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Toronto Raptors named inaugural Nation Builder of the Year by Empire Club

To look out over the sea of faces rejoicing in the Toronto Raptors run to an NBA championship in May and June was to see a crowd truly representative of Canada.

Multiracial, multi-ethnic, young and old — it ran the gamut from coast to coast.

Toronto’s Empire Club, an organization more than a century old with a “history of lending our stage to people who do these historic things to help build our country” according to its current president, noticed as well.

And when it came time to name the group’s first Nation Builder of the Year winner, the decision wasn’t hard at all.

The Raptors, through president Masai Ujiri, will be the first recipients of what will turn into an annual award at a luncheon ceremony on Dec. 13.

“Maybe it’s the nature of the sport, maybe it’s reflected in Masai being such a global ambassador and the attitude and values he brings to his role with the Raptors,” Empire Club president Mike Van Soelen said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“I see the diversity of people at a Raptors game, I see the diversity of the faces in the Jurassic Parks and I think it’s pulled together different groups.

“United, sure, by sport, but united as well behind the idea of Canada and what this nation is.”

An 11-member committee decided on Ujiri and the Raptors as the first winner of the award — the decision then ratified by the club’s board of directors — that honours “efforts by a Canadian individual or a group of individuals who are making a significant contribution to our country.”

Ujiri has long held that the Raptors are something bigger than a basketball team representing Toronto. He sees the team as a galvanizing force in the country and it was borne out during the championship run when hundreds of thousands of fans gathered at different outdoor spots to watch games.

“Delivering the first NBA championship for the team, the city and the country was a proud and historic moment for everyone,” Ujiri said in a statement. “We are grateful for the support of so many people and are thankful to the Empire Club of Canada for recognizing the impact that it had on Canadians and for this prestigious award.”

Said Van Soelen: “Surpassing just who’s the best three-point shooter or what kind of offence should we run, they really helped give Canada a bit of an identity in a sport that’s clearly American dominated.

“There was this unifying effect of the playoff run and ultimately the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the world championship. That made it more than just a game and I think that’s why they’re so deserving of this award.”

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