Sports

Raptors’ Ujiri: ‘Have to fight’ for wrongly accused

Although he lost the chance to celebrate winning the 2019 NBA championship because a law enforcement officer wrongly prevented him from stepping on the court, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri said what he thinks about is the many other minorities who find themselves losing far more after encounters with police.

“As much as we say ‘Yeah, this happened to me,’ there’s worse that’s happened to other people, right?” Ujiri said during an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” that aired Wednesday morning. “I lost a moment. People have lost their lives.”

It was Ujiri’s first television interview since the lawsuit against him by Alameda County Sheriff’s deputy Alan Strickland was dropped earlier this month.

“I say it as humbly as I can: The privilege of the job I have is to fight for this,” Ujiri said. “They are wrongly accused, there is no body cams, nobody sees what happens, and they are incarcerated or they are accused or they are charged. We have to fight for them.”

As Ujiri was trying to take the court after Toronto beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, he was accosted by Strickland, only to eventually be pulled onto the court by Raptors star Kyle Lowry.

“We don’t just go buy championships in Walmart or something,” Ujiri said. “It’s something you’re trying so hard to do, and you’re trying to figure out, ‘How do I go and celebrate with my guys?’ And now you get this confrontation, and it confuses you, you know? And, honestly, I was confused. I was taken aback, and I didn’t know how to react.”

Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern initially claimed Ujiri should be charged with battery of a police officer, but the department eventually declined to press charges.

Strickland then sued Ujiri last February, claiming that Ujiri hit him in the face and hands with both fists and that Strickland suffered “physical, mental, emotional, and economic injuries,” including lost wages, lost opportunity for financial gain and future earning capacity.

Footage from Strickland’s body cam was then released in August while Ujiri and the Raptors were in the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, Florida. The footage did not show Ujiri punching Strickland — instead, it showed Ujiri being shoved twice while trying to step onto the court. Ujiri then countersued, saying Strickland had fabricated his version of events.

Both suits were dropped earlier this month.

Despite knowing he did nothing wrong, Ujiri said that he couldn’t sleep for three days in the wake of seeing the body cam footage for the first time. He also admitted that, over time, he began to question whether his version of events was the right one.

“I called my wife, I called my family, and I couldn’t sleep for three or four days in the bubble,” Ujiri said of his reaction upon seeing the body cam footage. “Because seeing that tape … yes, you are vindicated, yes, this is the right story. [But] people said, ‘You punched a police man, you hit his jaw, you broke his jaw.’ There’s all kinds of things [being said], and you begin to doubt yourself as time goes on. You begin to actually wonder what really happened.”

Ujiri, who has helped countless children in Africa as part of his Giants of Africa program, said that, as he moves forward, he hopes that people begin to realize that they need to treat everyone they meet with the same level of respect.

“I want people to really think about humanity and who we are as human beings,” Ujiri said. “It is really, really important we treat each other well.”

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