The hands stood out as soon as Frank DeRozan pushed open the screen door to Weever's Barber Shop in Compton, Calif., and plunked down his son for his first haircut. William Weever remembers looking at the one-year-old in the leather chair and thinking: "Big hands and big feet. This boy's a basketball player."
Twenty years later, DeMar DeRozan is in his second season with the NBA's Toronto Raptors, living in a towering condominium near the Air Canada Centre. It is by far the farthest he's lived from the modest, fenced-in townhouse in Compton where he spent most of his life. While it relieves his parents to have him far removed from the sirens and bullets, he keeps his history close.
Tattooed on his right wrist is "Blessed One," the nickname his grandmother gave him. On his left wrist is the name of his mother, Diane. And on top of his hand is "Loyalty," the creed that guided him even as a teen, when smooth operators tried to lure him far from home with promises of championships or money.
Compton also cherishes its claim on the one who got away. Even in this gang-riddled pocket of south Los Angeles, where wearing red on the wrong block can get you killed, you're as likely to find a red-and-black Raptors poster as you are a Lakers jersey. The framed posters that DeRozan gave to his old middle and high schools have been stolen from the walls.
This season, the struggling Raptors will be searching for a player to thrill their fan base the way all-star Chris Bosh did before he left for the Miami Heat. One of the leading candidates is DeRozan, the 6-foot-7 starting shooting guard with the soaring dunks. If his potential is fulfilled, Canadians ought to know the person Compton residents have watched over for 21 years. Might as well start with the hands.
The Blessed One
He was born on Aug. 7, 1989, a nine-pound bundle his family nicknamed the blessed one, because he was never supposed to arrive at all. Diane and Frank DeRozan had been married for five years, but after fibroids were discovered on Diane's uterus, they thought there would be no step-siblings for Frank's son, Jermaine. She named him in honour of her younger brother, Lemar, a college football player who was gunned down at 20 by a childhood friend after an argument over a rap cassette.
DeMar was a Compton baby just like his mother, raised under constant watch. Frank, a videographer who had Louisiana roots and a short career with the San Diego Chargers, dropped him off at elementary school before heading to work filming commercials and council meetings for the city. After her shift assembling parts at a thermostat factory, Diane picked him up, or kept a lookout from her car while her embarrassed son shot hoops with his friends.
Although their townhouse was a block from the sheriff's office, the DeRozans knew they could never be too careful. When DeMar was four, another uncle was gunned down by a gangster in a case of mistaken identity. Diane's brother Kevin had worked for the post office. He died two blocks from his childhood home.
Word quickly spread about the 12-year-old who could dunk over his 6-foot-4 linebacker father. As he prepared to enter Grade 9, several schools vied for him, including nearby Dominguez High School in Compton, which had had national championships and future NBA players Brandon Jennings and Tayshaun Prince on its roster.
At his father's urging, DeRozan gave Dominguez a shot, but Tony Thomas, a math teacher and basketball coach, felt a surge of relief when the teen walked into his classroom on the fourth day of classes at Compton High School, located across the street from his house. "Let's put Compton back on the map," DeRozan had said.
He averaged 26 points a game as a freshman, helping Compton to its first playoff berth in years. Locals called him Deebo, after a tall character in the comedy Friday, starring Ice Cube.
Other types of respect came from the strangest places. Even the gangs that terrorized the area knew that the kid with a future in basketball was off-limits. Once, driving home from a game, Frank DeRozan remembers seeing thugs stealing from cars along the street and heading their way. Then he heard a shout: "Fool! That's Deebo and his daddy."
The spots appeared on Diane's hands as DeMar DeRozan was settling into high school. Her twin sister, Donna, suffered the same spots and severe fatigue, and it took a year of diagnostic testing before doctors told them it was lupus, a chronic illness that affects the immune system and can have a wide range of symptoms, from arthritis to kidney problems.
She quit her job and eventually needed a cane, but by the time DeMar had entered his senior year and earned McDonalds All-American honours, it was his father he needed as a buffer. As National Collegiate Athletic Association coaches flocked to town, tug-of-wars for control erupted between his school and summer-league coaches. Rumours swirled about unsavoury dealings. But Frank DeRozan had used his camera to get everything his family needed, filming weddings, funerals, even a male exotic dance show if the fee was right. As he told his city-hall colleagues, "my son is not for sale."
DeMar eventually chose the University of Southern California, where he lived on campus, 20 minutes from his parents. No longer the biggest, most athletic player on the court, he averaged only 13.6 points a game that season. But his critics were silenced at the Pac-10 tournament when he was named most valuable player and scored a career-high 25 points to lead USC to the championship. He told the media that he was leaving college to enter the 2009 NBA draft, in part, so he could help make his mother more comfortable.
The new house was so quiet, the DeRozans didn't know how to act for the first six months. No helicopters, shootings or police cruisers whizzing by. Only chatty women in stretch pants out for power walks.
After a black Cadillac Escalade, the large bungalow with the backyard pool and retired doctors next door had been DeMar DeRozan's first purchase after signing his rookie contract with the Raptors, who picked him ninth overall.
Frank DeRozan misses his son, but he's glad he's in Canada. His son's popularity, rather than expanding their social circle, has kept him wary of people's motives. Now the flood of requests is for tickets and loans. At DeMar's request, he manages his son's finances, recently using the chequebook in his back pocket to buy uniforms for Compton High's boys basketball team.
"I'm still me," Frank likes to say. He often makes the 30-minute drive to Compton to visit the school or do the odd video shoot, even though he jokes his son "retired him" last year at 60.
DeMar DeRozan hasn't changed either. He's always liked to tease. The next tattoo will be on his chest, he said recently. The name Frank right above his heart.