Posted Jan 26 2011 7:10PM
Facing Blake Griffin several feet above his home court in the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest Feb. 19 at Staples Center figures to be daunting. But it should be nothing, really, compared to the home-court disadvantages DeMar DeRozan overcame a few miles away to get to that point.
DeMar DeRozan grew up in Compton, Calif. Tough, crime-riddled, gang-fearing, dangerous Compton. Ten square miles in the heart of Los Angeles -- Long Beach to the south, South Central L.A. to the north -- that could have been mistaken for a war zone when DeRozan and his family lived there. Sirens. Gunshots. The Crips and the Bloods never really sorting out who got next.
DeRozan grew up in Compton. Got out of Compton, too.
"I was doin' my walking and saw four or five little ol' gangsters hanging on a corner one day," Frank DeRozan, DeMar's father, said in a phone interview this week. "Probably shouldn't have said anything to them, but I did. This was when DeMar was at school at Compton High, so I said, 'Hey man, how come y'all not in school?' One li'l cat was going to pop his chest up, like 'Who you all? This don't concern you.' But two of the other guys were like, 'He's Deebo's dad.' "
"Deebo" was the nickname DeMar picked up from the tall character in the 1995 Ice Cube movie, "Friday."
"They said, 'Look, Mr. D., DeMar's not in no gangs,' " Frank DeRozan recalled. " 'He's not getting involved with this crazy stuff that we're doing. Nobody will mess with him.' Some kids, if the others know he has a future and he's interested in doing something, they get a pass in their neighborhood.
"Plus, they knew he had a crazy daddy."
Crazy in a good way. Involved. Vigilant. Unfraid of gang-bangers lurking on a corner. Frank DeRozan is 60 years old now but he still stands 6-foot-4, still has the frame (plus) that made him a "monster" in football and basketball growing up in Louisiana. He was strict with DeMar and watchful over Brandon Jennings, too, a fellow Compton resident born 47 days after DeMar. The two of them have been friends since before high school and remain so, with Jennings as the Milwaukee Bucks point guard and DeMar as the Toronto Raptors' blossoming second-year forward.
So it was no small coincidence when DeRozan replaced Jennings in the field of Slam Dunk participants at this year's All-Star Weekend, stepping in for the Bucks playmaker because the broken bone in Jennings' foot was delaying his return. "Another son" to Frank DeRozan, Jennings would have been the one representing Compton on All-Star Saturday. Instead, it will be the young Raptors player, back for another try after finishing second in the 2010 competition in Dallas.
"I've been seeing that dude dunk forever," Jennings said the other night. "Maybe sixth, seventh grade, one of those. It's something he's used to, dunking in contests. Hopefully back at home, in front of his family and friends, he'll go out and win it. I'm sure he's got a bunch of tricks under his sleeve."
Nothing was more surprising than DeRozan's first dunk -- at the tender age of 12. In fact, that seemed so unlikely -- he was slender, not fully grown, in the sixth grade -- that Frank DeRozan doubted that it actually had happened.
"We used to go play all the time," the father said. "I would beat him up so bad. He'd come home crying, saying, 'This is basketball, not football, old man!' But one day, DeMar faked left and went right and dunked on me, and laughed at me. I said, 'Ya know what? I'll let you play against your own people.' I was like, 'Come on, now.' "
Said DeMar: "I can't remember how tall I was. But it made me popular at school. My dad didn't believe me at first, so I had to show him. I dunked on him a few times."
DeRozan has dunked on a global community of opponents since then. As his game grew, so apparently did his determination to have basketball take him somewhere beyond the rugged city where he grew up. When other kids didn't feel like playing, Frank DeRozan's son found other ways to work.
"DeMar would go out in the garage with that five-pound jump rope and do sets of 25 with that rope," the father recalled. "He'd come in the house and do squats on the stairs, like 15 stairs going up to the second floor. He'd do 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups. Then he'd say, 'I'm tired. I'm taking my shower.' He started this at about 10 years old.
"He felt he wanted to get in the league. I don't know where he ever got that idea, but he knew that if he was ever going to do it, he'd have to work. Now the hops come from his old pop ..."
The Blessed One, as DeMar's grandmother referred to him, had his own ideas. (That, by the way, was the first tattoo DeRozan dared to show his old man.) When others prodded him to attend Dominquez High School, where NBA players such as Tayshaun Prince and Tyson Chandler had played, he stuck with Compton, a long bottle's throw across the street from the family townhouse. When some of his peers were succumbing to the influences and hangers-on of AAU shenanigans, he and Frank navigated through it.
The college recruiting process got shady and cantankerous, too, until DeMar set his mind to attending USC. He spent one year there, averaging 13.9 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 52.3 percent in a system that didn't thoroughly suit his game. Then he submitted his name to the NBA Draft, got picked ninth by Toronto and used money from his first contract to buy a house in comfortable View Park that would make life a little easier for his mother Diane, who had contracted Lupus.
"When he signed his NBA contract," Frank DeRozan said, "I sat there and tears started running out of my eyes. Brandon wanted to know, 'Are you OK?' I said yeah and then I told him the story: In 2003, I had a stroke. I turned 53 on Oct. 3 and had a stroke on Oct. 6. So when DeMar came to the hospital, he was crying naturally. He was like, 'Daddy, who's going to be here with me when I sign my NBA contract?'
"So when he was signing his contract, tears were rolling out of my eyes because I thought about what he said."
In his rookie year, the lean 6-foot-7 swingman averaged 8.6 points and started 65 times for Toronto. Now he has stepped into the void left by Chris Bosh's departure and ranks among the NBA's most improved performers. Heading into their clash with Philadelphia Wednesday, he was the only Raptors player to have started all 45 games, logging at least 40 minutes in seven of them. His 15.5 scoring average is second on the team and ranks fifth among the NBA's second-year players. He had 25 points and nine rebounds against Memphis Monday and has averaged 19.9 points in January.
Frank, Diane and a couple of DeRozan's half-siblings will be in the stands on All-Star Saturday when DeMar tries to improve on his second-place finish from last year. In Dallas, DeRozan survived the short-lived dunk-in preliminary round, beating the Clippers' Eric Gordon in a decision made by fans via online voting and texts. But he lost out to three-time champion Nate Robinson for the 2010 crown.
"The whole section that I was sitting in," Frank said, "they didn't know who I was, but I could hear the people saying, 'Vote for DeRozan. Vote for DeRozan!' I thought, any time you have someone like Bill Russell come over to you and say, 'Don't worry about that, young man,' you feel like you won."
Said DeMar: "It was definitely overwhelming. Something new. It was definitely fun. I think it had a little bit of every emotion. ... The week prior, I was still a little injured -- I had missed about five games before All-Star Weekend and came back just in time to still do it. I really didn't feel comfortable trying the dunks that I wanted to do. Hopefully I'll be healthy this year and get to do things I didn't last year."
DeRozan, who has asked teammate Amir Johnson (another L.A. native) to assist him, said he will create his dunks in the moment, same as always. He takes over Jennings' place as the smallest dunker in the field, up against the Clippers' 6-foot-10 Griffin, Oklahoma City's 6-foot-10 Serge Ibaka and Washington 7-footer JaVale McGee.
"Last year, I don't think he was able to do some of the things he wanted to do. It'll be better. 'Cause he's home," said Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson, a teammate from USC also drafted in the 2009 first round. "I've seen him do so many variations of different dunks -- with his eyes closed. Things that guys couldn't do if they worked so hard for years, he can do just like that. Blake may be the man to beat, but I think DeMar can pull it out."
DeRozan said he also will adhere to his self-imposed rule for these contests, even when the actual format doesn't demand it: Do. Not. Miss.
It is a formula that has worked for him so far, against long odds and slim chances, getting DeRozan from where he started to where he is now. He will be about 13 miles away from home come All-Star Weekend, taking flight above a trail of a hundred possible missteps and 10 times as many tears.
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