Basketball will always be DeMar DeRozan’s refuge, the court a place he goes to escape — to express himself, to exhale, to challenge himself and leave the difficulties of life behind.
It was precisely that on Friday night, with a career-best performance by the 27-year-old Toronto Raptors all-star marking the end of a long and trying week of family responsibilities, of death and dealing with its aftermath.
In the days preceding his 43-point outburst against the Boston Celtics — a career high lost amid the arrival of new teammates and a surprisingly gritty victory — DeRozan had had his fill of real life, mourning the death of a young relative and trying to make his 3-year-old daughter understand loss and grief and remembering good times in sadness.
A 46-year-old uncle of DeRozan’s died suddenly of a heart attack earlier this month, a relative particularly close to DeRozan’s daughter, Diar. It was an emotional blow, and the memorial service right after the all-star break was difficult, one of those “real life” moments we seldom associate with athletes often seen as coddled superstars. One of those moments when they are us.
“Just really stressing something to her that she doesn’t understand, that kind of threw me off,” DeRozan said Saturday. “That was a new eye-opener for me in the sense that wow, now other questions come, like, ‘So, where did he go?’ You know, all that type of stuff. It’s crazy.
“Dealing with that is definitely tough.”
But he dealt with it because that’s what parents do. They learn and do the best they can and in many ways just hope for his best. DeRozan’s always been a family-first guy. He and his partner Kiara are doting parents, and his greatest escape is back to the bosom of his extended family. Their kids have to feel that by osmosis.
“I work hard so my kids won’t go through nothing that I went through or seen growing up in Compton and everything,” DeRozan said. “When it comes about, it kind of hits you.”
The hit hurt, no question. The loss was real, the grief legitimate. But if there is one way that DeRozan has found to block out the bad, to put the sadness and feeling of loss somewhere in the recesses of his mind, it’s by playing basketball. He’s always found the court a necessary outlet, and the sadness he felt earlier in the week was replaced by the joy of competition once he got back to his first love.
“It’s always tough. I never try to think of nothing too much that’ll drive myself crazy or overwhelm myself,” he said. “All my life, I don’t know how I’ve gained this ability to be able to stay calm and not (dwell on) the worst of things.”
He’s gained it in no small measure by having basketball as something to turn to. For however long he’s in the gym or playing a game, the world goes quiet and he’s free.
“Basketball’s always been my outlet,” he said. “I could be going through the worst things, and I have before, and nobody had a clue because basketball has always been my expression, with everything.
“That’s really like my drug, my antidote to be able to slip away from everything. A lot of times it’s just therapeutic for me, moments like that.”
Friday night’s therapy session was a lot like DeRozan himself, rather unassuming until it’s put into context.
Serge Ibaka played and played well, while fellow newcomer P.J. Tucker provided a level of grit that’s been absent from the Raptors for years. Kyle Lowry’s wrist injury occupied a lot of minds. All DeRozan did was go out and score more points than he has in any game in his career — as quiet a 43-point game as has ever been played, entirely under the radar.
“I don’t know, maybe they’re just used to me scoring where it’s not surprising. Maybe it’s more surprising that 43 is my career high, I don’t know,” he said.
“Unless I get 70 or something, at this point, when it comes to scoring, if I get 45 with a triple-double or something that would get a bit more attention, I think.”
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