This feature was originally published in Dime #68, on newsstands now.*
*** *** ***
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.'”