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Updated: 17th July 2019 12:50Saskatchewan

Friendship of Raptors, Masai Ujiri continues to inspire La Loche 3 years after deadly shooting

Staff and students in La Loche's school have a special reason to cheer the Raptors' NBA championship.

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Students, staff say they stand by Ujiri in midst of assault allegations

Raptors president Masai Ujiri gives La Loche Dene High School student Brady Laprise a high five, during a La Loche student trip to Toronto. (Giants of Africa)

As millions watched the Raptors claw their way to an NBA championship, residents of a small northern village in Saskatchewan saw something else, something beyond the sweet taste of triumph.

They saw the win through the lens of friendship — the friendship from Raptors President Masai Ujiri and from a team that has supported La Loche through the devastation of a deadly school shooting.

"We know a different side of them, other than basketball," said Martha Morin, a wellness coordinator at La Loche's Dene High School.

"We know they do support others and they're kindhearted and they're caring, and they're giving — and Masai leads the way with that."

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri pictured celebrating his team's first NBA title after the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 Thursday night. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Four people died in a shooting that rocked La Loche back in January 2016. With media attention overwhelming the community of some 2,800 people, staff at the school huddled inward, simply trying to get through the turmoil, Morin said.

"And for some reason, there was one lady that kept phoning to talk to the principal and he took the call," she said. "I'm not sure why, he says he's not sure why, but we're really glad he did."

That call was from CTV media personality Marci Ien. She connected the school with Ujiri and the pair later visited the village.

"We felt he genuinely wanted to see if there was something he could do to help us," Morin said of Ujiri.

Three groups of La Loche students have travelled to Toronto in the past three years. Pictured is the group that went in January 2018. (Submitted by Jazz Moise)

Ien and Ujiri's connection to the school ended up going further. Over the next three years, three groups of La Loche students were brought to Toronto at no expense to the school and Ujiri's charity, Giants of Africa, reached out to give back to the school.

Jazz Moise, 21, was among the students that went to Toronto in 2018. He said the trip made him feel special and cherished.

"We met Masai before the game started. He brought the La Loche group onto the court, in the middle," he said, recounting a the team huddle that saw the kids cheer, "La Loche dreams big!"

Jazz Moise said he's been inspired by getting to know Masai Ujiri and the Raptors, and hopes to give that inspiration back to his fellow community members of La Loche. (Submitted by Jazz Moise)

"At that time, I honestly knew he actually cared for us, all the wonderful people that brought us to Toronto cared for us, and wanted us to do well in life."

The trip also opened his eyes to the opportunities that existed for him.

"This is where my life's going to start in Toronto," he remembered thinking. That germ of an idea has now led him to become a student at Toronto Film School.

The teachers were similarly inspired by the trip, said Morin. It gave them the strength to carry on pushing for their school and students.

"It was like recharging our batteries and reminding us why we're here."

Both Morin and Moise expressed their disbelief when they heard Ujiri was being investigated for allegedly assaulting a sheriff's deputy. Ujiri had been trying to get on the court to join the celebration of the Raptors' final win against the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA championship, when he allegedly shoved the deputy. 

They can't square the accusations of an assault with what they know of the man who has championed them and their school through difficult times.

"He is a soft-spoken, respectful person," said Morin. "I just don't believe that."

Regardless of what comes out in the investigation into the claims, both said the man and his team have encouraged La Loche to dream big, and both are thankful. 

"Because of the Raptors and Masai inspiring me to go to Toronto, I want to inspire my fellow community members that there's actually more out of La Loche — that there's more opportunities," said Moise.  

"That's really changed my life."

About the Author

Janani Whitfield

Janani Whitfield spent 10 years working in the newspaper industry in Alberta before joining CBC Saskatchewan as a web writer in 2017. Contact her at janani.whitfield@cbc.ca on on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.

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