It’s a feeling he never envisioned having to deal with. When DeMar DeRozan met with the Toronto media Thursday evening, he did so as a visitor.
The optics captured the mood leading up to Friday night’s clash between the Raptors and San Antonio Spurs perfectly: a hotel, a temporary place of residence for a star whose place in the home team’s history is permanent. Luggage packed to the brim somewhere in his room as his new team prepares for the sixth of eight games on their annual Rodeo trip, spread across 24 days due to the All-Star break. A conference room, where many would have likely passed through with visitor’s badges to identify themselves but none necessary in his case. A backdrop that still doesn’t seem to fit, the black and white of the Spurs along with their team logo. But more than making up for it was the trapper hat to bear the full brunt of Toronto’s winter and a friendly smile for the familiar faces seated.
“There’s a lot of things I miss about the city … I don’t miss all the construction, I’ll tell you that,” DeRozan said. “But, my thing, just how different the city is. Living here, I always look at myself as the outsider, as an outcast. When you’re here you kind of got that feeling of being in your own world. And that’s one thing I definitely miss. You’re part of the city. It just felt like a bubble when I was here, and I definitely miss that. And various things that the city has to offer: the restaurants, the great people, everywhere you go. I couldn’t even get out of the elevator without a family saying such great things about me, and that gives a sense of comfort.”
For nine years, cheering for DeRozan and cheering for the Raptors were synonymous, and such is his impact on the city and the franchise that both will happen on Friday. There will be a tribute and ovation in stark contrast to the receptions the Raptors’ previous face-of-the-franchise stars have been showered with upon their first return. Mr. ‘I am Toronto’ dropping 50 while the Raptors pull away with a win will likely leave most of what will be a sold-out crowd at Scotiabank Arena leaving with all the feels. Some might even argue a loss wouldn’t be all that bitter a pill to swallow. Something that, again, was the worst case scenario when the likes of Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady showed up in the enemy’s jersey. It’s something that he said he hasn’t thought about, but wouldn’t mind experiencing having been down the rabbit hole of YouTube player tributes.
“I watch certain shows and certain introductions for certain people and when they get that long standing ovation, I always thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” DeRozan said. “I never received one so if it’s one of them long standing ovations, it’d definitely be overwhelming because… it’s crazy when people get on their feet showing their appreciation, so … I don’t know, I’m looking forward to it, to feeling the love, just going out there competing and making it a good outing.”
All that love will be for a player who grew from a 19-year-old kid without a jump shot or handle and a team with a seemingly dire future after the departure of Chris Bosh to a 28-year-old man with footwork Kevin Durant once described as the best in the game, elite-level playmaking, a perennial playoff team and arguably most importantly, two daughters that bring him back down to earth, give him that feeling he once described on Open Gym as, “being human.”
It was that very trait of being relatable that made him beloved in Toronto. He had flaws, just like any of us, and in those moments of uneasiness on the court, when pushed into uncomfortable places where we’re forced to confront them, he failed just like so many of us have. Even when his personal life seemed to be hitting all-time lows and he allowed his depression to be in the public eye, basketball became his suppressor.
He never stopped trying. He was ready to be Doctor Strange and go at Dormammu over and over and over again in the hopes of finally cracking through, but President Masai Ujiri had had enough. He had seen enough of LeBron James showing him his team wasn’t good enough, that the plans he laid out weren’t good enough, and so he snapped his fingers and created a brand new script. It’s one that DeRozan may never see eye-to-eye on, but has accepted with time.
“Time does heal everything, but that doesn’t mean it’s going back to the same way that it was. You know?” DeRozan said. “I’m fine with that. I’ve moved on, I’m happy where I’m at. I root for every guy that I played with on that team, I root for them every single night. I talk to most of the guys. So that part ain’t going to change, but I moved on.”
He was clear in expressing he has no plans on speaking with Ujiri and that Kyle Lowry is the person he’s most looking forward to seeing. He may not be hurt anymore, but there was damage done. He described the situation as expressing love for a girl and that the feeling doesn’t go away just because she doesn’t feel the same way, but also recognized that both parties seem happy with where they are now and that’s all that matters in the present moment.
Oh, he’d also like to have a chat with Serge Ibaka about a bet on the Raptors centre’s cooking show ‘How Hungry Are You?’ that he would drop 50 in his return and that he’d get him with his patented pump-fake. And that’s what drives him heading into Friday. The chance to relive those moments where they went at each other every single day, chasing the same dream.
“I think the San Antonio game with me was just extremely fun, it was the most fun in the sense of you going against guys that kinda came under you and seen them evolve like Freddy [VanVleet], like Pascal [Siakam],” DeRozan said. “I remember when they were back and forth in the G League coming up playing, seeing them, competing against them, talking trash with Kyle, talking trash to Serge, that just brings out a different excitement of compete level because it takes me back to all them days in training camp beating up on each other, practice, shootaround, the ups and downs, so it kinda made it fun.
“For me, it’s just another opportunity to be in the comfort that you knew for so long and kinda indulging in it and making the most out of it.”
Friday night will be all of that, and some. Perhaps even in anticipation of all the feels and the lengthy ovation that will likely follow the tribute, this ESPN game will tip-off at 7:00 p.m. ET instead of the usual hour later. An extra hour to indulge, an extra hour to remember the good times and bad, an extra hour to recognize that he was happy to be here through it all.