The summer of 2018 saw the Toronto Raptors shake up the franchise, firing head coach Dwane Casey and trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard.
The moves paved the way for their maiden NBA championship in 2019, and while President Masai Ujiri says he has mended his relationship with Casey, the now current coach of the Detroit Pistons, he says there's "still plenty of work to be done" in repairing his relationship with DeRozan.
"It's not easy," Ujiri said in an interview with TNT's Ernie Johnson on #NBATogetherLive. "If you have that human part of you, you feel it in your heart.
"I will never forget, I will never ever forget having to do that with Coach Casey and walking to his office, waking up that morning. Many times I wanted to move it and change it or think that you're not making the right decision. It was incredibly hard, because Casey is an incredible person, and so great to work with ... DeMar, I was in the hotel in Kenya, and I walked around that hotel at 4 a.m., 5 a.m., for a couple hours, trying to gather up enough strength and courage to make this phone call. I will never forget it.
"With Casey, it has gotten so much better now with his family and him. With DeMar there is still plenty of work to be done. But, by the grace of God, it will all get better. We have to continue to make these decisions that are tough. But that's the business of basketball, and the position that we are in."
#NBATogether with Ernie Johnson begins now with a tribute to Jacqueline Cruz, mother to Karl-Anthony Towns, followed by an interview with @TurnerSportsEJ and @Raptors President Masai Ujiri which was recorded earlier today. https://t.co/GYEUYcw46b- NBA (@NBA) April 13, 2020
DeRozan spent the first nine years of his NBA career with the Raptors after being drafted no.9 overall in the 2009 NBA Draft. He would go on to become the face of the franchise alongside Kyle Lowry, with the pair leading the Raptors to the playoffs together for five-straight seasons before DeRozan was traded.
Casey, meanwhile, was fresh off being named Coach of the Year in 2018 after leading the Raptors to the no.1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history, while recording a franchise-record 59 wins, including 34 at home.
Between the overhaul of the team's leadership and the emotion of winning the title the following season, the human element of the business of basketball is not lost on Ujiri.
"I always say that the two hardest things in our world, in our business, is trading a player and then when a player leaves, if a player leaves in free agency," Ujiri said. "And it's hard on both sides. When a player is traded, it is hard on the player side, and when a player leaves, like us [i.e. Leonard last year], it is hard on that side. I've experienced all of it, from wonderful people.
"It sometimes puts a strain on relationships, as we saw with DeMar. People don't know even with [when we traded] Rudy Gay, I was close to Rudy. Incredible kid. Incredible kid with DeMar, where you build and you're trying to preach a culture of good, of trust, of being with people, and then you have to make this decision [to trade him].
"With Kawhi, we just built a relationship where we trusted each other, and that friendship has evolved even bigger after he left, and I'm proud of that. I support him with everything he does as a human being, and his family, and you move on. You've got to move on, and go on to the next."
The Raptors' title defence was well underway when the NBA season was suspended in March, with the reigning champs sitting second in the Eastern Conference at 46-18.
Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, it's hard to tell when sports around the world will return, but Ujiri is confident NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in partnership with team owners will find a way, while ensuring the health and safety of players and officials.
"I know with all the input his leadership team with the NBA, and how he directs it, we will come up with something great," Ujiri said. "He's taking all our input. I am confident that we'll get back playing in some kind of way.
"We miss the game, man. We miss sports. We miss the game."
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