The virtue of DeMar DeRozan
TORONTO — It's a nice, neat story in a town where storylines themselves are acts of commerce: the return of DeMar DeRozan. But while he's humbled and honored to be starting in yet another All-Star Game, he's not buying into the script.
"I wouldn't call it a homecoming," he says.
On Sunday, the NBA's most egregiously undermentioned MVP candidate will play in his fourth consecutive All-Star Game, his second as a starter. Since this year's site is Staples Center, it'll inevitably be seen as a reunion for DeRozan, a Raptor by way of USC and Compton High School.
Los Angeles has become what New York once was: the de facto capital of the game. This year, four All-Stars — DeRozan, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Paul George — hail from L.A. Two more — Klay Thompson and Kevin Love — have L.A. roots. Beyond the abundance of homegrown talent, there has long been a sense for players that Southern California is the place to be, a destination, if not as a Laker or a Clipper, then as an offseason home. It's not just the weather; it's the proximity to Hollywood. In a league built on star power, L.A. isn't merely good for your game, it's great for your brand.
But again, DeRozan isn't buying it. "I never cared about branding," he says.
Compton, like Hollywood — or perhaps, in part, because of Hollywood — occupies a place in the American imagination. For DeRozan, however, there was nothing imaginary about it. He grew up on Aranbe Avenue, the only child of Frank and Diane DeRozan.
"I had kind of given up hope when I found out I was pregnant with DeMar," Diane says. "That's why I call him 'the blessed one.'"
Life in the neighborhood — an approximate 10-block radius emanating from Marian Anderson Elementary School — revolved around a single affiliation: the Poccet Hood Compton Crips. That was his identity, the result of birth and geography. It came before religion, even before race.
"It's the first thing you feel accepted by," DeRozan says. "It's all I knew. I look back on it now, and it makes no sense. But growing up, it made perfect sense."
At 5 years old, DeMar attended his first funeral. His uncle Kevin had been shot in the heart by a member of the rival Bloods gang. If Diane recalls her brother as "a good guy who went to work every day," DeMar remembers him as "one of the biggest Crips in Compton." It was as if someone famous had died. "Kind of like a parade," he says.
"I've been to so many funerals in the hood, I lost count," Diane says. "But that was the first time DeMar knew of death."
He'd get used to it soon enough, though. Underlying each ceremony, the preacher's sermon, even the grief itself, was a palpable sense of dread and an expectation of more violence.
"You remember that feeling," DeMar says. "It's kind of sickening."
He has seen drive-bys at funerals. He has seen people die at funerals.
"Always extra drama," he says. "You carry that hatred and frustration with you."
If his world seems clearer in retrospect, then so does the game. DeMar started playing with his father around the time he began going to funerals. "I couldn't wait for the weekend so he could take me," he says.
The venues would change — Lueders Park, Gonzalez Park, Wilson Park, Compton College — but the cycle was the same. What began with great expectations ended in rage. These weren't merely one-on-ones. Over time, they became epic, Oedipal struggles. Frank had played linebacker growing up in Louisiana. All DeMar really knew, though, was that his dad was 6-foot-4, about 260, and apparently, merciless.
Wherever his son was vulnerable — in game, body or spirit — Frank would find that place. And push. Hard. He'd block the kid's shot. He'd knock him down. And he'd tell him:
Your opponent ain't gonna care.
You ain't s—.
DeMar might punt the ball away or complain to his mother. But Diane couldn't help but notice, "The madder he got, the better he played." Frank, for his part, never broke character. In his mind's eye, DeMar saw him as The Hawk — regal, invulnerable, without sympathy or remorse.
And then one Sunday, they're driving on the 101 freeway to visit DeMar's considerably older half-brother in The Valley. DeMar is in seventh grade. It's just the two of them, and Frank keeps swerving right. Frank plays it off like everything's OK, but the rumble strips tell DeMar something different. When they get to Jermaine's house, Frank is still playing it off. But DeMar notices he can't pick up a domino with his left hand.
The next day, Diane picks up DeMar from school and brings him to the hospital. It's official: Frank had a stroke. He didn't break, though, until he caught sight of DeMar at his bedside. Then The Hawk began to weep.
"I can't die," he said. "I can't die until I see you make it."
Around this time, Diane was also diagnosed with lupus, a painful autoimmune disease that causes the body's tissues and organs to attack themselves. With neither parent in good health, and DeMar already dunking on grown men, his course seemed set.
"People ask me what I would have done if it wasn't for basketball," he says. "I can never give a good story because I honestly don't know. I had no other options."
The Hawk's voice filled gyms — the inescapably profane soundtrack of DeMar's adolescence.
The hell you doing?
Miss a free throw? You owe me five.
How you gonna let that m—–f—– do that to you?
The better his son became — winning a league championship, McDonald's All-American — the more he dwelled on the kid's failures. What moved Frank was more than a case of thwarted athletic ambition. He understood the stakes and the perils, and perhaps, that failure was a more dangerous proposition in Compton than it had been in Louisiana.
On New Year's Eve 2009, in the middle of his senior year, DeMar was home waiting on his best friend. But before he made it there, Davian Childs was shot and killed in a dispute over a dice game.
"I put a lot of blame on myself," DeMar says. "I should've just called and gotten him."
They'd been close since junior high, as their interests shifted from video games to girls. Davian was pretty good in a street fight too.
"We never lost," DeMar says.
Now that sick feeling in his gut was worse than ever. He couldn't bring himself to go to the funeral. He had already been to too many.
He was 17 and already committed to USC, a school renowned for its football team and film school. He could have gone to North Carolina. Or UCLA. Or pretty much anywhere. But this was DeMar's story.
"I don't want to follow another man," he says.
College proved bewildering. Twenty minutes from Compton felt like light years from home. He remembers the classes: Each kid with a laptop and keys to a car (often a Mercedes) on the desk. Many of them were also from L.A., just not his L.A. DeMar is still waiting for police sirens when he finds out everyone is supposed to be shopping at a place called Whole Foods.
"I felt I couldn't communicate," he says. "It was like: 'You had your life. I had mine.'"
But there was one great relief. The Galen Center, with a capacity in excess of 10,000, was big enough, and the band loud enough, that he couldn't hear his father's voice.
Still, he made of that freshman year exactly what Frank had wanted. In March, DeMar outplayed James Harden for the Pac-10 title at Staples Center. Then, months later, he was drafted by the Raptors with the ninth pick. As much as she would miss her only son, Diane was gratified to see him go.
"It would have been complicated if he played here," she says. "I wanted him to experience something else."
His rookie year, DeRozan lockered next to Chris Bosh.
"I thought we would be teammates for years to come," he says. "I didn't know how things work."
It's difficult to overestimate the effect LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh had signing with Miami. The Big Three weren't merely the ultimate clique; they forged a new template, affirming the hegemony of the biggest stars. Free agency became a Tony Robbins-like experiment in self-actualization. You could have it all. You just couldn't do it alone. Alone was a fool's errand.
Such thinking often confused one's legacy with one's brand. Then again, that may be overthinking things. It's like high school. The cool kids go to the cool places, like South Beach, of course, and lately, L.A. For years, there has been a preoccupation with forecasting (often erroneously) which stars would end up there, and which of its native-born sons were a lock to return.
And no one was taking his talents to Toronto. It might be a cosmopolitan city in a league that fancies itself a global enterprise, but in basketball circles, it lacked cachet — a snow-filled hockey town, a stop, not a destination.
"Do my bid and get out" is what Kyle Lowry thought when he was traded to the Raptors in 2012.
Though Lowry was given Bosh's old locker, right next to DeRozan, their conversations were limited. "'Hi' and 'bye,'" Lowry says. As it happened, they didn't have a real talk — more an acknowledgment, actually — until the next season, after Rudy Gay had been traded. As Lowry recalls: "'It's on us now. Either it works, or they blow it up.' That was basically the conversation."
DeRozan made his first trip to the playoffs that spring, capping what was then his finest season at better than 22 points a game. In July, Lowry reupped with Toronto. If Lowry had some prodding from general manager Masai Ujiri, he had none from the guy who was becoming his closest friend: DeRozan.
"He didn't need to be the reason I stayed," Lowry says.
Though in large measure, he was, same as last year, when Lowry's contract expired again. They speak several times a day now, even during the offseason. But the subject of free agency doesn't come up.
"Never," Lowry says. "Not one time. God's honest."
DeRozan, for his part, made his own 2016 free agency dreadfully uneventful. He made neither demands nor trade requests and recruited nobody while remaining entirely unmoved by the mercantile possibilities of playing in a market like, say, Los Angeles. Rather, he has long made himself clear: He wants to be the greatest Raptor of all time. He wants to compete for a title. And if he has to, he'll go it alone. It's his script.
At the end of each season, DeRozan devotes himself to a tape of his every mistake in the just concluded campaign: each missed shot, turnover, bad pass, every late-game situation. After two weeks of intensive study, he pretty much knows how he'll spend his summer vacation.
"It's like I unconsciously understand what I need to improve," he says.
His first couple of seasons in the league, it was mostly a matter of getting bigger and stronger. Then he started working on skills. In summer of 2014, he did everything with his left hand, including writing the alphabet with the oldest of his two daughters, Diar. In 2015 and 2016, it was ballhandling and passing (it's worth mentioning that he's averaging better than five assists per game). Last summer, it was 3s (he has taking twice as many as last season while increasing his make percentage from 26 percent to 34 percent).
When Dwane Casey became the Raptors' head coach in 2011, Frank DeRozan told him exactly how to treat his son: "Get on him. Hard." Now, in the intervening years, Casey has witnessed a transformation, as DeRozan has developed an economy to his game.
"He came into the league as a high flyer and a dunker," Casey says. "But he only uses that when he has to. He's not trying to outjump people now. He's out-thinking them."
This will be the fourth consecutive All-Star Game for DeRozan and Lowry and, come April, the Raptors' fifth consecutive postseason. Twice they've lost to the eventual conference champions, the Cavs. This year, however, heading into the break, DeRozan is the best player on the best team in the East. He gets better every season, even in this, his most difficult of seasons.
Frank has spent the last several months in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation facilities due to what the Toronto Sun reported as "life-threatening kidney issues." At least twice this season, DeMar has flown to L.A. to be with his father. He has missed neither a game nor a practice.
"I have no clue," he says, when asked if his father will be there this weekend. "I hope, but I couldn't give you a solid answer."
DeMar has been thoughtful, precise and very accommodating, but now the line has been drawn.
It recalls something his mother said: "When he was 8 years old, he promised to take care of us. Now he's worried, but he doesn't want to show it."
In fact, he can't help but show it. Beneath his implacable expression, a stoic camouflage that came with him from Compton, it's clear he's hurting.
"I'm no stranger to pain," he says. "It's what made me."
DeRozan's daughter Diar is 4 years old now. His other daughter, Mari, is 1. They each have iPads. They eat organic. His parents live in a quiet middle-class neighborhood. If DeRozan's career ended tomorrow, his life would be a triumph. Still, he dwells on the failures, however small, and practices with a self-imposed, methodical ferocity.
The superstar work ethic has become another scripted commodity in today's NBA. DeRozan doesn't advertise his. It's not about branding for him. It's about identity.
In the offseason, he's in the gym by 6 a.m. During the season, he lifts before games. If there's no game, he returns to the gym at night for his own private shootaround.
"Inside those lines, that's where the pain goes away," Lowry says. "That's his sanctuary."
DeRozan works under Raptors coach Rex Kalamian, who is from Glendale, which is maybe half an hour from Compton:
"Finish. … Get your balance. … On your toes. … Finish, finish."
It's not grueling work, but it's mentally draining. In the middle of a season, with six inches of snow outside and your father's fate uncertain, there should be limits to one's enthusiasm for the game. Or maybe not.
Kalamian keeps feeding DeRozan. The routine becomes a kind of ritual, an affirmation of the DeMar DeRozan he has decided to be. It will be this way until the janitor walks in at 10 p.m. There are bank shots and floaters and free throws and lefty floaters and free throws and post-ups and more free throws and 3s and even some shots that look like they could be 4s.
And each shot is a prayer, that he might hear the voice — yes, that voice, The Hawk's — above the din, come Sunday at Staples Center.