Published On: Fri, Feb 22nd, 2019

Bruce Arthur: DeRozan and Raptors fans reconnect during two-minute warming

He held it in. He hadn’t been sure if he would, because for whatever he was saying publicly, there was a lot of emotion in there. DeMar DeRozan knew what was coming. He didn’t know how he would react.

In his return to the town where he spent the first nine years of his professional basketball life, DeRozan was ringed with cameras from the moment he stepped in the building. He received screams of appreciation when he came out to shoot before the game. There were more people in their seats before the tip for a 7 p.m. Friday night start than in any Raptors game in memory.

DeMar DeRozan looks on during Friday night’s video tribute to his stellar career as a Raptor. DeRozan played against his old club in Toronto for the first time.
DeMar DeRozan looks on during Friday night’s video tribute to his stellar career as a Raptor. DeRozan played against his old club in Toronto for the first time.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

DeRozan got a standing ovation when he was introduced second in the Spurs starting lineup, with his current teammates calling for more noise. When DeMar and Kyle Lowry briefly embraced before the tip, it got a cheer, too. And DeRozan was cheered every time he touched the ball, which made for some truncated bursts when he was passing early, maybe to shake out the jitters.

And when the tribute video came during the first timeout, DeMar watched along with everyone else, wide-eyed and intent, like he was watching a distant past. The whole place was standing. And when it was over everyone cheered and he walked out into the middle of his former home and tried to hold it all in. He waved, tapped his chest, tapped his chest again.

It lasted nearly two minutes, and DeRozan could have spent all night out there. He retreated to the protective ring of the Spurs huddle. Maybe that was easier than letting the emotions out.

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“I watch certain shows and certain introductions for certain people and when they get that long standing ovation, I always thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” DeRozan said before the game. “I never received one, so if it’s one of them long standing ovations, it’d definitely be overwhelming because … it’s crazy when people get on their feet showing their appreciation.”

Other Raptors have been applauded — some people even stood after Jakob Poeltl’s tribute video, which frankly devalued other standing O’s a little.

But nobody else came back like this, because the story of DeMar DeRozan is the story of the Toronto Raptors. Others have come back and have been appreciated: Morris Peterson, Alvin Williams, Jerome Williams, Matt Bonner, Jose Calderon. Even Vince Carter, eventually. That only took about 14 years.

But none of them were loved like DeMar. His 360 layup drew the kind of gasps and howls he used to evoke here; the crowd cheered for Kawhi Leonard and for the Raptors, but they rooted for DeMar, too. Nick Nurse was an assistant for five years while DeMar was here, and he says, “You know, I just can remember telling many people over the past five years, he’s the best dude ever. People would ask you: ‘What’s he like to coach?’ He’s the best dude ever.”

It wasn’t like DeRozan never let Toronto down. His playoff struggles were repeated, year after year. There’s a reason that the trio of DeRozan, Lowry and Dwane Casey were broken up. It wasn’t like DeRozan became an MVP. And it wasn’t like the Raptors ruled the league, or even the East. Over the past 10 years, the Atlanta Hawks have had a better run than Toronto. Pretty much nobody cared.

But in Toronto it was a golden age, because the franchise had set such a low bar. Toronto made the playoffs five times and won one best-of-five series in the franchise’s first 18 years, and made the playoffs five times and won four playoff series in the last five years. When Lowry arrived in 2013, he and DeRozan didn’t click right away, because Lowry thought this was just another hostel on a bumpy NBA road.

“It wasn’t hitting off, we just didn’t talk,” said Lowry. “It was a situation where I came in here, I was like, I’ve got two years here and then I’m out and it was that. He had his friends, and you just don’t force it … it just happens. That’s how you’re a brother.”

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DeRozan is as open-hearted as Lowry can be closed, and it turns out they were perfectly suited: the odd couple, Toronto’s guys. That’s what happened here. They didn’t win a title, didn’t seriously contend for one, bickered behind the scenes on rare occasions. And the era ended with a LeBron thunderclap, and a series of dull thuds.

But the head and the heart are two different things. DeRozan tried so hard, and loved the city so much, and he never so much as looked anywhere else, even when he could have. It is obvious that Leonard is a different level of player, and unlocks different competitive possibilities, his struggles against the Spurs notwithstanding. The trade was worth the risk.

But this city was an NBA outpost from the moment it was created, a way station, a place where NBA players came and complained about the cold or the cable or the customs, and where they so often left for cities with easy access to ESPN and Ben Franklin on a $ 100 bill.

And still, the nascent basketball tribe in this city showed up, overshadowed by the hockey monoculture but loud and proud and full of love for whatever the hell this basketball team was, for years. And in a city so full of people who came from somewhere else and loved it enough to stay, someone finally gave themselves back. Someone who had options, who could have left, decided that not only would he stay, he would rep Toronto, boost Toronto, believe in Toronto.

When the moment came, DeMar DeRozan held it in. It was one of the few times he has ever not shown this city his whole heart. But Toronto got to say thank you, and that mattered. And that was the story of DeMar, and of the Raptors: After nearly 20 years, someone like DeMar finally loved Raptors fans back. That’s all it took.

Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur

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Bruce Arthur: DeRozan and Raptors fans reconnect during two-minute warming