujiri. He etched his name in their consciousness. His moves will forever influence the decision-making process of those in power in the sports world. The puzzle of winning a championship will always be present. Form a super team. Trade for the best player. Trust the process. But moving forward, a louder, bolder action can be on: find and keep a Masai Ujiri. And that it is going to be beautiful for the evolution, diversity, and shape of the game. 

Benre J. Zenarosa writes essays and letters. His works have appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rappler, Thought Catalog, The Nation, Boxing Insider, Abstract Sports, Read Boxing, and others. He is from Makati, Philippines. zenarosabenre@gmail.com

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