By KELLY MCCARTHY, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — In 2019, when the Toronto Raptors won their first NBA Championship title, the dream moment quickly turned into a nightmare for the team’s president, Masai Ujiri.
ABC News’ Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts sat down exclusively with Ujiri for his first interview since the courtside confrontation between he and a sheriff’s deputy who shoved him and later sued the basketball executive.
“The game ends — I hurried behind the benches to go and meet my wife. Found her, we hugged, cried, prayed. That brought a sense of calmness,” Ujiri recalled. “There’s lot of chaos going on on the court — I walk up and that’s when I actually got stopped.”
Alan Strickland, the sheriff’s deputy who halted Ujiri, was seen on body-camera footage shoving the team president twice as he reached for his credentials.
“I was confused, you’re taken aback and you don’t even know how to react,” he said thinking back to the incident. “You just don’t buy a championship in Walmart or something. It’s something you’re trying so hard to do — you’re trying to figure out, ‘how do I go and celebrate with my guys?’ — You get this confrontation, and it confuses you.”
Eventually, he was allowed to join his team on the court and players rallied behind him. But eight months later, Strickland filed a civil suit for monetary damages against Ujiri that claimed Ujiri was the aggressor and injured him.
Ujiri’s lawyers filed a countersuit and called the deputy’s account of the encounter “a complete fabrication” that ultimately led to the release of the body camera footage in August 2020.
“Seeing that tape, you are vindicated, you feel that yes this is the right story,” he explained. “People said you punched a policeman, you hit his jaw, you punched his jaw and all kinds of things, you begin to doubt yourself. As time goes on, you start to actually wonder what really happened.”
Both lawsuits have been dropped after nearly two years since the encounter, but now, Ujiri said it has reignited his push for racial equality.
“As much as we say this happened to me, it’s worse that happened to other people, right. George Floyd — I lost a moment, people lost their life,” he said. “I say it as humble as I can, there are some people who don’t have privilege or job to fight this. They’re wrongly accused, no bodycam, nobody sees what happens, they’re incarcerated, accused or charged. We have to fight for them.”
Ujiri worked his way up in the NBA, starting as a scout before eventually becoming the general manager of the Denver Nuggets and has held the coveted spot as Raptors team president since 2013.
The NBA executive, whose family is from Nigeria, is a humanitarian and has dedicated much of his career to philanthropy to empower youth in his homeland for nearly two decades with his organization, Giants of Africa.
“We want to teach basketball – basic basketball fundamentals of it and we want to find talent,” he said. “They are incredibly young girls and boys who need a pathway. My job that the NBA has blessed me with I have to continue to do this – we teach the kids more life skills, being honest, on time, respect your elders and respect women.”
As he continues to encourage the next generation to dream big, he said now he can move forward and hope for a future without discrimination.
“I want people to really think about humanity and who we are as human beings,” he said. “It’s really important that we treat each other well.”
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