Quote: When Masai Ujiri was hired to run the Toronto Raptors, one of his first acts of business in the summer of 2013 was to fly to Philadelphia and sit down with Kyle Lowry.
It wasn’t one of those friendly, let’s have lunch, meet and greets between employer and employee.The talk was raw and pointed. Ujiri challenged Lowry personally. He asked him what kind of player he wanted to be. He demanded to know if he wanted to be known as a malcontent his entire career and if he was prepared to waste his talents on that.
A few months later, Ujiri couldn’t have been all that impressed. He thought he traded Lowry to New York, a deal first agreed upon and then later negated by the Knicks.
And that was just the beginning of the Ujiri-Lowry basketball marriage – a back and forth born of tension and questioning and eventually each side has emerged a champion in their own way.Ujiri, the builder of perhaps the model franchise in the NBA. Lowry, at 34, still angry, still motivated, still pushing limits, still playing his improbable game but no longer the malcontent, the player who couldn’t be coached. Now in his eighth Toronto season, his 14th NBA season, the little man had grown into an NBA giant, a leader, a game-changer, a facilitator, a Toronto athlete unlike any we have known before.In the midst of the first round trouncing of Brooklyn, Lowry hit a milestone no one would really notice. He played in his 78th playoff game for the Raptors. That’s one more than the Hall of Famer Mats Sundin played in 13 seasons for the Maple Leafs. He now has 81 playoff games in Toronto in eight seasons, which is 66 more than Vince Carter played in his seven years with the Raptors.
Monday night will be playoff Game 82: Another round and he will be close to the 89 playoff games Dave Keon played during his four Stanley Cup wins with the Leafs. Last year’s championship, this year’s tour-de-force run, has Lowry in a place where jerseys get retired and statues are built.
The player Ujiri wanted to smarten up, tried to trade, may have tried to trade again, fought with him over the trading of his best friend, DeMar DeRozan, watched him battle with Dwane Casey, has grown up before our very eyes.
That’s what happens with smart kids between their mid-20s and early 30s. It happens with talented kids. They find their place and their legs and their smarts and their comfort zones and they adjust to succeed: And we have watched all of this from afar with Lowry.How he’s become this redoubtable superstar, not in the mould of any other NBA star, unique, there is no comparison here, playing this physical, frantic, take-a-charge-and-keep-getting-up kind of game. He always gets up.
The Raptors are tied after four games against the very talented Boston Celtics in this Eastern Conference playoff series and the only reason for it is Lowry. He has been the best player on the Raptors, the best player in the series. Without having the smoothness of Jayson Tatum or the quicks and classic jumpshot of Kemba Walker, he has dominated, and has taken charge and control of games, especially in the two Toronto wins.And he has left another impression on the game, on the NBA, even on those who coach him and don’t impress easily.
“I love having the privilege of standing on the sideline to watch (him),” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of Lowry. “It is something to see. And I don’t ever take it for granted.
“I’ve said this before: I’ve never seen anybody play harder. I’m in total understanding of how much he means to our team. How nice is it from my perspective to able to coach this guy and have him.”
And in Nurse’s seven seasons in Toronto, two as head coach, five as assistant, he has seen what we’ve seen, but from far closer.
“There’s certainly been an evolution that we’ve all witnessed,” he said. “There’s a level of maturity that comes with age and experience. He just keeps getting better … His skills keep getting better … He has matured. There is no doubt about it.”
“There’s something about that guy I believe in, it’s incredible,” said Ujiri in last year’s playoff run. “We have been through so much and he’s a winner … He’s been hit upside the head from every different angle in the world, whether it’s personal, everything and he survives it. Every days he comes to win. Doesn’t matter what mood he’s in, he comes to win.”
And one piece of basketball irony that rarely gets mentioned in all the Lowry stories. The main reason Bryan Colangelo was fired as GM and Ujiri hired, more than anything else, was because then CEO Tim Leiweke couldn’t understand why any general manager of a downtrodden team would trade away a first round pick.
“Who does that?” Leiweke said to me years ago.
Colangelo did. He sent a first round pick to Memphis for Lowry. “You don’t trade away your first round pick,” Leiweke said.
That enraged Leiweke, who moved Colangelo aside and hired Ujiri, who all but and almost traded Lowry. The forks in the road that have made Lowry the most indispensable player in Raptors – and you could say modern Toronto sports – history.