DEROZAN WAS RARE BREED IN TORONTO: A LOYAL NBA STAR
Unlike so many, he loved playing in a city many dismiss as a basketball backwater
Before we go too far down the road of DeMar DeRozan’s altruistic commitment to Toronto as his basketball home, it is worth nothing that the contract he signed here two years ago was for US$139-million.
Many of us of would find enthusiasm for a place where that kind of money is available. Not only would I declare ‘I Am Delaware’ for 140 million, I’d put it on a shirt and maybe ink a subtle tattoo.
But even though he was well paid to do it, DeRozan did embrace Toronto in a way few athletes in his position have. Relative to professional basketball players, he embraced it in a way none of his stature have. A curious thing about sports fandom is that there is a strong desire to have athletes care as much about their teams — and their cities — as do the people who were born there. For Toronto, which is at once a big-time hockey market and something of a backwater in NBA terms, such a relationship between the town and Raptors players has been exceedingly rare. Those who genuinely did love the place — Jerome Williams and Matt Bonner come to mind — were role players, but the stars, when they were in a position to do so, left. Whether they reached free agency and took off, or forced their way out via trade, or refused to ever show up, the list of guys who treated the Raptors like an island from which they had to escape also happens to include most of the best players to ever wear the jersey.
DeRozan was the first major exception. He chose Toronto. Finally, a true star had eschewed free agency to stay here, overlooking all the usual complaints: the high taxes, the cold winter weather, the passport headaches, the lesser cable options, the higher cellphone bills, the smaller Netflix library. DeRozan stayed here anyway. Which is why, I think, Wednesday’s news that the Raptors had shipped him off to San Antonio was met with such a mix of anguish and fury.
There are other reasons behind such reactions, too: the key part of the trade was Kawhi Leonard, one of the true superstars in the NBA but one who was hurt for most of last season, who had a messy divorce from one of the league’s model franchises, and who is said to have no interest in playing in Toronto. Those are all reasons for skepticism about the trade, but the fact that DeRozan was part of it is the reason for fans’ hurt.
DeRozan, the skinny kid from Compton, Calif., had grown into a perennial all-star in Toronto. The guy who was awkward and shy in his early years in the league had matured not just in his game, but had also become the team’s most reliable spokesman. He was comfortable enough here to go public about his struggles with anxiety and depression last season, and even as he and his teammates won NBA-wide praise for reinventing themselves into a 59-win top seed, DeRozan was at the centre of the Raptors’ neverending struggle for respect. He took it personally when he would be ranked relatively low on those best-in-the-NBA lists and he carried an ongoing beef that the Raptors, for all their recent success, didn’t get the star treatment of other good teams. He griped last season about playing “five on eight” against Golden State in a none-too-subtle swipe at the three officials, and revisited that theme later by complaining after a close loss to Oklahoma City that the Raptors were “used to going against the odds every step of the way.”
To the segment of the Raptors fan base that believes there is league-wide bias against the lone team from Canada, DeRozan was absolutely speaking their language. More than the free agent contract that was signed at an age when others had skipped town, more than saying ‘I Am Toronto,’ this was the sign that DeRozan was one of them. And then they sent him away. Fans always want the players on their team to be loyal, and then one was, and then we were reminded why it is foolish to demand loyalty from players who will be offered no such guarantees themselves.
He didn’t have the signature moment of Jose Bautista’s bat flip or the Joe Carter homer, he didn’t fight like Wendel Clark or bleed like Doug Gilmour, but DeMar DeRozan had made himself an indelible part of the city’s sporting fabric. It is a non-scientific unit of measurement to be sure, but to go to any Raptors game in the past couple of seasons was to witness a sea of No. 10 jerseys interspersed with those of everyone else on the team. He was Toronto? Toronto was DeRozan.
In the early part of the last playoff run, DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, his irascible backcourt pal, would take to the interview podium after games and launch into an improv routine. Lowry would force DeRozan into taking most of the questions, and then he would playfully audit his answers. DeRozan would sigh and get on with it. If he was going to be the face of the team, then so be it.
Later, with their playoff lives crashing down around them after a third straight loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, one in which the Raptors had staged a late rally with DeRozan on the bench, Lowry was up and on the podium for the first time that spring by himself. He said it was lonely sitting there without his usual partner. The line elicited some laughter. “I’m serious,” Lowry said. “I miss my guy.”
So too, now, does Toronto.