When DeMar DeRozan was traded by the Toronto Raptors, we were introduced to a new type of club/athlete breakup.
We are well used to the hysterical bust-up, the ugly, drawn-out split and the tired surrender. This parting was a modified Prodigal Son.
DeRozan had done all the right things for the franchise, except win. He felt he’d earned guarantees that that meant he would not be moved, or at least not without his explicit co-operation. Instead, he watched another man – one who’d done things the wrong way by demanding to leave – take a place in his father’s house.
The result was hurt feelings of the sort you don’t often, or ever, see. DeRozan moped through the summer, gave occasional passive-aggressive interviews, but otherwise refused to come out of his room.
Even given his connection to the franchise and the city, it was hard to understand how someone who makes this much money could be so put out about being asked to make it somewhere else. It’s a business. It’s the players who keep telling us that.
On Thursday, Raptors coach Nick Nurse – in the midst of some otherwise flattering comments – touched on the idea.
“Why was this guy so upset? He’s going to arguably the greatest NBA franchise since 1999,” Nurse said. “It wasn’t like we traded him to the Iowa Wolves of the D-League. He was traded to the Spurs.”
Is DeRozan still angry? Not according to him. But it’s still bleeding off him. He’s come back north for the first time since that last ugly conversation – apparently, he was told it was over while parked in front of a Jack In The Box restaurant – looking for a little emotional payback.
DeRozan’s availability ahead of Friday’s homecoming was very like this whole situation – weird.
It was done on Thursday evening, just after the San Antonio Spurs arrived in town.
It was held at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel, where the Spurs are staying. That kind of thing does occasionally happen, but it’s usually a quick hit in the lobby.
Instead, this was the full-marketing news-conference room, concert-level A/V set-up and – most annoyingly – a pulsating Euro soundtrack in the leadup.
If DeRozan’s feelings about this homecoming remain ambivalent, San Antonio’s weren’t. This was a branding exercise: ‘Nobody treats their guys better than we do.’
Just before he arrived, DeRozan used his favourite mode of communication – cryptic notes posted to social media.
The latest: “Some stay the same, Most change, Others fold on you …”
Is this a shot at someone in Toronto? Being forced to wonder is, I believe, the point. The one thing you don’t miss about DeRozan is this tendency to emote like a teenager who’s just discovered Emily Dickinson. He came in wearing a T-shirt and an arctic cap from the Roald Amundsen collection.
Because it’s DeRozan, you found yourself going back to Kawhi Leonard’s comments at the all-star game about the Canadian cold. And then you found yourself wondering when you’d become one of those conspiracy-theory goofballs. It probably meant nothing at all. Probably.
This wasn’t quite a new DeRozan, but it was a different one. He was always a shy type; awfully open for a pro athlete, but never given to speechifying.
Now he’s suddenly up there cracking jokes (“A lot of things I miss about the city. Man, I don’t miss the construction”) and being dreamy (“Time does heal everything. That doesn’t mean it’s going back to the way that it was.”)
He was anecdotal, telling stories about the family he came up in the elevator with (“… saying such great things about me …”), the guy who handles the luggage off the team plane (“… just seeing him …,” said moonily) and a talk on the phone with his daughter.
Wait. Was DeMar DeRozan holding court?
He kept saying he’s no longer upset, that he’s moved on, that he’s fine, just fine. But we’ve all had this conversation with a friend who is deeply regretting a romance gone off the rails, and had the same thought: “If you’re fine, then I’m handsome.”
At one point, DeRozan even used this romance metaphor himself. He likened his embrace of a franchise that would eventually dump him with a man who tells a woman he loves her, and then finds out she doesn’t feel the same way.
“She [i.e. the Raptors] moved on and I moved on,” DeRozan said.
You could almost buy it. But then he air-quoted Toronto fans describing him as “the greatest Raptor of all time.” He said if he gets a “long, standing ovation” on Friday night, then that would be great. He took another shot at Raptors president Masai Ujiri.
As in, will you be speaking to Ujiri?
DeRozan, smiling slyly: “No, I don’t plan on it. I just plan on talking to Kyle [Lowry]. Can’t wait to see Kyle.”
This is not someone who’s moved on. This is someone reminding their ex-girlfriend that lots of people still like him. Lots. Whole arenas full of them.
On Friday, DeRozan should and will get that standing ovation he apparently needs to remind the Raptors they were wrong to call it quits.
(They weren’t wrong, but if that’s what he needs, then what’s the harm?)
He was a wonderful ambassador for the team and the city, but he wasn’t good enough to carry a team. There’s no shame in it. But there is also no point in going back over it again and again.
For the love of God, Toronto better not turn DeRozan into its next Vince Carter – “the one who got away (because he was desperate to leave).”
Friday night will be a bit of an occasion for many. It will plainly be more than that for DeRozan. He’s looking for some validation. Toronto will happily give it to him. What a mitzvah.
Then it’s time to move on. DeRozan was great, past tense. Now it’s time for the team to write the history he was not able to.