*Please note this story is entirely fictional, and is the fruit of the author’s imagination.
The serene silence of the sunny California morning betrayed nothing of the storm raging inside the weathered basketball gym. A primal scream could be heard in the wake of each thunderous dunk of the Compton-native training within. Sweat dripped from every part of his body, his sleeveless top long since discarded on the bench. The hardwood shook as he landed after another powerful slam. Yet for all his effort, his anger failed to subside.
Within the past year his entire world had seemingly caved in on him, challenging his sanity at every step. In a year that should have been his greatest, having made the All-NBA second team and led his franchise to the first seed in the conference, his family troubles overshadowed the good instead.
This was nothing new, he had used basketball as an escape from day-to-day difficulties his entire life. It never got easier though. And now, now the world was at its darkest. How can a man not break when his one sanctuary, the one thing that always reciprocated his efforts and dedication, his basketball franchise, turns its back on him? When the one constant in his life is gone? Another vicious dunk shook the rim.
It felt as though the very ground gave way beneath his feet. Nothing he could think, say, or do, would take that feeling away.
His quads were threatening to collapse when he finally walked to the bench for an overdue break. His phone showed a video message from his partner in crime. He swiped to view it, and Kyle’s sad smile popped up.
“D, I know you asked for some space, but I ain’t buying it. Check it. Yo Google, play DeMar DeRozan highlights.” Kyle panned the camera toward the TV screen, where a familiar image had come on, accompanied by the silver tongue of Matt Devlin:
“… A handoff for DeMar, 7, 6, 5, DeRozan, 4, 3, jumper… good! … The kid from Compton, living large in New York City!”
“Also,” Kyle continued as he moved the camera back to himself, “I’m flying down to L.A. tomorrow, and you ain’t stopping me. See you soon lil’ bro.”
The faintest of smiles crept upon DeMar’s lips as he put the phone back on the bench. He wasn’t going to argue.
The sense of despair didn’t disappear for long though, and DeRozan felt the urge to put up some shots again. His gaze drifted to the entrance every few minutes, waiting for the arrival of his idol, the man whose career path he could no longer follow. And a man he was not sure he could face.
DeMar was lying on the bench by the time Kobe showed up, his thoughts threatening to spiral out of control. He rose to embrace the all-time great, who reciprocated gingerly, seemingly well aware of the ocean of sweat between them.
With formalities and shallow small talk out of the way, the conversation dug deeper.
“I wanted to be like you, man.” DeMar let out, frustrated. “A one-franchise dude. To lead the team and city that took me in all the way. To hang my shoes and jersey in the same place I first put ‘em on.”
Kobe nodded. “I get it. They’re still gonna hang your jersey in the rafters, you know that right?”
“Man, I don’t know what they’ll do. I thought I wasn’t gonna get traded either, and look what happened.”
“Did you know I was this close to getting traded to the Bulls in ’04?” Kobe asked.
“What? Nah, man, those were only rumors, I thought?”
“There was truth, too. I was looking at schools and places to live in the windy city, all ready to file the trade request.”
“And what happened?”
“Shaq asked for a trade first,” he laughed out loud. “What I’m trying to say is that your story isn’t over,” Kobe continued. “You gave the organization, the city, the country, nine good years. Vince put them on the map, you built the roads that connect it to the rest of the NBA. You gave it your all, right?”
“And they did too. You both gave nine amazing, all-in years to each other, that’s nothing to sneer at. You were a part of the community, and they won’t forget you. They just won’t.”
DeMar nodded, though his expression didn’t change. So Kobe went on:
“Look at where you’re at now though – an All-NBA guy about to be coached by possibly the best to ever do it. You think you’re dedicated to the game? Just wait till you meet coach Pop. He’s not just about basketball too – he’s a life coach. I wish I’d been able to spend a year playing for him, but it wasn’t to be. You’ll get that chance. And when your contract is over, coach Pop retires, you will have your future in your hands. Who knows where it could lead? Your story in Canada was a resounding success no matter how you look at it. Now you get a chance to write a whole other kind of story.” He put a comforting hand on his protégé’s shoulder.
For the first time in what seemed to him like an eternity, DeMar felt genuine hopefulness, and it worked its way into a smile too. “Any chance I could have another go at the magic mirror?”
Kobe shook his head, grinning. “Sorry, I didn’t bring the juice. And anyway, you don’t wanna be looking at it too much. They say it can turn a man into a shadow of himself, leaving the present altogether. You saw what it did to D. Rose?”
“Damn,” was all DeMar could muster.
“You see all those messages of support from Toronto and Canada online?”
“I’ve seen a few.”
“Then you know what you gotta do. I know it hurts still, but you need to close this chapter.”
DeMar nodded, wiping his sweat with a red Raptors towel. “It’s time to say goodbye.”
If you enjoyed this one, you can find the other episodes in the Alternate Basketball Histories series here.