HOUSTON – DeMar DeRozan’s deft cellphone camera work helped provide one of the more charming, indelible images of the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team’s exhibition tour.
On Team USA’s flight from Chicago to Houston, DeRozan captured the soulful stylings of Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving as they delivered a throaty rendition of Vanessa Carlton’s early 2000s hit single, “A Thousand Miles.” DeRozan then shifted his phone to find Kevin Durant admiring the sing-along while smothered, E.T. style, in a white comforter. And finally, fittingly, DeRozan ended the Facebook post by focusing on an unimpressed and disgusted Carmelo Anthony, looking as if he was prepared to kick the kids off his lawn.
Through the whole half-minute recording, DeRozan smiled into his phone, played a little air piano and spared viewers of his own “American Idol” audition.
“I don’t sing at all,” DeRozan told The Vertical this week with a laugh. “I knew it was going to go viral, but not like it did. When we’re not on the court, all we do is play, joke around, have fun. So, just to give people the insight of what we do, for 20 seconds, you know, that don’t add up to the amount of fun that we have during the rest of the day.”
The video was, in many ways, indicative of DeRozan’s career in that he had a prominent presence but was obscured by the other personalities.
DeRozan has accomplished plenty in his seven seasons in the NBA – making two All-Star teams, winning a gold medal at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, leading the Toronto Raptors to the Eastern Conference finals and agreeing to the third-largest contract in NBA history – but he has managed to avoid the usual fanfare along the way. Playing north of the border has contributed to DeRozan maintaining a low profile, though Vince Carter found a way to hurdle that obstacle as if it were Frederic Weis. DeRozan has also embraced being in the shadows with a low-key, no-nonsense approach that shunned publicity beyond what he did on the court.
“I think it just wasn’t in my personality at the time,” DeRozan told The Vertical. “I just always told myself, I wanted to establish myself as a basketball player, first. I want to be known as a helluva basketball player, before I jump out and try to do everything else. Now, at this point in my career, I’ve established enough to where I can show my personality a bit more. It’s going to be a lot more to come.”
The Raptors rewarded DeRozan’s dedication to improving his game over chasing a more recognizable name last month with a five-year contract worth about $139 million that currently has him tied with five other players – including USA teammate Kevin Durant – for the league’s highest salary next season at around $26.5 million. DeRozan will earn nearly 66 percent more than last season, a staggering bump that he keeps in perspective.
“Honestly, I haven’t looked at it like [that]. It’s crazy when you do say it. But I’m going to go out there and play like I’m still playing for a contract,” DeRozan told The Vertical.
Before this year, Toronto had a tradition of losing early in the postseason and losing its best players in their primes. Carter forced a trade that put him in the coveted New York media market. Chris Bosh bolted in free agency to form a super team with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, a one-man media circus, in Miami.
If DeRozan wanted a larger platform and more notoriety, his first dive into unrestricted free agency presented him with an incredible opportunity. DeRozan has worn Kobe Bryant’s signature sneakers for years and was rumored as the leading candidate to fill his retired idol’s shoes for the Compton, Calif., native’s hometown Los Angeles Lakers.
The speculation could’ve consumed him in a contract year but DeRozan always knew that a lucrative pay day was waiting for him, from Toronto or any other team, which is one of the reasons he told The Vertical last May that he had “nothing to worry about.” All along, DeRozan wanted to remain in his only basketball home, to see his name at or near the top of the most relevant Raptors franchise records. Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujuri didn’t let DeRozan test the market, nor did he have to.
“Knowing what you felt comfortable with, what made you happy, where you want to play, I just wanted to get it over with, in a sense, just get it out of the way,” DeRozan told The Vertical of how he handled the free-agency process. “Them wanting to get it done before anybody had a chance to talk to me says a lot.”
With his new contract and the Raptors coming off their most successful season in franchise history, DeRozan, along with friend and fellow Olympic team member Kyle Lowry will be expected to at least keep Toronto among the elites in a steadily improving Eastern Conference. But DeRozan won’t burden himself with any outside pressure.
“I really don’t pay no mind to it. Every year, I look at whatever we have to do as a big challenge and I just try to come back a better player than I was before, and do whatever I need for my team to win,” DeRozan said. “The beauty of playing basketball is being able to build yourself all the way up and then go back down and start all over again. It’s going to be a brand new challenge for us, with a couple of new guys and losing a couple of key players from last year. But starting the first day of training camp, it’s about laying that foundation of how great we can be, coming off the great season we had.”
As one of 10 members of Team USA set to make his Olympic debut next week, DeRozan won’t be looked upon to assume a leadership role (like Durant and Carmelo Anthony) and won’t have to carry much of the scoring burden (like Durant, Anthony, Kyrie Irving or Klay Thompson). But DeRozan has already accepted an important responsibility in the first few exhibitions – providing a break from the monotonous beat-downs with breathtaking highlights and hilarious, showboating bench reactions.
DeRozan shut down USA’s victory on Friday in Chicago with a windmill dunk that had Durant doing a slow-motion replay from the bench. And two nights earlier in Oakland, DeRozan’s missed 360-degree dunk over Chinese backup Jia Cheng was so impressive that it led James to hop on Twitter to declare that it, if executed, “would have been top 5 All Time!”
Looking back on a play in which he caught a pass on the wing, took off just inside the paint and whirled for an impossibly difficult slam that could’ve been interpreted as a declaration of war, DeRozan can only shake his head and laugh. “What the hell was I thinking? I have no clue, from start to finish, what I was trying to do,” DeRozan told The Vertical. “I’m used to doing the  layup. Before you know it, I’m just hanging on the rim. Even if I would’ve made that, how crazy that would’ve been. When you do something, you really don’t realize in the moment, or the time, the magnitude of it. Even with a miss, it’s talked about like it’s a made dunk, so it’s crazy.”
Lowry connected with DeRozan for an alley-oop dunk in USA’s final tune-up against Nigeria before leaving for Rio de Janeiro, a one-hand tomahawk jam that will inspire multiple Vine loops. Afterward, Lowry spotted DeRozan and began calling him, “The Hawk,” the nickname he earned at the well-known Los Angeles pro-am, the Drew League.
“He’s back to ‘The Hawk’ right now,” Lowry told The Vertical with a smile. “He doesn’t seem like a fiery guy. He seems like he’s calm and relaxed. But that kid’s very fiery. He loves the game of basketball. People may not see it from the outside, but his competitive nature is crazy.”
Several stars skipped the festivities in Brazil but DeRozan recognized the benefits of training with and working with the best for an entire month. Along the way, DeRozan plans to bond with his teammates as they win and welcome fans in on the fun through social media. “A lot of guys don’t get this opportunity, to be around these talented guys, these talented coaches, to learn from, to mature, to become a better player to where you can carry on to your own team,” DeRozan told The Vertical. “It’s just something that you can look back on, 20, 30, 40 years from now, to say you were part of the 2016 Olympic team.”
DeRozan will be there to dunk and document the fun along the way.
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