It’s been just over a month since the NBA’s 2020 playoff bubble closed up shop, the Los Angeles Lakers crowned champions and the mass of NBA players and staff released to return home to their families.
Now that the dust has settled, more details have begun to emerge about life in the bubble, and the endless intrigue of the game’s best mixing and mingling on a daily basis off the court.
For the Toronto Raptors, that meant Masai Ujiri and Co. crossing paths with championship-leader-turned-opponent Kawhi Leonard, and former franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan, the two former Raptors suiting up for the Clippers and Spurs, respectively.
Here are a few highlights for the Raptors faithful:
Masai and DeMar reconcile courtside
In July 2018, DeRozan’s nearly decade-long tenure with the Raptors came to an end when he was traded to San Antonio as part of the deal that brought Leonard to Toronto. It was a messy parting, to say the least, as DeRozan stated publicly his feelings of shock and frustration at the move, and the manner in which it was carried out. He was particularly unhappy with Ujiri, opening up publicly about feeling betrayed by the Raptors president with whom he had a close relationship.
In the bubble, though, the two were able to move on. Wrote Rooks about a particularly special moment between Ujiri and DeRozan:
Meanwhile, a few players used the new proximity to let go of old grudges. Raptors president Masai Ujiri said his favourite moment off the court happened while he was on the sidelines, watching his team play the Lakers, and one of his former players came up to him. “I’m sitting down there, and I see this person walking straight to me with a blue tracksuit,” says Ujiri. It was DeMar DeRozan, who had spent nine seasons with the Raptors before he was traded to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. The trade had left DeRozan feeling “extremely hurt” and betrayed but earned the Raptors the franchise’s first championship.
“And he walks up to me,” Ujiri continues, “and he gives me a big, big hug. This was really the first time that we’ve really had that kind of contact since the trade. I left the game and I felt that we had crossed a certain… we’d reached a new place.”
Masai gets Kawhi off his game
The parting between Leonard and the Raptors was a more amicable one. While the Raptors faithful and Toronto at large hoped Leonard would run it back after he helped lead the club to the first title in franchise history, they understood and respected the Los Angeles native’s decision to return home.
While there were no hard feelings, that didn’t stop Ujiri from getting Leonard off his game once the two found each other in the bubble — even if unintentionally.
Pro athletes are already creatures of habit, but the limitations of the bubble forced a lot of the people inside it to adopt routines in order to preserve their sanity.
For example, every day at 5 a.m., inside room 950 in the Gran Destino (where all the top-seeded teams stayed), Masai Ujiri would wake up, read his book, hop on the Peloton, and work out before heading down for breakfast. He thought nothing of his daily ritual until one morning, several weeks into the bubble, when he got a text from another former player of his: “Morning boss, you good up there?”
The text was from Kawhi Leonard—Finals MVP with the Raptors, now a star on the Clippers—who was staying in room 850, directly below his old boss. Ujiri had been waking Kawhi up with his noisy workouts for weeks, but Kawhi was reluctant to say anything.
Ujiri told Kawhi that he would stop for the time being and joked that he would continue again when the Raptors met the Clippers in the Finals, messing with Kawhi’s sleep. Kawhi responded with the kind of trash talk that’s best read aloud in Kawhi’s dry monotone: “Haha, you know the saying ‘Don’t poke the bear’? I’m gonna call the NBA on you…get you out the bubble.”
The Raptors were planning a boycott of their own
Though there were lighthearted times to be had in the bubble, there was also much turmoil and pain stemming from the staging of the playoffs coinciding with a powerful global movement seeking to abolish systemic racism and racial injustice. The two intersected directly after the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wis., which prompted the Milwaukee Bucks to bring the post-season, and ultimately the sports world as a whole, to a standstill.
Rooks reports that the Raptors, then in a playoff series with the Boston Celtics, were also meeting to discuss whether to boycott their own games, and might’ve landed there as well, regardless of the Bucks’ decision.
…If George Hill hadn’t sat out, there was a strong possibility that a league-wide strike still would have taken place. The Raptors were set to play the Celtics the day after the Bucks decided to stay in the locker room. While the Bucks were deliberating, Raptors players Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry quietly met with members of the Celtics to discuss what they should do, and Masai Ujiri ran into Celtics coach Brad Stevens, and the two talked about not playing.
“It was going to happen, to be honest,” says Ujiri. If it hadn’t been the Bucks who initiated the strike, it probably would have been the Raptors and the Celtics.
For Ujiri, after having gone through his own experience of unjust treatment at the hands of police in the moments after his team claimed the NBA championship in 2019, the death of Blake and all that followed were difficult to navigate — particularly after what had preceded it.
Rooks recounts a poignant moment with Ujiri from that week:
For me, there was one moment in the bubble that sticks out above all the others. It was the week that Jacob Blake was shot, and I was sitting outside the Coronado Springs convention center ballroom waiting for the Raptors’ practice to end. Masai Ujiri walked up to me and another reporter unprompted and said, “We should have never come to the bubble.”
Ujiri was emotional. He is intimately familiar with how it feels to be wronged by police just because you’re a Black man. The week prior, body cam footage from the 2019 NBA Finals had surfaced, showing a white police officer grabbing and shoving Masai as he tried to step on the court after his Raptors beat the Warriors for the championship. There it was, plain as day: Even a powerful Black man, the president of an NBA team, wasn’t safe from being brutalized by the police.
Ujiri knew he had to show his players before they saw it elsewhere. “I cried when I showed the players my video,” he says. “And I cried when I got the video from the lawyer. And when my wife watched it [with me]… That was emotional, and I cried again.” In hindsight, Ujiri says he doesn’t regret returning to the bubble: “Honestly, Taylor, sports brings us all together. We have the ability to address these issues head-on and galvanize and hope for change and try to create that change. We have to be in that space, and the bubble was that space at that time.”