DeRozan ready for Toronto return as Bulls go for fourth straight win

DeRozan was a four-time All-Star and made two All-NBA teams during his Raptors tenure
by Sam Smith
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Americans haven't thought much of embracing Canada since hostile takeover attempts during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. That is until DeMar DeRozan came along some two centuries later. Back then it was the British who saved Canada. In the last decade, it may have been the kid from the tough streets of Compton, Calif. who saved Canada for the NBA.

"Every time I'm ever back it's definitely been emotional," DeRozan was saying late Saturday night as the Bulls prepared to play the back-home-again Toronto Raptors Monday. "That's where I grew up. Not just basketball, but as a man. I was 19 years old, moving to a country I've never been to and they embraced me and took me in like I was one of their own. To see the whole city grow, the organization grow, me being a big part of that... you definitely have an emotional connection to that organization, that city. It's always bittersweet going back, seeing people I grew up knowing that work there, everything about it. It's like my second home."

Fortunately for the Bulls, Chicago has become DeRozan's fourth home after a stop in San Antonio following nine seasons with the Raptors. The Bulls at 3-0 have equalled their best start, achieved just one other time, since the 1996-97 championship season when they started 12-0. DeRozan, the 6-6 swingman guard/forward, has been a big part of that, second in scoring to Zach LaVine at 21.3 per game while also ranking in the team's top three in rebounding and assists, fourth in steals and fifth in blocks.

It's enabled the Bulls, albeit against weak competition, to get a rare fast start on a season. And also rank among the league leaders in numerous categories, top five in steals, blocks, three-point shooting and point differential and defense.

DeMar DeRozan

DeMar DeRozan spent his first nine NBA seasons as a Toronto Raptor.

DeRozan's contribution wasn't unexpected given his status as a four-time All-Star and twice All-NBA with a career scoring average of 20.1 per game and 21.9 in 58 playoff games, 51 for the Raptors including an Eastern Conference finals appearance in 2016. But believing the team had plateaued, Raptors management took a chance swapping the popular DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors did get a championship out of it in 2019, blunting the blow, at least for Raptors fans, though Leonard left Toronto after one season.

Such an exit was the preferred path of just about every top American player to be drafted by or traded to the Raptors since their entry into the NBA in 1995. Canada, which housed an original NBA franchise in Toronto in 1946, returned with two franchises. But the Vancouver Grizzlies soon left for Memphis and questions swirled about the fate of the Raptors even despite strong local financing. NBA players weren't interested. In various ways, early stars Damon Stoudemire, Tracy McGrady, Chris Bosh and Vince Carter forced their way out. Many complained about living in a a foreign land.

Antonio Davis, who later spent two seasons with the Bulls, famously said he was worried his children couldn't be educated because of the mysterious metric system. Others expressed confusion about the currency and perhaps being unable to purchase food at groceries and might starve.

Whoever said we weren't the best and the rightest?

And then came DeMar, a child of one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States who never much had been out of Southern California.

Instead of running from his draft status with the Raptors in 2009, the No. 9 overall pick who comes off as polite as a native settled in as smoothly as maple syrup. Instead of being called a loonie, DeRozan yearned to spend them. He's likely had some Tim Horton's and perhaps poutine, but he doesn't pack a Molson Muscle. No hoser is he. Eh?

"My time there we had so many training camps all over Canada, played preseason games all over Canada; the love and appreciation I always got all over Canada and not just Toronto was amazing and every time I go back is something I can never describe. I'm looking forward to it," DeRozan said. "They were in Tampa last year. Now being in the East going back multiple times should be interesting."

DeRozan's had his emotional return with the Spurs before the Raptors were banned from Canada last season because of the virus and spent their "home" games in Tampa. It's back among the Canucks this season as the Bulls get their biggest test yet against a Raptors team that Friday defeated the Celtics by 32 points.

The Bulls are DeRozan's current priority. But the memories and affection for the North never fade, DeRozan having worn that "We the North" wristband in his time there. DeRozan embraced Toronto like no NBA player ever had, and the welcoming Canadians reciprocated. Their Jurassic Park fan hordes outside the arena during playoffs inspired American models like that for the Milwaukee Bucks last season.

Though Los Angeles and USC welcomed the young basketball prodigy, life was difficult. Then came Canada in 2009 and it was all love.

"My whole mindset was to change that (negative) narrative when I was in Toronto," DeRozan said. "I heard it my first year. You heard a lot of older guys I played with in my career while I was there had those same complaints, ‘I'm not trying to stay here long term.' I wanted to be the opposite and kind of change the narrative on why people should come here, how great of a city, how great of a country it really is, and see that transformation take (place) and the appreciation (of) the city. To have All-Star weekend there (2016), being on center stage you started to see a change. I feel like I had something to do with that and I took that with pride and honor being able to do that.

"I just wanted to be different," DeRozan explained. "I didn't want to follow what everybody else was doing. I wanted to show the appreciation and show how great a city and country that it was. That's all I knew getting drafted to the NBA, Toronto. I wanted to make sure everyone saw it the way I did."

But DeRozan did more than just become the league's fifth highest scorer one season and become part of the franchise's longest playoff run with five straight playoff appearances his last five years with the team. That matched the total in all the previous seasons. When free agency arrived and the hometown Lakers came calling in 2016, DeRozan quickly re-signed with the Raptors. He declined to meet with other teams. He sent out a message, "I am Toronto."

He become involved in civic and charitable projects with a reading program for kids and a Lupus foundation. He opened up about players suffering mental health issues, promoting several NBA players to become more comfortable speaking out.

He's also why players always say it's a business.

Despite his loyalty and affection, he was traded away from best friend Kyle Lowry and his favorite city and franchise where he was the all-time leader in scoring, games played and wins.

DeRozan was devastated, bitter and angry. And so was Toronto.

Longtime Mayor John Tory tweeted a message of support and told TSN, the Canadian version of ESPN: "He may not be a Canadian-born person, but he has a personality like a Canadian. He's a quiet-spoken person that just quietly goes about his business. And his business includes caring for other people besides himself. A lot of athletes and movie stars care about themselves first, and I'm not saying that's wrong, necessarily. But they have a narrow focus. Whereas he had this broader focus that cared about a lot of other people and he didn't do it in a showy kind of way. I think that that's often how Canadians and Torontonians consider themselves, and I think it meant that a lot of people saw that other side of him and they really liked it."

And so do the Bulls.

"Having that second guy, a 100 percent go-to guy on the team, I talk to him every day about his pace of play, what he's looking at," said LaVine about on court DeMar. "I'm looking at how he slows himself down, how he reads the floor, manipulates, rolls, posts up. He's so valuable."

And reliable like Niagara Falls. He's a Northern light for Chicago now.

Got a question for Sam?

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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