14 June 2019
Toronto Raptors team president Masai Ujiri hailed his team’s NBA title triumph as ‘a championship for the world’.
The Raptors sealed a 4-2 series victory with a dramatic 114-110 win over the Golden State in Game 6 at Oracle Arena, the third time they have beaten the Warriors on their own floor in the season-ending showpiece.
Speaking to Sky Sports NBA in the Raptors locker room in the aftermath of their title win, Ujiri, who was born in England and raised in Nigeria, declared: “This means the whole world. I can’t believe it, it’s a championship. This is a championship for the whole world.”
The Canadian flag, soaked in beer and champagne, was waved in the Toronto locker room. Pascal Siakam wore the flag of Cameroon around his shoulders. Marc Gasol was yelling happy phrases in Spanish.
Every team that wins an NBA title calls itself ‘world champions’. This Toronto Raptors team might actually be worthy of such a moniker. The new kings of NBA basketball are the first outside the US to wear the crown. And they come from all corners of the globe.
Serge Ibaka is from the Congo. Gasol will play again for his native Spain this summer in the FIBA World Cup. Coach Nick Nurse won his first championship in Britain, where reserve OG Anunoby comes from. Even the team’s superfan, Nav Bhatia, comes from India.
It’s a global game. It’s a global team. They’re the global champions.
“It meant a lot, just having guys from different countries and speaking different languages,” Siakam said. “I think it kind of got us closer together.
“And you kind of have all those little kinds of friendship with guys that you can speak the same language with, and from Spanish to French to English, different cultures. I think kind of it represents Toronto in general, having that diversity.”
At NBA headquarters in New York, they truly didn’t care who won the series. That doesn’t mean they don’t realise the Raptors’ title is a good thing for the league’s future.
Basketball Without Borders is the vehicle that basically helped Siakam start his journey to the league seven or so years ago. There are NBA academies popping up in Africa and Asia. The league is helping to establish a new pro league in Africa that’s set to begin play early next year. The sport takes every opportunity it gets to promote what it bills as the Jr NBA Global Championship, a tournament for kids.
Ujiri echoed those sentiments. “We carry a big load on our shoulders,” he said. “We have to show the youth that we can win, not only on the court but off the court too. We have to inspire them that they can become exactly who they want to become if they prepare and they work hard.”
Ibaka, clutching the Larry O’Brien trophy in a champagne-soaked Raptors locker room, dedicated Toronto’s title to his home nation.
“This is for where I come from,” he said. “For all the young guys who dream of being here where I am right now. I want to let them know anything is possible. This moment is not only for me, it’s for all of Africa.”
Having champions from Cameroon and the Congo, and having the executive who gets credited for putting it all together being from Nigeria, will benefit the game in Africa.
The NBA champions are, indeed, champions of the world.
“As a kid, I didn’t have the opportunity to dream about this moment,” Siakam said. “I didn’t think I could make it. I didn’t think this was possible as a kid. And I think a lot of kids don’t think that it’s possible.”
Just me being able to be here today and telling them that, ‘Hey, look at me, I was a little scrawny kid from Cameroon… but here I am, as a champion.”
Ujiri was born in England in 1970 while his parents were studying there. The family moved to Nigeria when he was two and he grew up in Zaria, Kaduna State. He moved to the US as a teenager, playing college basketball there. He then played pro basketball in Europe for six years before becoming an NBA scout. He rose to general manager at Denver Nuggets. He moved to the Raptors in 2015 on a $15m deal.
A version of this report first appeared on Sky Sports.