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Masai Ujiri would love to see the remainder of the NBA season salvaged somehow.

But the Toronto Raptors president said, amid the global COVID-19 pandemic that has brought the sports world to its knees, the only way that will happen is if people follow the medical community’s orders about physical distancing.

“This is not about the NBA, NBA players, NBA fans. It’s about the whole world, this is something that hit globally,” Ujiri said in a conference call Wednesday.

“This is not an earthquake that hit in only one part of the world or a disease that is only in another part of the world or a tsunami — pardon me for mentioning all of these things — but this is affecting the whole world. We can want to plan the NBA all we want, and [want] it to come back all we want. [But] because it affects the whole world, something is going to stall that one way or the other, because we have not played by the rules.”

The Raptors were second in the Eastern Conference (46-18), had clinched a playoff spot, and had just capped a 4-1 road trip with a 101-92 victory in Utah on March 9 when the coronavirus sent the sports world into a tailspin. Two nights after Toronto’s last game, Jazz all-star centre Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player diagnosed with COVID-19, and the NBA quickly suspended the season.

Like a long line of dominoes, other leagues quickly followed.

Swift action from NBA, Raptors

Ujiri praised the quick response of league commissioner Adam Silver, and the Jazz front office.

“I was in a meeting with Adam in New York a few weeks before that and he told me about some of the meetings he had had with experts on this and where it was going. So the NBA was really on this and I commend them for that,” Ujiri said.

Ujiri was on the road scouting when the Raptors were in Utah. He returned immediately. Soon after Gobert’s positive test, the Raptors players and staff underwent testing — none were positive — and then self-isolated for two weeks.

“While all this is going on, we start thinking of mental health and how people are relating to this and how people are reacting to this immediately . . . as you know, we had a few players that were in direct contact with the Utah game and situation, we abided by the rules and we’re proud that we did that and we have to stick to that and continue to plug away,” he said.

Toronto’s Kyle Lowry drives against Utah’s Donovan Mitchell during the teams’ last game before the NBA shutdown. Mitchell later tested positive for coronavirus, but has since recovered. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

Any other year at this time, Ujiri and other Raptors staff members would be on the road scouting for the upcoming NBA draft. Instead, he spoke with reporters for more than half an hour on Wednesday, his first public comments since the NBA shuttered.

He opened with: “It’s good to hear you guys’ voices, I hope everybody is keeping safe and abiding by the rules.”

Giants of Africa could be postponed

Ujiri covered everything from hand-washing and general COVID-19 hygiene rules — he’s realized he touches his face way too much — to helping his young daughter with homework, to potentially having to cancel this summer’s Giants of Africa camps.

Ujiri said he’s been in contact with leaders in several African countries, and will postpone his camps to next summer if necessary. The health of those countries, he said, is much more important right now.

“Hopefully the under-privileged areas, like the refugee camps, the poorer areas, the not-so-privileged areas all over the world, not just Africa, are taken care of in this and are looked after in this,” said Ujiri, who is Nigerian. “I think Africa has been resilient and handled it well. I think a lot of leaders are ahead of it and the ones that aren’t are starting to pay attention because this is an unknown, this is an unseen enemy and we have to really, really pay attention.”

Ujiri made headlines earlier in the season around his future with the Raptors. The New York Knicks were reportedly among teams wooing the boss of the reigning NBA champions. His contract is up after the 2020-21 season.

Head coach Nick Nurse is in the second of a three-year deal.

Ujiri said there have been no discussions during this down time on contract extensions for either, and he’s fine with that.

“It’s not kind of where our minds are right now. It’s a crucial time for the world. Those things will come. This is a crucial time I think for the world. I miss basketball, [but] I’m concerned for my team, I’m concerned for my family, I’m concerned for the world.”

Neutral site proposals

There’s been plenty of speculation around this NBA season, with suggestions the league could schedule a drastically-shortened playoff schedule, including best-of-three series. One proposal, according to reports, is to play out the season without fans, in one neutral city such as Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Louisville, or even Hawaii or the Bahamas.

Ujiri’s message throughout Wednesday’s call however was about focusing on global health, following rules, and solving this pandemic. Basketball can wait.

“Maybe God tells us that the world was moving too fast and we need to slow down a little bit,” he said. “I know six, seven months ago we brought the world together in a really special way [winning the NBA finals], and now I think it’s time we stick together — bring people together by saying apart.”


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