*DeMar DeRozan got a taste of fame at an early age â€“ it just wasn’t his own. A childhood friend and AAU teammate of Romeo Miller, better known as Lil’ Romeo, the Compton kid was exposed to the celebrity lifestyle before he even reached high school. But now in his third season with the Raptors, DeRozan has made it on his own.
This feature was originally published in Dime #68, on newsstands now.*
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It happened nearly 10 years ago, but DeMar DeRozan still remembers. It was sixth grade P.E., and DeMar was trying to show off in front of a group of eighth graders that had assembled at the gym. He wasn’t sure that he could dunk, but never one to turn down a challenge, he gave it a try. Seconds later, DeMar had the gym jumping in excitement.
“I think I got popular in school because of that,” says DeRozan, now 22, of his first dunk with a laugh.
As a child, DeRozan wasn’t one to sidestep a challenge. At 10, after his father Frank’s rec league games, he liked to issue one-on-one challenges to the adults â€“ even when they were former NBA players. One time, he called out former New Orleans Jazz guard Louie Nelson.
“Louie said, ‘Man, you know I played in the NBA?'” recalls Frank DeRozan. “DeMar said, ‘Hey, you on the basketball court, aren’t you?'”
According to Frank, DeMar came away with the win minutes later. That was the moment when Frank realized his son had special talents. Twelve years later, the rest of the country is starting to realize it too.
Now in his third season with the Raptors, DeRozan is proving that he is more than just the athletic specimen that took second at the 2010 NBA Dunk Contest. As Toronto’s second leading scorer, he averages over 16 points per game.
But before all the glitz and glamour of the NBA, DeRozan lived a much humbler life. Growing up in Compton, Calif., he had to avoid the temptations of the streets. When his classmates in elementary school started to shift their focus from the basketball court to the street, DeRozan had an important decision to make. But for him it was an easy one.
“He told one of his best friends, ‘You know what, I’m about school and basketball, and if you’re not about school and basketball then we can’t hang out,'” recalls Frank. “DeMar had to cut him loose because (his friend) wanted to be out on the streets doing things he shouldn’t be doing.”
While such a decision might lead to ridicule in most circumstances, DeRozan’s size and his ability to dazzle spectators with his play on the court kept his classmates off his back. Nicknamed “Deebo” in elementary school, DeRozan towered over his peers. And when his classmates saw his game on the court, nobody was questioning his choices.
“Nobody was going to mess with him,” says Frank. “Even the gangbangers are like, ‘Deebo got places to be and things to do. He’s not getting involved in this stuff, but not nobody mess with him.'”
Basketball helped DeRozan escape Compton in other ways as well. After his original AAU squad dissolved, he joined a team being formed by the rapper Percy Miller, better known by his stage name, Master P. On the “P. Miller Ballers,” DeRozan developed a strong friendship with Master P’s son, Romeo Miller (a.k.a. Lil’ Romeo), the team’s point guard.
The pair bonded after the first day of tryouts when DeRozan decided to show off his freestyling skills in front of the young rapper.
“He was the shyest kid there, but then out of nowhere at the end of tryouts he started freestyling for everybody,” says Miller. “We just became good friends from there.”
Soon enough, DeRozan was regularly hanging out in Romeo’s Beverly Hills home and traveling across the country for AAU games and his friend’s concerts.
“For us it was just like two best friends coming from two different sides of the world,” adds Miller, who went on to play with DeRozan for a year at USC. “We definitely was able to show each other a whole other side.”
DeRozan’s parents were happy that their son was experiencing something different.
“I didn’t mind him going over (to Miller’s house) because, why hang around Compton where there’s nothing really going on?” says Frank. “When he’s with Rome he’s going to different places, and I don’t have to worry about his safety or anything because (Romeo’s body guard) is not a little guy.”
But Miller provided more than safety and friendship; he also exposed DeRozan to a life of fame and celebrity. After DeMar witnessed hundreds of people flock toward his best friend on a daily basis, Frank recalls his son telling him, “One day everybody is gonna know who I am.”
He was right. By his senior year at Compton High School, DeRozan was ranked No. 3 in the Class of 2008 by Rivals and No. 6 by Scout. After averaging 29.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in his final season, DeRozan was named a McDonald’s All American.
North Carolina made DeRozan an offer, but he chose Tim Floyd‘s less established USC program, opting to stay closer to home and to his mother who suffers from lupus.
Floyd was happy to have him. The coach first laid eyes on DeRozan prior to his junior year of high school at an elite summer camp held on USC’s campus. Among a group of the West’s top prospects, DeRozan’s athletic ability stood out.
“In a game where everybody can run and jump, he was different than all those other guys,” says Floyd. “My wife could have picked him out of lineup in terms of being a guy that we should consider as a prospect. It was unanimous amongst our staff.”
When DeRozan arrived at USC, he may have been the program’s top recruit, but he certainly did not act that way.
“The day before our first practice his freshman year â€“ this is a guy who is a top-five player in the country; I’ve never had a player do this â€“ he came by my office and was nervous about practice the next day,” says Floyd. “He said, ‘Coach, I want you to be patient with me while we’re out here tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Why DeMar?’ He said, ‘Because I’ve never had to play man-to-man defense and don’t understand any of these drills that I saw a year ago. And it’s going to be an adjustment for me, but I’m going to listen and I’m going to try.’
“I just thought that was very refreshing.”
While his humble demeanor may have been a refreshing sight for Floyd, it also may have hurt his game early in his rookie season. During his first month with the Trojans, DeRozan was solid, but not outstanding, posting 9.8 points per game while shooting 44.8 percent from the floor.
But as his confidence grew and he adjusted to a half-court style of play, the freshman exploded, averaging 16.3 points per game on 54 percent shooting in his final 15 games.
“He flourished and was literally as good as probably any small forward in the country,” says Floyd. “It was a matter of gaining confidence.”
When the season ended, many expected DeRozan to bolt for the NBA. But DeRozan wasn’t so sure. After the season, he met with Floyd to discuss the possibility of returning for his sophomore year.
“We told him that we would try to do our background research, and if we found out he was a lottery pick we would make him go because we did not want the responsibility of him getting hurt,” says Floyd. “We made three phone calls. All of them said ‘definite lottery.’ We just said, ‘You gotta go. You gotta go.'”
A few months later, DeRozan was in New York at the 2009 NBA Draft walking across the stage to shake David Stern‘s hand after the Raptors selected him with the ninth overall pick. After spending the first 19 years of his life in southern California, DeRozan was bound for Toronto.
While it was at first an adjustment (he had to get a passport after being drafted), DeRozan has since adapted to life north of the border. For one, he’s developed an interest in hockey (although he’s still not a fan of the weather). He’s also begun to adapt to his role on the Raptors. After averaging 8.6 points and 2.9 rebounds per game as a rookie, DeRozan had a dominant finish to his second season in the league, posting 23.1 points per game last April.
“Once you play in the league, and once you become a student of the league and start understanding the game, it all starts to slow down and gets easier,” says DeRozan. “I swear it seemed like the game slowed down. It was like playing in slow motion.”
DeRozan hasn’t exactly picked up where he left off to start the 2011-12 season, but he has had dominant performances, going for 21 and 25 in back-to-back wins over the Knicks and Cavaliers, respectively, in early January.
But perhaps even more importantly, he’s happy with his decision to leave home for the NBA.
Floyd, who left USC after DeRozan’s rookie season and signed on as a top assistant for the Hornets, remembers one conversation he had with his former player midway through his rookie season before New Orleans faced Toronto. Concerned for DeRozan’s well-being, Floyd had a number of questions.
“‘How are you doing with the homesickness? How are you doing being away from home? How are you doing managing your money? Are you going to be okay?'” recalls Floyd. “He had a big smile on his face the whole time. He just said, ‘Coach, I know I’ve done the right thing.’ And that’s all he needed to say.”