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Masai Ujiri talks Raptors’ Toronto return, Siakam rumours, roster confidence – Sportsnet.ca

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Masai Ujiri, the newly appointed vice-chairman and president of the Toronto Raptors, made his first public comments Wednesday since it was announced that he was returning to the club that he’s helped define on a new contract – and that new shiny title – back near the beginning of August.

For about 45 minutes, Ujiri held court with an assembled group of media at Hotel X by the exhibition grounds in downtown Toronto.

Over the course of that time, Ujiri touched on a number of topics including what his new title means, exactly, the outgoing Kyle Lowry, the competitive future of the club and the question of if the Raptors will be able to play games in Toronto this coming season.

Here are a few highlights from Ujiri’s media availability on Wednesday.

Raptors want to play in Toronto and don’t have plans for any alternative

Front of mind heading into the rapidly-coming 2021-22 season is whether or not they’ll be allowed to play their home games in Toronto again next season.

Seeing other Toronto pro sports teams like the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto FC hosting games from the friendly confines of Rogers Centre and BMO Field, respectively, is an encouraging sign that Scotiabank Arena will be hosting Raptors basketball games next season, but that’s still to be determined.

Though nothing is settled on that front yet, Ujiri was emphatic Wednesday in his desire to play back home in Toronto.

“We continue to have lot of discussions about this and our hope is that we’re playing at home,” Ujiri said. “We have no interest, we have not looked elsewhere, we are not going to look elsewhere, we’re playing at home; we’re trying to play at home. That’s the goal for us.

“I told Larry [Tanenbaum] and Adam [Silver] and even Prime Minister Trudeau that playing away set us back a couple of years and we know that, we are ready for that challenge. Playing another year somewhere else will set us back five years. We are not trying to do that.

“We understand all the public health concerns, issues, we’re taking measures. As you saw, we came up with our policy with MLSE on how we intend to even fill out our arenas as we go forward here, as we try to play at home.

“To your question, we’ve talked to the league, we’ve talked to public health officials, we’ve talked obviously with ownership, we’re all together on how we want to get back to at least being safe and trying to get back to a little bit of normal.”

On Tuesday, MLSE, the ownership group of the Raptors, issued a statement (LINK: https://www.sportsnet.ca/nhl/article/mlse-introduce-updated-covid-19-protocols-buildings-september/) saying that they’ll require any employees, event staff or guests entering a venue owned by the organization to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or that they had tested negative for the disease come mid September.

This appears to be an indication from MLSE that they’re preparing to host guests at Scotiabank Arena for Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors games and given how adamant Ujiri was about the matter, surely this means we’ll have live NBA hoops in Toronto again doesn’t it?

“Kyle is the best Raptor”

The Raptors’ off-season has been headline by two gigantic moves for the franchise. Ujiri staying on long-term with the club was, of course, one, and the other was the departure of iconic Raptors point guard Lowry after nine seasons in Toronto where he built up what’s likely a Hall-of-Fame résumé and became known as the best player to ever play for the franchise in many an observer’s eyes, including his now-former boss’s.

“I want to talk about Kyle and it’s been really tough for us to see an incredible player like that go,” Ujiri said. “I had really extensive conversations with Kyle and it was great to spend a lot of time with him in last year in Tampa. And we knew this was coming. The direction of our team was kind of going younger and Kyle still has his incredible goals. Kyle wanted to be here, too, if that was what we were trying to do. We saw our team as kind of being in the middle ground a little bit and wanted to go a little younger so we can start to grow, almost like when Kyle was here in the beginning.

“What that guy has done for this organization, what he has done for this community, his participation in everything that we can ask for. I mean, Kyle had, we had ups and downs here, but I’m telling but even the measure of it when you look at it, the downs were this much. It was great to grow with him here.

“We wish him all the best where he is. He’s in great hands in Miami and that organization. We know their standards and what they want to do. We just hope we beat them four times a year and we’ll be good that way.

“We can’t wait to have him back when we play them here. Yes, we compete in this business and Kyle is part of this family and he’ll be part of this family forever. And I know people ask, I know Larry has already mentioned his jersey, he’s going to get all of everything and some. Is Kyle the greatest Raptor that ever played the game here? Yes, he is. I’m saying it here. Kyle is the best Raptor to play the game over the course of his time.

“It’s incredible what he achieved here, what he took on, growing as a man, his family, Ayahna, the kids, we love them, they are part of us, and they’ll be part of us for a long time. So I know we’ll talk about this for a long time, we’ll talk about this during the year, but I wanted to pay particular attention to what Kyle Lowry has done for us. We owe it to him. He takes so much pride. I know the pride that he took in this organization, this city, and the people of Toronto and Canada as a whole.”

That’s about as effusive praise as you’ll likely ever hear from an executive talking about a player who left the organization, and, as Ujiri said, is well earned given all that Lowry did for the Raptors as an organization.

Ujiri is confident in the roster he’s building

So, as you may have noticed, the Raptors have apparently narrowed in on a specific type of player they like this off-season and have added a bunch of them.

This type being a player who’s about six-foot-eight or six-foot-nine with a seven-foot-plus wingspan, blessed with tremendous athleticism and capable of defending multiple positions.

On paper it doesn’t seem all that bad, but it has been met with some skepticism whether or not this stratagem will work – including from this very author.

Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of what the roster might look like as long as the boss is happy with it and Ujiri seemed quite confident that the team he, Bobby Webster and their staff is building will be championship quality at some point in the future.

“First of all, we are going to create our own direction,” said Ujiri. “We don’t have to go with the wave of what the NBA is doing, we are such a copycat league … and we have to, I think, right now, ride opportunities and for now our opportunities are I think building around the young players that we have.

“We have very young veterans, they are almost at the same age when we had Kyle and DeMar [DeRozan], there’s Fred [VanVleet], there’s OG [Anunoby], there’s Pascal [Siakam]. We want to build around these guys, and the [Chris] Bouchers, the Khem Birches.

“All these players, they have a level that they need to get to and then there’s the young crop. You guys saw coming up, we just drafted Scottie Barnes and Dalano [Banton], we just got Precious [Achiuwa] in a trade, Malachi [Flynn]. All these guys we want to really develop in some kind of way and I think we have some kind of good history from doing that.

“Our three main players come from our development program, I said it here when I sat here eight years ago, ‘We are going to develop players and we are going to build on that.’ [Now] I’m saying it again: We are going to continue to develop these players and we’re going to find a way to win a championship here based on our development of our players.

“And whatever comes from that, sometimes trades, sometimes you acquire through free agency, we just are not going to sit here and cry that players are not coming here. That’s not what we’re about. I think we’ve gone past that.”

And to that point about development, Ujiri appeared about the potential that No. 4 overall pick Scottie Barnes presents for this Raptors team.

“He was just a player that excited all of us. Knock on wood he has an incredible career ahead of him, But the passion for the game, the levels he’s played at on USA Basketball, U-16, U-18, he’s won at every level,” Ujiri said of Barnes. “It’s crazy when you interview a guy like that and he mentions winning or win 34 times in one interview. All he talks about is winning. This is what we wanted to bring.

“And also, one day we want to play big and long. You look at him, you look at Pascal, you look at OG you look at Boucher, you look at all these players and you look at the feistiness of Fred, of all of them, there is something exciting about these kind of players.”

Certainly doesn’t sound like Siakam is being shopped any time soon

And while on the topic of the roster as constructed now, despite noise during the off-season that Siakam might be on the trading block, to hear it from Ujiri it seems that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“I know the fanbase, I know people are being hard on him, but trust me, Pascal is a prideful man,” Ujiri said. “Pascal is an unbelievable basketball player. Maybe because he wasn’t playing well, people come up with all this stuff. Pascal is here. Pascal is a Raptor and he’s gonna play with us.”

To add to this, Ujiri also said that he knows that “him and Nick [Nurse] have got to a much, much better place,” referencing the apparent tiff between the Raptors coach and their star forward last season when Siakam reportedly got in a verbal altercation with Nurse after a March game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

So while it may have seemed logical that the Raptors might consider moving Siakam, especially after they drafted Barnes, Ujiri has indicated otherwise and we should now probably expect to see how a Raptors team led by both Siakam and Barnes might look.

A tampering investigation update

A couple days after the Raptors’ sign-and-trade with the Miami Heat that sent Lowry to South Beach and Achiuwa and Goran Dragic to Toronto was made official, the NBA launched an investigation for tampering violations in the transaction.

So far there hasn’t been much that the Raptors have been able to say about the ongoing investigation except that they’re cooperating with it, but on Wednesday Ujiri provided a small update on how things are proceeding.

“It’s incredible how every NBA team had a deal done by 6:02, no? I don’t know how it happened but all I know is I gave my phone for the investigation. Yeah, I have no comment.”

An update, no matter how minuscule, is still an update.

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Defiant Serena Williams takes aim at Wimbledon title – The Globe and Mail

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Serena Williams practices on Centre Court ahead of the 2022 Wimbledon Championship at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, in London, England, on June 24.Adam Davy/The Associated Press

Since she hasn’t done this for a while, Serena Williams was not in top press-conference form this weekend.

At her best, Williams may be the most electric speaker in sport. She bops between playfulness and simmering rage, often in the space of a single question. The way she stares through questioners puts most of them on the stammering defensive before they’ve said anything.

But now back at Wimbledon after what was essentially a sabbatical year, she lacked that mojo. Short answers. Less cheek. Zero flashes of annoyance.

Then a German reporter tossed her a softball: “What would be a good outcome for you?”

Williams is 40. She hasn’t played a meaningful singles match since blowing her hamstring at this tournament last year. She’s only here because Wimbledon gave her a free pass.

“Oh yes,” Williams said, like she’d been waiting for this one. She closed her eyes and lowered her voice to a purr. “You know the answer to that. Come on now.”

Laughter in the room. An amused eyeroll from the star.

Then someone else followed with the same question asked a slightly different way and Williams iced him with the same answer: “You guys know the answer to that.”

The tone made it very clear no one should try for a third.

Other questioners tried to draw her on Roe v. Wade and the Russia ban. Williams passed both times. It was a lesson to her colleagues throughout sport – there’s no law that says you must have a public opinion on everything.

Finally, here was the imperious Williams that we have missed. Now let’s see if that dominance can be transferred a few hundred feet onto the court.

Many sports stars dominate their little patch of the field, but few have controlled their whole environments the way Williams has. In the latter half of her career, it often seemed that she could beat opponents by Vulcan mind-melding them from distance. The match would be going their way. Williams would fix them with her thousand-yard stare. And then – whoop! – it’d be going Williams’s way.

Then the injuries started up. And the disappointments in major tournament finals. And the rock in her shoe that is Margaret Court’s 24 grand slam titles (Williams is stuck on 23).

Williams is the most dominating women’s player ever. You don’t need to understand tennis to understand that. All you need are eyes. But until the numbers fall her way, some dingdong is always going to say, “Yeah, sure, but …”

She has steadily denied it, but that appeared to get in Williams’s head. Her mien was still total control, but opponents no longer feared her. Broadcasters stopped mooning about her the whole way through matches. When they did tell Williams stories, they started having a “back in my day” feel. It must feel bizarre to have your professional obit written in real time while you’re still working. Here, she felt compelled to start off her presser with, “I didn’t retire.”

A year away won’t have helped any of that. Nor will the new job title. Everyone else she plays in her two weeks here – come on now – will be a tennis professional. Grinding it out on the tour 10 months a year, racking up the AmEx points.

Williams had been a tennis part-timer for a while, but now she’s more of an occasional worker. A dabbler, even. Her steady gig is as a venture capitalist.

“I’m currently out of the office for the next few weeks,” Williams said.

Her company raised more than US$100-million in seed money in the spring. It’s a good fit. I mean, are you going to say no to Serena Williams? And if you do, how do you plan on getting out of the room? She is a lot faster than you.

So now Williams is not only fighting younger, presumably fitter players, her age and a lack of practice. She’s taking on the whole idea of doing sports for a living. Though she will make money here, Williams has become an amateur. Because one way of defining that word is “someone who does something for fun.”

Williams is currently ranked 411th in the world. She’s not about to start climbing that ladder again. She’s doing this because she can and why not?

If she makes it through a couple of rounds, nobody’s going to feel weird about that. She’s Serena Williams. She can still win matches with The Look.

But if she puts a real dent in this tournament, the modern game is going to look slightly ridiculous. Everyone in it never shuts up about their up-when-it’s-still-dark workout routine and their strength coach and the sports psychologist who sleeps in a cot beside their bed. If the louche star of yesteryear who practises when he feels like it and enjoys a boozy night out were to time warp into the present day, he’d be shunned.

(Not that such players don’t still exist. Just that they’ve figured out they shouldn’t talk about it.)

So what would it say if Williams – her life full of other responsibilities, coming off a bad injury and only having swung a racket in anger as a doubles player about a week ago – were to excel here? It would put the lie to sport’s productivity cult.

When someone tried to put her on the spot about being spared a first-round match against world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, Williams’s expression flattened: “Every match is hard … and anyone could have been drawn to me.”

There have always been a bunch of reasons to be fascinated by Williams. She divides opinion, but two things cannot be argued – her quality and her charisma. She’s an all-timer in both instances. Her place at the top of the pyramid is already assured.

But floating into London in June on a working holiday, seemingly expecting to win Wimbledon? How great would that be? You guys know the answer to that.

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Stanley Cup headed for repair shop after drop by Avalanche’s Aube-Kubel – Sportsnet.ca

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It didn’t take long for the Stanley Cup to suffer some damage following the 2021-22 season.

Mere minutes after the Colorado Avalanche beat the Tampa Bay Lightning to claim the title on Sunday night, Avs forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel fell while skating with the Cup toward the traditional on-ice team photo.

Aube-Kubel dropped the Cup — and the result was predictable.

“I don’t even know if they even had it five minutes and there’s a dent at the bottom already,” Phil Pritchard, the Hockey Hall of Fame’s keeper of the Cup, said in an NHL Twitter post.

“Right in the middle of the team photo. It’s the third time the Avalanche have won it. I guess we have a little chat with them soon and go through the process of how we’re going to repair it and that. But the Stanley Cup tour will go on.”

Like all sports trophies, the Cup has taken its share of body blows over the years. But this one was unique.

“I guess it’s a new record today, five minutes into the presentation it has happened. It’s the first time it’s ever happened on the ice,” Pritchard said.

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Alex Newhook Becomes Third Newfoundlander To Win The Cup – VOCM

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Newfoundland and Labrador’s Alex Newhook is a Stanley Cup Champion.

The Colorado Avalanche finally dethroned the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning Sunday night, holding on for a 2 -1 victory and taking the series 4-2.

Newhook becomes the third Newfoundland player to win the Cup, following Daniel Cleary of Harbour Grace and Bonavista’s Michael Ryder.

Newhook had four points in 12 games this post-season and, at the age of 21, becomes the youngest player from this province to ever win the Cup.

Anticipation now builds toward this summer when it’s expected Newhook and the Cup will make the trip home.

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