Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press
The Toronto Raptors said Monday that a lawsuit by a California sheriff’s deputy claiming team president Masai Ujiri assaulted him in the moments after the team won its first NBA championship was “without merit,” even as the deputy alleges he suffered permanent disabilities.
In the suit, filed Friday in U.S. federal court in Northern California, sheriff’s deputy Alan Strickland alleges that Ujiri hit him in the face and chest, causing permanent disabilities, during an altercation at court level after the Raptors clinched the title versus the Golden State Warriors on the night of June 13 in Oakland.
According to the statement of claim, Strickland, an Alameda County Sheriff’s Department K-9 officer, was working a security point near the south end of the court at Game 6. The lawsuit alleges Ujiri failed to show the credentials needed to access the court to celebrate with Raptors players and staff. An altercation followed in which Strickland claims Ujiri hit him with both fists, sending him backward several feet.
The lawsuit said Strickland is suing for unspecified financial damages for the “mental, physical, emotional and psychological pain and suffering,” along with “lost wages, lost opportunity for financial gain, future earning capacity, and past and future medical care and expenses.”
The Raptors, its ownership group Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., and the National Basketball Association are also listed as defendants in the case. The deputy’s lawyers allege that Ujiri’s actions were foreseeable and preventable because he “had a violent predisposition and propensity for physical violence.” Although it does not specifically cite other examples, the suit alleges that Ujiri “had engaged in prior similar criminal and/or violent conduct towards third parties including, but not limited to, NBA fans, NBA officials, and/or NBA players, on previous occasions.”
In a statement released on Monday, MLSE said, “We are disappointed but not at all surprised Mr. Strickland has elected to take this path. His claims are baseless and entirely without merit. They should and will be viewed appropriately for what they are. The Toronto Raptors and Masai have jointly retained very able counsel who will be handling this matter on our behalf and consequently, we do not intend to make any further statement about it.”
No statement of defence had been filed in the case as of Monday.
California lawyer Robert Beles, who represented Ujiri in the criminal investigation, denied Monday that the Raptors president had a history of behaving violently at games. “That is absolutely false. It’s absolutely not correct at all,” he said.
The Globe and Mail viewed still images derived from footage captured by the deputy’s body camera and security video at Oracle Arena showing Ujiri with his arms raised straight in front of him toward the deputy. However, the sheriff’s office declined to play the full videos, which it said could interfere with the criminal investigation. Four witnesses at the game who spoke to The Globe said they did not see Ujiri strike the deputy’s face.
Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern, an elected official, had requested Ujiri be charged with battery of a peace officer, a misdemeanour punishable by up to a year in jail and a US$2,000 fine.
But after a months-long investigation into the June incident, the Alameda County District Attorney’s office said it had decided not to charge Ujiri criminally, instead suggesting the dispute should be settled “outside of the courtroom.”
Beles said his office conducted a background investigation into the sheriff’s deputy and provided information to the Alameda County District Attorney’s office that was “an influential factor in no criminal case being filed” against Ujiri. Beles, who is not representing Ujiri in the civil lawsuit, declined to elaborate on what information he provided to prosecutors.
Strickland’s lawyer, David P. Mastagni, was not available for comment on Monday. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to a request for comment.
In a Sheriff’s Department incident report taken the night of the NBA Finals and obtained by The Globe under California’s public-records laws, Strickland alleged that he twice pushed Ujiri against his chest and used profanity to stop the Raptors president from accessing the court because he had not provided the required NBA-issued badge and yellow armband.
While another man, whom the Sheriff’s Department later identified as a Raptors employee, held the deputy back, Strickland alleged that Ujiri came toward him “raising both of his hands and striking with closed fists in a straight arm manner I would best describe as a double fist punch.”
According to the incident report, Strickland went to a local medical centre several hours later with a migraine, along with swelling and pain in his jaw. His lawyers previously said he had suffered a concussion.
News of the lawsuit comes at a time when Ujiri, a native of Nigeria, has been travelling in Africa with Justin Trudeau as the Canadian Prime Minister attempts to garner support for landing Canada a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The two men also visited Canadian troops on Monday in Kuwait.
With a report from Marsha McLeod