Roughly 12 hours before Kawhi Leonard decided to sign with the Clippers, his decision was reportedly down to the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers.
The Clippers ultimately revived talks and worked out a deal, also acquiring superstar Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder in one of the craziest moves in recent NBA history. But Raptors fans will be pondering the “what ifs” for quite some time.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri was spearheading the campaign to keep Leonard north of the border after a championship season, and believes the two-time Finals MVP did have some desire to stay in Toronto.
“There was plenty part of him that wanted to stay,” Ujiri said in an interview with CBC. “Winning, the city, medical, there are so many things I could tell…
“He won in the city, had one of the greatest shots in NBA history, the fans, an unbelievable parade. I know Kawhi, I know he really thought about all those things.”
While he is obviously disappointed in the end result, Ujiri doesn’t harbour any resentment toward Leonard. He completely understands that the superstar wanted to return to his roots.
“If he wants to go home, he’s gone home,” Ujiri said. “If there was a team in Lagos, Nigeria or Zaria, Nigeria, if there was an NBA team there I don’t know if I would stay in Toronto. There are some callings in life and some things that pull people one way or the other and I completely understand that.”
As for Ujiri’s future with the club? He’s made it clear in the past that he intends to remain in Toronto, and hasn’t wavered from that sentiment despite previous rumours linking him to the Washington Wizards.
One person Ujiri looks to for advice is Barack Obama, and the former United States president never tried to talk him into taking the Wizards’ job, even with Obama’s obvious ties to Washington.
“We talked about it but our friendship is not that way,” Ujiri said. “He’s been an incredible mentor to me and his friendship is not to convince me. His friendship is to give me all the best information to be the best leader where I am and it’s incredible the kind of advice he gives. He’s a remarkable person and I really appreciate that.”
Hosting Obama in Toronto for an NBA Finals game was a career highlight for Ujiri. The 49-year-old executive was proud to showcase the city’s love for basketball and it created a memory he’ll hold dear to his heart forever.
“It was a huge deal. I’ve always told him how big it is in Canada. The reception he got was incredible, it shows how much people love him everywhere,” Ujiri said. “To actually experience the game in Canada, in Scotiabank Arena, to have him there, I’ll be proud of that for the rest of my life, it is something I’ll never ever forget.”
More Raptors coverage from Yahoo Sports