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THE TORONTO RAPTORS play the Cleveland Cavaliers Friday (February 21), 7 pm, and the Orlando Magic Sunday (February 23), 6 pm, at the Air Canada Centre, from $49, TM.
On the set of his early February NOW cover shoot, NBA All-Star DeMar DeRozan is soft-spoken, obliging and easygoing. The Toronto shooting guard doesn't ham for the camera, but he's kind of a natural - or, more likely, he's accustomed to how this works after a lifetime of being photographed. Does he mind taking his shirt off so we can see his tattoos? Sort of, but he hesitantly agrees to be shot from the back.
DeRozan is the Raptors' captain and leading scorer. He is also, at five seasons, tied with fellow Angeleno Amir Johnson as the current longest-serving player. At the All-Star break, he's averaging 22.4 points (10th-best in the league), 37.7 minutes (fourth-most), 4.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
Because of these stats, and the Raptors' solid play of late, DeRozan spent last weekend in New Orleans.
Making conversation, I offer a "Congrats on All-Star" between flashes. He's gracious. "Only... the third Raptor?" I ask without thinking much. "Fourth. Antonio," he says automatically.
I'm not the first basketball fan to leave Antonio Davis off the too short, too obvious mental list of the franchise's finest players: Vince Carter and Chris Bosh (Tracy McGrady, too, but he wasn't an All-Star in Toronto). But ask DeRozan almost anything about the game and his answers are instantaneous.
"He is a basketball junkie," says Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, currently in his third year with the team.
Chatting after practice one day, Casey recalls an early DeRozan encounter in an ACC elevator. He casually asked the then third-year player if he'd seen a particular game the previous evening.
"He knew the game verbatim. He's a basketball nerd. That's what it takes to make a good player. You could ask Michael Jordan about any game. In this league, you have to be a student of the game, and that's what DeMar is."
The Raptors are having one of their better seasons. At the All-Star break, their record is 28-24. Their winning percentage might seem modest, but it's good enough for first in the Atlantic Division and third-best in the Eastern Conference overall.
More importantly, it's the first time in a long time (since the 07-08 season, to be exact) that it feels like this upswing isn't fleeting. That it's not a fluke. That they could go on a three-game losing streak and still recover.
The Raptors kicked off 2014 at 14-9, and are, barring disaster, headed for the post-season for the first time in six years.
The year got off to a hell of a good start.
After their January 1 game at the ACC, DeRozan pulls his pants on one leg at a time. Slowly. Facing his locker in the circular media-access portion of the Toronto Raptors locker room. He puts on deodorant. He pulls on a shirt and finally a black hoodie emblazoned with a maroon and gold University of Southern California - his alma mater - logo. Then he turns and faces the room, signalling the scrum of reporters to gather around.
On this night, in an impressive 95-82 victory over the conference-leading Indiana Pacers, he's the game's highest scorer, with 26 points.
Quietly but confidently (the former is natural, the latter's come with time), DeRozan addresses the media, focusing his responses on his teammates and teamwork and team, team, team. Of his own impressive final quarter, he concedes, "I understand my team needs me. If they need to lean on me in the fourth quarter, I have to pull through. I can't be tired, I can't have excuses. I have to do what I can to help this team win."
Eleven days later at a Sunday practice, everyone is loose and smiling. Happy. Second-year centre Jonas Valanciunas is joking around with Raptors staff, putting a white-haired man in a headlock. Media relations director Jim LaBumbard tells him to respect his elders, and for that LaBumbard gets Valanciunas's body sweat rubbed on him.
Maybe the mood is this relaxed every Sunday. But it's probably because they're winning, and they won the night before, 96-80 against the Brooklyn Nets. DeRozan was the game's leading scorer, again with 26. It wasn't a cakewalk, though. The Nets led by as much as 10 before DeRozan went on a tear to end the third quarter scoring seven straight points in a row. (Casey would call that run "a testament to him, his toughness and his mental growth as a player.")
I get DeRozan for a few minutes on the side of the court. Like almost everyone else, he's grinning, but he never fully takes his eyes off the practice happening around him.
"We're not getting too high and we're not getting too low. You can't get too excited because you win a few games. There's still a lot of basketball to be played," he says.
He's equally measured when talking All-Star, to which, at this point, he hadn't been named. "Every NBA player wants to be an All-Star. I just go out there and do my job, and if what I'm doing on the court is worthy of an All-Star appearance, I'll be more than happy."
I bring up the subject of Toronto fans. At the Pacers win, for example, the crowd took its sweet time getting loud. Didn't they realize their team was neck-and-neck with one of the league's elite squads?
The Raptors are having a moment, I offer, but can the fans be, well, inconsistent? DeRozan seems almost hurt by the suggestion.
"I wouldn't say that," he says, shaking his head. "It's like anything in life. You get more hype if something is going your way. It's just human nature. But fans come support us night in and night out. Even when we were going through bad seasons, they came out and supported us. And that says a lot. You go in the arenas of some NBA teams and there are 8,000 people. I couldn't ask for better fans than the fans we have."
It bothers him not at all that Toronto is primarily a hockey town. He laughs when that idea is posed, as if he's never noticed that he's living and working in the heart of Leafs Nation.
"You're on the outside looking in," he says. "I'm on the inside."
At a road stop in Boston the following week, DeRozan has created considerable buzz. After morning shoot-around, he's wearing a grey Roots sweatshirt, sitting in the bleachers being interviewed - away from Coach Casey's scrum and the various other photo ops and autograph-signings that are happening at random. The American sports media have DeRozan on their radar as expectation mounts about his All-Star chances. Right now he's Toronto's guy.
And though he's been Toronto's guy before, over the years DeRozan's Raptors stock has risen and fallen even as his game improved.
Despite his immediate popularity among fans, the team continued to push 2006 first overall pick Andrea Bargnani as the face of the franchise, unless Bargnani was injured, at which point DeRozan became the go-to.
Then, in January 2013, the Raptors acquired Rudy Gay, squashing DeRozan's chances of being the primary scoring option. But by December 2013 it was clear that the Gay offence wasn't working. He was traded to Sacramento, and DeRozan flourished in his absence - helped in no small part by point guard Kyle Lowry, who is also having the season of his career.
Without Lowry's offensive contributions, assist numbers that frequently reach double digits and late-game grit, the team would not be this winning. "We wouldn't be where we are today if it wasn't for Kyle," said DeRozan after their last game before the break. "I wouldn't be where I am now if it wasn't for Kyle, to be honest. We all understand that."
Back in 2012, when then-Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo offered DeRozan a four-year, $38 million contract extension, the sports media questioned if he was worth it. Going into 2014 boasting record minutes, more physical play, more free-throw attempts, his first NBA game-winning shot and the stamina to be looked to and leaned on in the fourth quarter, he is earning his keep.
Few expected the Raptors to produce an All-Star (there were almost two; Lowry was a narrow miss) or to find themselves so far up the standings - even though DeRozan's stats crept up year after year. That a player should be allowed a few years to mature (especially when he'd forgone three years of college) seems reasonable. But not in professional sport. There is precious little compassion afforded an NBA player, no matter his age or origin, by fans or the media.
"That's the problem with our industry: patience," says Coach Casey at the tail end of a February practice following a gruelling nine-day West Coast road trip where the Raps went a disappointing 2-3. "People want instant NBA stars, and that's not going to happen. I don't care what college players are out there, it's going to take them time to come in this league and become stars. You've got too many veteran players right now who know the nuances of the NBA.
"That's what's taken DeMar this time. He's been a favourite of mine since I got here because I see the potential he has, and it's probably taken a while because he's had other guys here in front of him. He had Chris Bosh in front of him. Andrea, then they brought Rudy. But in defence of those guys, it has taken DeMar a little while to grow into this role. Now it's his."
DeRozan is a known gym rat. Back in L.A. last summer, he was practicing in the Clippers facility daily while other players came and went. On Christmas Day he posted an Instagram photo of his baby daughter, Diar, with him in the Raptors locker room.
Is he the hardest-working Raptor?
"He's one of the hardest workers on our team," Casey says politically, hoping to avoid the choosing-between-the-children question. "He's done a great job working on his game in the summertime and with Kiara, his fiancée. She's in the gym shooting and rebounding for him and training with him."
DeRozan and Kiara Morrison - who met at college - have moved into a house in Toronto, forgoing the high-rise condo life of transient NBA players. On February 11, they launched a new literacy-promoting charity together called the DeMar DeRozan All Star Book Program.
So all signs point to Toronto not having to worry about DeRozan leaving town like Vince Carter or Chris Bosh did, turning adoring fans into bitter ones.
We can, once and for all, dispel the myth that basketball players don't want to play in Toronto due to weather or being in Canada or taxes or some other non-specific grudge against the market. Down to a person, each American player or staffer I interview says Toronto isn't just not a bad choice - it's an attractive option.
For his part, DeRozan - a teenager from Compton, California, who played his college year in Los Angeles in order to remain at home - wasn't apprehensive about Toronto at all. "Even before I was drafted, I got the feeling that the fans and people wanted me here," he says. "That made it much easier for me. They just embraced me so much to be part of the team. It was definitely cool."
As far as taxes and cold weather go, DeRozan is dismissive. "You've never heard a complaint out of me. I've been here five years and I haven't once complained about anything."
His good friend and teammate Johnson reps Toronto even more publicly. He goes to Leafs games, Jays games and local attractions. He makes appearances at parties. He can be seen scooping up Drake CDs at HMV. His Instagram might as well be Tourism Toronto's.
"When I got here, I loved the city right away. People were nice, the fans were great, and it just kinda happened like that," Johnson says. "I met a few friends out here. And now my daughter - she was born here - she's from here. I'm really part of the city."
So if the city itself isn't a deterrent, what can explain nearly two decades of Raptors hardship?
In 18 seasons, the team has made the playoffs only five times, in the soft Eastern Conference no less. As far as post-season success goes, very few franchises have been as pathetic (one series win) over the past two decades. (The Washington Wizards have fared similarly.)
At the risk of oversimplification, the Raptors' misfortunes come down to a few things:
Like any expansion team, they started out poorly. The Carter years showed major promise, but the mammoth superstar who put us on the NBA map was fumbled away in a bad trade. The Raptors drafted Bosh in 2003. He was a good pick in a very strong class (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony). After mild success (only two playoff appearances and zero series wins in seven seasons), he signed with Miami to play with two of those three aforementioned superstars. (Who wouldn't?)
And so, after a string of bad breaks and questionable management, the Raptors found themselves rebuilding all over again in 2010 around Italian centre Bargnani, during a phase when the Raptors seemed hell-bent on becoming a destination city for Europe's finest.
"I think Colangelo tried to take advantage of Toronto's international appeal, because international players are used to the stuff that guys complain about - customs, for example. They carry passports - it's not a big deal for them," says Paul Jones, Raptors broadcaster in various capacities since 1995.
"They made a big push that way with Bargnani and Jorge Garbajosa and José Calderón. Bryan did a good job in that one year [2006-07]. If not for Garbo's injury, who knows what would have happened?"
But it didn't happen. The attempt to cultivate a European style of play ultimately failed. Bargnani became the target of fan frustration, to the point of on-court boos during his final, mostly injured season in a Raps uniform.
Meanwhile, T.O.'s would-be franchise player, DeRozan - drafted ninth in 2009 - was working out according to plan. His ascent from 19-year-old draftee to 24-year-old All-Star was going mostly as it should.
The Raptors we see now, says Jones, are the long-awaited fruits of the post-Bosh rebuild. "Here it is - what, four years later? - and it looks like you're going to get a playoff team," he says. "So [the team] has underperformed, no question. But Toronto hasn't been nearly the backwater outpost people paint it to be."
Now, Bargnani's in New York. Signs of life are flickering and DeRozan is bearing the brunt of expectation.
"I don't look too far down the line. If I can get better, help my team get better every day and every practice and every time I'm on the court, I'll do that. It all comes with time," DeRozan says of his slow-but-steady rise.
"He's grown so much over the three years that I've been here," says Casey.
"Every summer he's brought something new back to the table: with his three-point shooting, his ball handling. After the first year, I challenged him to work on passing out of double teams. He came back and did a great job of quarterbacking out of the post. All the great players I've been around - whether it's Dirk Nowitzki or Shawn Kemp or Kevin Garnett - all those guys brought something back. He's not a finished product yet; that's the great thing about it. He has some growing to do."
DeRozan isn't, according to himself or anyone who talks about him, at his peak. Defence, rebounding, three-point shot: those aspects of his game can all get better. He's a work in progress still, which is a great and hopeful thing for Toronto.
His first All-Star outing turned out to be a solid one. With limited playing time, he went 4-7, contributing eight points for the East's comeback victory over the West.
He will probably never sell as many jerseys as Carter (see sidebar, page 24), and definitely won't land as many reverse jams. But wins? Wins DeRozan has a legitimate shot at. Carter's height was a trip to the second round of the playoffs (only once) and a franchise-high 47 Ws.
That is not insurmountable.
Carter - now a Dallas Maverick - returned to the ACC most recently on January 22. As usual, he was loudly booed. The Mavs vs Raps story the internet picked up was Carter posterizing DeRozan on a massive dunk; the old schooling the new, it would seem.
Except that DeRozan responded with a career-high 40 points and the Raptors got the W to boot.
A sign, or foreshadowing, for someone we hope (and he hopes) will be a career Raptor.
"You know, sometimes I even forget I have the contract," DeRozan says, laughing. "I just go out there and play. [When it happened] I was happy just to know I was going to be here. I was happy just to get that out of the way, you know. This is where I wanted to start, and this is where I want to end."
That's the commitment you want from your main guy.
"Loyalty - that's what I'm based off of," he says. "It's just me, you know? That's how I am with my family, with my close friends. That goes a long way with me. That's worth more than money can pay you. As a man, that's just how I live."