LOS ANGELES — The atmosphere sounded familiar as DeMar DeRozan walked onto the court.
He heard loud cheers during lineup introductions and anytime he made a shot, a distinction he has received as an opponent during his 13-year NBA career after starring in this city both in high school and college.
The same thing happened when he played with the Chicago Bulls for the first time before a hometown crowd. Even if those cheers sounded the same, however, the circumstances felt different.
“I haven’t told nobody; this is the first time coming home since my dad passed,” DeRozan said following the Bulls’ 100-90 win against the LA Clippers on Sunday at Staples Center.
Frank DeRozan passed away on Feb. 19, which served as yet another painful reminder seven months later when his son looked out into the stands.
“He was at every game. He didn’t miss no games,” DeRozan said. “So, tonight was kind of one of those games where I wish he was here.”
DeRozan’s father sure would have enjoyed the show. DeRozan finished with 35 points on 12-of-16 shooting while collecting seven rebounds and five assists. After the Clippers nearly overcame a 17-point deficit to take a one-point lead with 9:58 left, DeRozan calmed his team down with his calm demeanor, his clutch scoring and his timely playmaking.
DeRozan came out of the timeout and made a layup on the first play. DeRozan then set up Tony Bradley for an open jumper. DeRozan then canned a 20-footer. Just like that, the Bulls went on a 6-0 run and never looked back.
“He’s done that for a good portion of his career,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “He has very good poise. He doesn’t really get rattled. Things don’t bother him. He’s very calm.”
Not all the time. DeRozan looked fiery after making that 20-footer that caused the Clippers to call a timeout while trailing, 83-78, with 8:29 left. After Zach LaVine nailed a 3-pointer following the Clippers’ timeout, DeRozan hugged him.
DeRozan downplayed whether those emotions stemmed from playing in L.A. for the first time without his father watching. He suggested those emotions had more to do with the Bulls (9-4) wanting to rectify a 26-point loss to the Golden State Warriors on Friday in San Francisco. Yet, DeRozan carried on his father’s spirit in the Bulls’ second game without center Nikola Vucevic, who was diagnosed last week with COVID-19.
“I try to go out there and have fun and compete,” DeRozan said. “Not to make a story, but we don’t get too long to play this game. Every time I go out there and play, whether it’s a night we struggle or things don’t go your way, just go out there and have fun with guys and put on a show.”
One can’t help but wonder if DeRozan could have put on a show as a permanent NBA player in L.A. after playing here in for four years in high school (Compton High), one year in college (Southern Cal) and every summer pro-am league (Drew League).
“I don’t know. It almost happened,” DeRozan said. “But what happens is how it needs to happen.”
It does not appear a return to L.A. seemed as likely as DeRozan suggested.
When DeRozan became a free-agent in the 2016 offseason, the Lakers had interest in DeRozan as one of their marquee free-agent targets. But DeRozan accepted a five-year, $145 million deal with the Toronto Raptors and hoped to spend the rest of his career there. DeRozan did not receive that wish. The Raptors included him as the centerpiece of a deal to the San Antonio Spurs for DeRozan.
After spending two years in San Antonio, the Lakers and Clippers surely would have accepted DeRozan’s services. But the Lakers only had veteran’s minimum deals to offer after acquiring Russell Westbrook from Washington. The Clippers only had a taxpayer mid-level exception worth $5.9 million available. The Lakers could have pursued a sign-and-trade with San Antonio. The Clippers could not because they would have been subject to a hard cap.
That ended up with the Bulls acquiring DeRozan on a three-year, $85 million deal after sending veteran forwards Thaddeus Young and Al-Farouq Aminu as well as a protected first-round pick and two-second round picks to the Spurs. Money aside, those around DeRozan believe playing in front of home-town friends and family on a regular basis would have become stressful.
“I can remember the affect the Clippers had on Baron Davis’ game and his personality,” said Drew League commissioner Dino Smiley. “Being that big of a player and then coming home, you have to tell your friends ‘You can’t do this and you can’t do that, and it’s hard.’ DeMar has always grown up connected to the inner city. He never let that go. But I think being in Chicago is much better for him than playing here for the Lakers or the Clippers.”
Fair enough. DeRozan has teamed up with a dynamic point guard (Lonzo Ball), an athletic wing (LaVine) and a valued role player (Alex Caruso). Donovan has raved about DeRozan’s shooting, passing and leadership. And DeRozan has a chance to lift a franchise that has not taken championship success since a guy named Michael Jordan helped deliver six trophies in the 1990s.
DeRozan’s dad certainly would be proud.
“I couldn’t be happier being in Chicago, honestly,” DeRozan said. “So, it works out 1,000 percent perfect.”
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