SAN ANTONIO — As Rudy Gay chomps on a sandwich in the locker room ahead of the San Antonio Spurs’ exhibition opener, DeMar DeRozan points an iPhone his way to reveal a FaceTime chat with former Toronto Raptors teammate Kyle Lowry.
“What he say?” Gay asks between bites.
“You’re f—ing dead to me,” DeRozan whispers back.
Belly laughter quickly envelops that corner of the locker room, just a few steps from the door. DeRozan has come a long way from heartbreak.
“It took a while for me to get back in that happy place,” DeRozan says, “where I didn’t care about much in the sense of like, ‘Just be happy, man. Just be yourself. Don’t worry about all that other stuff.'”
Maybe it’s also that the more than 1,400 miles separating Toronto and San Antonio are distancing DeRozan emotionally from the pain of July 18. That’s the day the Raptors traded him to the Alamo City along with Jakob Poeltl in exchange for a disgruntled Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and a protected 2019 first-round pick.
Now nearly healed from the crushing realization that he was no longer wanted by an organization he had no desire to leave, DeRozan is embracing both San Antonio’s championship culture and the finite nature of his own career, which includes four All-Star appearances, five straight trips to the playoffs as a Raptor and a 2016 Olympic gold medal — but no NBA titles.
DeRozan aims to rewrite that last part of his bio.
“Every day that goes by, my days in this league are getting limited,” he says. “And you want to maximize and take full advantage of everything, of being able to compete for a championship. Because if you were to ask me my rookie year if I would look up 10 years later and this is where I’d be, I wouldn’t believe it.
“So now it’s about putting everything that I’ve learned, everything I went through, that I’ve accomplished, my fails, my sacrifices, just putting all that together and understanding that it’s time to lay it all out there on the line. Because when it’s time to hang it up, I want to have no regrets.”
DeRozan makes it clear he wants to focus on moving forward instead of reliving what took place in Toronto. He doesn’t want to discuss his struggles with depression, although the new Spur says he’s “feeling great” mentally. But DeRozan acknowledges that fully focusing on what’s next is impossible without overcoming the pain he endured this summer. Asked if he’s hurt by what happened in Toronto and whether he sees it as a motivating force, DeRozan doesn’t hesitate.
“Both, without a doubt,” he says. “I definitely was extremely hurt. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t. I always made it clear that Toronto was where I wanted to retire. You never heard a player say that. No star player. Nobody. My whole objective being there was fighting against the stigma that guys didn’t want to play there. As it happened to me, when I gave everything I could on the court and off the court, it definitely hurt. It definitely hurt. To feel like, ‘Damn, I wasn’t nothing? I wasn’t this? All right, cool. Now, I’m going to show you.'”
DEROZAN STEPPED FOOT inside the Spurs’ facility as a member of the team for the first time on the evening of Aug. 27 and immediately looked up at the rafters to see the franchise’s five championship banners.
As the echo of bouncing basketballs reverberated in the gym with teammates grunting through an offseason workout, DeRozan laughed to himself at the awkwardness of the moment. He wasn’t thinking about his painful breakup with the Raptors. He wasn’t feeling the weight of expectations associated with replacing a player of Leonard’s caliber, the daunting task of playing for Gregg Popovich or joining a squad that has advanced to the postseason 21 consecutive years.
That first night in San Antonio, DeRozan instead found himself consumed with the most innocuous of concerns.
Where’s the Gatorade? Where are the bathrooms? Which door leads where? Let me make sure I stay out of people’s spaces.
Then, the feeling of San Antonio’s culture kicked in like a profound revelation toward jump-starting the healing process.
“You feel that vibe, and you look at the last championship was 2014. I was in the league for that,” DeRozan says. “To be a part of something that just happened four years ago, you have that sense of feeling that this is what it’s all about. Instead of talking about it, you come in here and you see it every day. You go to the arena, you see it every day, and you want to kind of have the same thing left on your legacy as part of this franchise. It kind of gives you that extra hunger and motivation when you see something like that.”
As if DeRozan ever needed more motivation.
DeRozan often looks for different sources of motivation. It could be anything from “the bulls— rankings that ESPN may put out,” he says, or a critical remark on Twitter. But this situation is different.
“This here was my biggest, by far, motivational tool to use,” DeRozan says of being traded.
Gay, who spent parts of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons with DeRozan in Toronto, and Lowry have also been integral components to the new Spur’s healing process. When DeRozan learned of the trade to San Antonio, his first call went to Lowry. He then called Gay, who reacted in a way DeRozan didn’t expect.
“He laughed,” DeRozan says.
“Because it was funny,” Gay responds from one locker stall over. “I just knew I had my man back finally. Forget all the basketball stuff. We get to hang out like we used to. I knew he was mad, but I knew it would all work out, man. It always does. If you’re a good dude and you do right by people, no matter what people do by you, somebody is going to make it right.”
DeRozan eventually found himself laughing too, knowing Gay would steer him straight on avoiding the potential pitfalls of playing for Popovich, while also selling him on the Spurs’ culture. It was Gay, after all, who helped DeRozan forge a relationship with DeRozan’s current best friend, Lowry.
“When it’s time to hang it up, I want to have no regrets.”
San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan
The next day, DeRozan dialed up former Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who told DeRozan that he would love playing for Popovich. That sentiment was confirmed when Casey and DeRozan sat down Oct. 4 for dinner in San Antonio.
“He was so hurt, and I was just trying to help him to feel good,” Casey says.
“[I told him] to keep being himself, the class man that he is and represent his family and go to San Antonio with your head held high, and now represent the Spurs to the best of his ability.”
Still, DeRozan needed reassurances from Popovich and Spurs general manager R.C. Buford.
After Leonard’s trade request became public in June, San Antonio held discussions with multiple teams to move its franchise cornerstone, but no teams were willing to give up the valuable young assets the Spurs sought in a potential deal. So if the Spurs were going to trade Leonard, landing a four-time All-Star still in his prime as the replacement felt like a gift.
“With the quality of the player and the quality of the person, it was a culture and a values fit,” Buford says. “But more importantly, it was an opportunity to get an All-NBA player.”
Still, trepidation wore on DeRozan’s mind. He hadn’t heard much from the Spurs in the immediate aftermath of the trade.
“Then, I had that first conversation with Pop (a few days after the trade), and it eased my nerves,” DeRozan says. “Initially when I got traded, it was so crazy, so hectic. You didn’t get any reassurances. You didn’t hear nothing from nobody. Your mind is just wandering, wandering. All you know is this one dude didn’t want to be somewhere, and now am I just a fill-in in a sense? You know what I mean? Like, damn. You’re just thinking all types of ways.
“But when I talked to [Popovich], talked to R.C., it was such a reassurance of understanding, like, ‘We didn’t trade you. We traded for you.’ Understanding, ‘We want you. We want you here. We want you to be you. Don’t worry about nothing. We’re going to make the transition as easy as possible.’ When you hear something from Pop like that, that’s all you need to hear. You don’t need to hear no whole story or nothing. That’s all you needed to hear.”
San Antonio’s brass understood the difficulty of trying to engage a player who didn’t want to be there — at least in that moment with emotions still raw. But DeRozan’s healing process moved further along in July, when he spent time working with Popovich at the Team USA camp.
Internally, the Spurs plan to do everything they can to make DeRozan feel wanted. After everything that transpired with Leonard last season — including allegations that San Antonio resisted Leonard’s preference to consider outside opinions regarding a quadriceps injury, in addition to public questioning of the situation by Popovich — it’s clear the Spurs hope to not repeat similar issues in this new relationship.
“The sincerity that Pop engaged with him during the time they got to spend together with USA Basketball, all of that hopefully built a trust,” Buford says. “We’ve got a long way to go to define our relationship, and to define who the team is going to be. But I think Rudy was a big part of providing us a platform for him to get past his initial shock.”
LOCAL GRAFFITI ARTIST Nik Soupè, 45, was at his studio, scribbling a sketch of Spurs point guard DeJounte Murray, when he heard about the trade. Soupè could sense the pain in DeRozan’s reaction immediately following the trade.
Having already painted a mural of Spurs legends Manu Ginobili, Popovich, Tony Parker, David Robinson, Tim Duncan and George Gervin, as well as LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills and Murray at south side restaurant Rudy’s Seafood, Soupè kicked around ideas with owner Roland Ramirez.
“I asked, ‘You think it’s cool if I paint this?'” Soupè says. “He was worried about how fans would react. But for better or worse, DeMar is a Spur now. And after reading his reactions to the trade, he was obviously upset. This is San Antonio. The mural was like, ‘Welcome to the table, let’s have a beer.'”
So two days after the trade, Soupè spent an afternoon studying around 15 images of DeRozan. The next day, Soupè toiled eight hours in the heat, exhausting 10 cans of spray paint to craft an 8×6 mural of DeRozan that captured “a look of fierceness and determination.”
When DeRozan first saw images of the mural on Instagram while working his basketball camp in Victoria, British Columbia, he hadn’t yet stepped foot in San Antonio as a member of the Spurs. Definitely fake, maybe even photoshopped, he thought.
Then, the image went viral.
“To see that, it really gave me one of those feelings where it was like, ‘Damn, they love me like this already?'” DeRozan says. “It gives you that extra hunger to go out there and do something for the fans and make them feel better than I felt in that moment.”
The Spurs didn’t really have a solid closer last season the way they do now in DeMar DeRozan. He relishes the responsibility: Video by Michael C. Wright
ALDRIDGE PREDICTED IN camp that “when you get a top-10 guy in the league on your team” like DeRozan, “you’re going to get better.” The Spurs could never fully utilize Leonard last season, as he sat out all but nine games.
Popovich and the Spurs brass never doubted what DeRozan would bring.
Last season in Toronto, DeRozan averaged 23 points, 5.2 assists and 3.9 rebounds. Through six games this season, he is averaging 28.3 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds in leading the Spurs to a 4-2 record thanks to his clutch play down the stretch of games.
“He’s a quick study,” Popovich says. “He picked things up really quickly, and he’s a confident player. The game comes easy to him. He’s in a difficult situation because he’s still trying to learn the system and learn about his teammates, but he’s such a willing passer and plays hard.”
DeRozan’s penchant for playmaking has been the most surprising part of his game among the Spurs brass. When he first arrived in San Antonio, there were questions as to how he and Aldridge — both masters of the midrange game — would coexist. But the midrange element of DeRozan’s game has allowed him to find teammates for open shots after drawing in defenders, while also helping him score the most points (170) in franchise history through his first six games with the Spurs.
The veteran dished a career-high 14 dimes in the team’s Oct. 22 overtime victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, while scoring 32 points. DeRozan nearly notched a triple-double just five days later, producing 30 points and 12 rebounds to go with eight assists in another close win over the Lakers. The performance marked his second double-double of the season after not achieving such a stat line a single time last season in Toronto. He almost followed with another double-double in Monday’s overtime win over the Dallas Mavericks, registering 34 points and 9 assists.
“He’s turned out to be maybe the best passer on our team, frankly,” Popovich says.
DeRozan is trying to figure out how much deeper he can dig within himself to unlock parts of his game that remain undiscovered. He knows he can score. He has improved as a passer. But defending, learning, teaching and leading are elements DeRozan says he’s still pursuing. That’s where Popovich comes in. And it’s why DeRozan didn’t hesitate in heeding Casey’s advice to embrace what could turn out to be the most riveting chapter in his NBA story.
DeRozan says he has never had a drink, doesn’t party and is “simple.” He’s the type of man who finds the same enjoyment from watching Netflix (he’s currently captivated by season 2 of “Ozark”) as he does getting lost in the pages of a good book.
In other words, he’s a Spur.
“When you’re under a great legendary coach like Pop, there’s so much that can be brought out of me that I probably haven’t even seen yet,” DeRozan says. “That’s what I’m always searching for. What’s another way? What’s something new that I can find in myself to bring out from my game?”
DEROZAN MADE HIS regular-season Spurs debut Oct. 17 at home against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
During timeouts and huddles in the waning moments of the game, Mills and other teammates prodded DeRozan to close out the game, which is precisely what he did. With 32.3 seconds left, DeRozan kissed a 12-footer off the glass to put San Antonio up 110-108. He would go on to score the team’s final four points, leaving Pau Gasol to rave about the “great poise” his new teammate displayed. DeRozan scored 28 points to go with four assists in the team’s 112-108 win.
More than an hour later, after the locker room had finally cleared out, DeRozan walked briskly down a hallway, smile on his face, wearing a red sweatsuit and a pair of the original colorway Air Jordan I. DeRozan had predicted the opener would be “my therapeutic relief.”
As DeRozan passed by, he turned around and walked back a step as if he’d forgotten something.
“Hey, if you happen to talk to the guy that painted that mural again,” DeRozan said, “please tell him I said thank you.”
With that, DeRozan disappeared down the hall, out the door and into the night. Another step closer to completing the healing process.