ROBYN DOOLITTLE TORONTO
PUBLISHED JUNE 19, 2019
Raptors president Masai Ujiri identified himself to a police officer who was blocking the executive from the on-court celebrations after the Raptors’ historic NBA Finals win last Thursday, police say.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that Mr. Ujiri told the deputy he was the team’s president and did present NBA identification, after The Globe and Mail described an eyewitness account of the officer being told that Mr. Ujiri was a Raptors executive, moments before the two became embroiled in a shoving match.
But according to police, Mr. Ujiri did not have the specific credentials needed to enter the court. The Raptors executive appeared to be holding a red badge, but only officials with a purple badge and gold arm band were allowed on the court. This, multiple witnesses told The Globe and Mail, is what precipitated the incident between the officer and Mr. Ujiri, a confrontation that has stirred a fierce debate about racial profiling and raised questions about how the team president could be denied entry to the court in a moment of triumph, even if he had the wrong lanyard. Though the NBA is made up predominantly of black players, Mr. Ujiri is one of only a handful of high-level executives who are not white.
Neither Mr. Ujiri, his team nor the league have spoken publicly about the altercation or what led to it, leaving the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office as the sole official narrator of the incident. The police have said that Mr. Ujiri struck the officer in the face and that video footage backs up their account, but it has not been released. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the force clarified that it was not body-cam video from the officer, but footage from the stadium that captured the blow. The body cam, police said, switched off the instant Mr. Ujiri made contact.
Police have said the deputy suffered a concussion and jaw injury as a result of the incident and he is currently off work. Sacramento-based litigation lawyer David P. Mastagni says he has been retained by the officer and that his client has not ruled out suing the Raptors, the NBA and Mr. Ujiri, who is already facing a criminal investigation.
The Sheriff’s Office and the Oakland Police Department are investigating the incident and are expected to file reports with the District Attorney’s office soon. From there, district attorney Nancy O’Malley, who holds an elected position, will determine whether a charge should be laid and if so, whether the allegations amount to a misdemeanour or felony offence.
Police spokesperson Sergeant Ray Kelly said high-definition security footage from Oracle Arena shows Mr. Ujiri striking the deputy with “two fists,” one of which landed “underneath his jaw on the left side of his face.”
However, The Globe has interviewed three men who were sitting within 10 feet of the altercation, and each says they never saw Mr. Ujiri strike the officer’s face.
Ben Baller, a celebrity jeweller and entrepreneur, was sitting in a front-row corner seat just steps away from the incident. He said that Mr. Ujiri was trying to make his way to the court when the officer stopped him aggressively and shouted something like “I need to see credentials to get on the court.” Mr. Baller, 46, says Mr. Ujiri seemed to be trying to show the officer the lanyard in his hand, although he couldn’t make out what the executive said. When asked about this, Sgt. Kelly confirmed that Mr. Ujiri did identify his role with the Raptors and did hold up his credentials, but the placard he presented did not permit court access. Moreover, Sgt. Kelly continued, Mr. Ujiri presented the document in a “very threatening kind of way” directly in the officer’s face.
At this same moment, Mr. Baller said, others in the area started shouting Mr. Ujiri’s position. “That’s the general manager of the Toronto Raptors,” Mr. Baller heard one person yell, but the officer “shook his head ‘no’” and pushed Mr. Ujiri. (Sgt. Kelly says the officer, who felt Mr. Ujiri was violating his personal space, pushed the executive away and said something to the effect of “get away from me.”)
Mr. Baller said the Raptors president’s expression was one of “are you joking me?” This is when things became heated. Mr. Ujiri shoved the officer back, causing the man to stumble backward. “There is no fist going to his face,” Mr. Baller said.
Greg Wiener, 61, told the Associated Press last week that while Mr. Ujiri did shove the officer, he did not hit his face. Mr. Wiener told The Globe that when Mr. Ujiri approached the court, the officer blocked his path with his arm, which Mr. Ujiri “brushed” away, “like, ‘I’m still going forward’ … then the deputy got a little bit more aggressive” and pushed the Raptors executive. “That’s when Mr. Ujiri pushed the deputy hard,” Wiener said.
Lucas Abrenica, 20, told The Globe he didn’t notice the altercation until it was already under way. “I don’t know who shoved first, but both the sheriff and Ujiri shoved each other very hard. They both stumbled back. … From what I saw it was just shoving. There were no punches thrown or anything like that.”
Mr. Baller, Mr. Wiener and Mr. Abrenica all said the officer remained at his post for at least 10 minutes. Two of the men said he seemed angry, but uninjured. Sgt. Kelly confirmed the deputy remained in position for a time, but that later that night, he was taken to hospital and diagnosed with a concussion. He added that while the officer did forcefully push Mr. Ujiri, it was a “Level 5.” Mr. Ujiri responded with a “Level 10.”
Mr. Mastagni, the officer’s lawyer, said any suggestions that race played a role in what transpired at Oracle Arena is unfair and that the officer’s family is African American. “This case is about credential versus no credential. Not race.”
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office said Mr. Ujiri had a badge, but it was not the purple one that was required. The executive also did not have one of the gold arm bands that had been given to the Raptors organization. Sgt. Kelly said part of the investigation will try to determine whether Mr. Ujiri was issued the correct documentation and, if so, why he wasn’t wearing it.
The Raptors declined to comment for this story.
When asked why the deputy didn’t try to calmly sort out the credential issue with Mr. Ujiri, upon being told his identity, Sgt. Kelly said the entire altercation lasted about 20 seconds. (He also does not concede that the deputy was able to process Mr. Ujiri’s identity at the time given the intensity of the moment.) “There were no opportunities present to have this detailed discussion … when he decided to push through security with the wrong credentials and then assault the deputy he did not leave us a lot of room for conversation.”