Superman can fly, but Batman is human—he does it on his own. Terrence Ross doesn’t care if it sounds dorky: If he needed a superhero to save his life, he’d use the Bat Signal every time. He respects the way Bruce Wayne carries himself. His determination. His dedication. His ability to get by without special powers. The flaws and limitations that make him real. Since Ross became a frequent patron of Silver Snail, a comics store in Toronto, a few years ago, he’s purchased hundreds of comic books. His home is stacked with them. He doesn’t hunt for rare issues. He’s not concerned with value, per se. He subscribes to an archive on his iPhone, devouring them on road trips while listening to a diverse mix of music that includes the likes of Alice in Chains, Coldplay, Blue Oyster Cult, Lil Uzi, Kenny Loggins, Stone Temple Pilots, Fleetwood Mac and Pearl Jam. And he takes recommendations, be it music or comics. But if you’re going to toss some No. 31’s way, just know that he’s in it for the story. He wants melody, but also lyrics. He wants a narrative that will take him somewhere. He wants to see his heroes rise and fall, overcome impossible odds and save the world.
After five seasons with the Toronto Raptors, Terrence Ross was shipped to the Orlando Magic on Tuesday in a trade that brings the Raptors much-needed help up front in the form of veteran power forward Serge Ibaka. The deal puts an end to years of effort on the part of Raptors fans, who had struggled to figure out what to make of Ross ever since Toronto selected him with the eighth-overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. But it opens up fresh questions for Ross, who has struggled to establish an identity for himself through several inconsistent NBA seasons.
When Ross won the dunk contest in his first season, it was clear the Raptors had picked up a remarkable athlete. When he shot nearly 40 per cent from beyond the arc in his sophomore year, his potential as a scorer drew even more attention. But doubts emerged and persisted about his defensive ability, his focus and drive, and his viability as a starter in the NBA. This season, Ross had started to come into his own, settling into his role off the bench. And just days before the trade, he spoke about his desire to finish his career with the team that drafted him—and to remain in the city that had become his first consistent home after a lifetime on the move.
Terrence Ross always took the court when the crowd cleared. Surrounded by empty rows of seating, he’d dribble around and heave shots at the net the arena staff lowered for him. Like all kids, he had many heroes. But with every dribble and full-body heave, he dreamed of being just like No. 23. That was the number his dad, Terry Ross, wore for the Tri-City Chinook in the Continental Basketball Association. Ross made sure his young son got some court time after Chinook games. Terrence was at all of them, sitting in the stands with his mom, Marcine, and younger sister, Taelor.
Even then, at five, the younger Ross seemed destined to follow his father’s path. The kid was born to play basketball. Marcine played for the women’s team at Cal Poly Tech, Terry for the men’s team. Both were All-Americans, and they were still students when Terrence was born. He got his shooting ability from his mom, who developed a lethal mid-ranger jumper at Cal Poly and would sit and shoot with him on a miniature net when he was in diapers. (He developed a jump shot as a toddler.) The hops came from his dad. When Terry Ross won the CBA dunk competition at the University of Connecticut in 1995, he did a standing backflip on the court, then brought his trophy and a $500 cheque back home to Washington. He took the family out for a celebratory dinner at Red Robin.
It’s a happy memory for Ross, but it was followed by some difficult ones. When Marcine and Terry divorced, the kids moved to Los Angeles with their mother to be closer to her family in Long Beach, where Terrence was born. Marcine worked as a gym teacher, putting food on the table and making sure Terrence and Taelor had the opportunity to play competitive sports. The family didn’t have much, but they relied on each other. Marcine impressed on both her kids the belief they would accomplish great things if they worked for them.
But it wasn’t going to be easy. As they got older, Terry was there less and less, says Taelor. Marcine and the kids moved often, following work, and finally landed in Portland when Terrence was in middle school. He was a shy kid then, inward-looking and reserved in large groups but a “goof” at home with his sister. “He was just a dork,” she says. “He’s very much a big kid.”
Ross tried out for a travel basketball team that first year in Portland, intent on building a future for himself in the game. He stood on the sidelines while the coach called the names of the players who had made the cut. It came down to the final four. The coach called “Terrence” and Ross stepped forward—only to notice that another kid had stepped out, too. They looked at each other, confused. It was the first-time Terrence Ross met Terrence Jones. Both made the team, and the two developed a deep bond that stands to this day, with both of them in the NBA.
Together, the two Terrences made names for themselves in the Oregon basketball scene. They went to Jefferson High, where they became close with three other friends: Noah Kone, Rashaad Dent and AJ Johnson. They called themselves the “Fab Five.” They started together on the freshman team, and spent most of their free time together. Of the five, four were being raised by single mothers and though they didn’t discuss it often, they understood the emotions that each was working through on his own terms. “Being able to have the support of your best friends, who are going through exactly what you’re going through, it made it easier for me, and I assume it made it easier for [Ross],” says Dent. “Just being able to know that you have this huge family support—your family, your friend’s family—I think it just made everything easier for him for sure.”
The Fab Five spent most of their time eating at Applebees, going to the movies or playing video games. Ross was the most naturally gifted athlete among them. He’d eat a pack of Oreos and drink a litre of Pepsi a day, and never miss a step on the court. As sophomores, they took over starting positions on the Jefferson varsity team. They went on an underdog run to the state championship tournament, where they knocked off the reigning champs on a buzzer-beater from Jones to open the tourney, and eventually won the title game by three points. Ross wore No. 23 that season, but his relationship with his father had grown distant. He never wore it again.
That state championship is still one of Ross’s happiest memories. Garnering attention as a top high school prospect, he transferred the following season to Montrose Christian School, across the country in Maryland. Montrose was known for its basketball program and the move was supposed to give Ross, then 16, a better opportunity in the game. He excelled on the court, but was homesick. He transferred back to Jefferson High partway through his senior year. While he was away, the other four members of the Fab Five had won another State championship. When Ross tried to join the team for a last run as seniors, the district rejected his transfer. He attended every practise and watched every game as his friends won a third straight championship—their second without him.
After graduating, Ross committed to play for the University of Washington under veteran coach and former NBA player, Lorenzo Romar. Before his first season with the Huskies, Ross sent his mother a text message with a picture of his new jersey and number. He’d chosen 31, the number she wore when she played. Today, Ross has the number tattooed on his left forearm. When Taelor played for Seattle University, she chose 31, too. They call it the family number.
Toronto thank you for all the memories, thanks to the amazing fans. Couldn't of been drafted to a better city. Thanks to to my team. All luv
— Terrence Ross (@TFlight31) February 14, 2017
Ross broke out during his sophomore season at Washington in 2011, averaging 16 points per game. He was already on the radar of then-Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo when coach Dwane Casey attended a Huskies practise that fall to steal some drills from his old friend Romar. Casey was immediately impressed by Ross’s natural athleticism and outside shooting.
Ross decided to enter the NBA Draft that year, but didn’t expect to be a top-10 pick. His agent had to convince him to attend the Draft even though he hadn’t received a greenroom invite as one of the top prospects. Ross noticed the camera on him ahead of the eighth pick, after Harrison Barnes was taken by Golden State with the seventh. When David Stern called his name, Ross had a difficult time processing what had happened. A day later, he was whisked away to Toronto—a place he’d never been, but one that would soon become his most consistent home.
Sitting on the sidelines after a recent Raptors practise, Ross shook his head recounting his up-and-down journey through five seasons in the NBA. “They way my life has landed, I never thought that I would be in the position I’m at,” he said. “There have been times when I thought I was going to be out of the league.”
In his four-and-a-half seasons with the Raptors, Ross had tantalized fans with his incredible athleticism, but frustrated them with his inconsistency. A 51-point outburst against the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014 in which he hit 10 three-pointers and tied Vince Carter’s single-game franchise scoring record stands as a good example of what he could do with the former. That he was the first player to ever score more than 50 points while averaging less than 10 for a season was a good example of the latter.
This season, Ross finally seemed to settle into his role as a key offensive piece in the Raptors’ second unit, and remained one of the team’s most efficient threats from beyond the arc. Casey said he was impressed with the growth in Ross’s game from that first time he saw him at Washington, but that there was still plenty of room for growth, especially on the defensive end. “It’s about being locked in, and not letting a missed shot take him out of focus on the defensive end,” Casey said. “Because he has all the tools to [be an elite defender].”
Ross also felt he had yet to reach his limit. He said his goal is to become an all-star. And despite near-constant speculation on his trade value, he hoped to retire with the team that had drafted him. “That’s a really big deal to me,” he said. “Because growing up I’ve always been all over the place, and one thing I want to do is stay in one place.”
Of course, the Raptors floundered early in the New Year—winning just four times in a 14-game stretch between Jan. 18 and Feb. 12—and slipped to fourth place in the Eastern Conference. A change was needed, and the three-year, $33-million extension Ross signed last season made him particularly attractive trade bait. A few days after expressing his desire to play out his career in Toronto, Ross was sent to Orlando along with a first-round pick.
When he made the NBA, Ross sought to reconnect with his father. They started calling and texting, and things went well as they slowly pieced together their fractured relationship. Ross gained further insight into his father when he had a son of his own at 24—the same age Terry was when Ross was born. “As a young kid, you don’t really see it from where he’s seeing it from,” Ross said. “[But] it’s kind of like my life played out like his. I’m doing the same thing he was doing as this age. It’s a weird circle of life type thing … I understand it now from both sides of the spectrum. I understand how I want my son’s life to be.”
Ross has a clock face with the time set at 9:10 tattooed on his right wrist. It’s the exact time his son, Tristan, was born a year and a half ago. The face of a lion is inked just above it. “This is me watching over my son,” he said.
Ross believes his new responsibilities off the court have helped focus his career. “Once you have a kid, it helps you put everything into perspective,” he said. “So you can weed out a lot stuff that you don’t need.”
Recently, Ross told his mother that he could see himself coaching his son one day, and he occasionally brought Tristan out to play around on the court after Raptors practises. Tristan was still too small to dribble or shoot, so mostly he just chased the ball around the court. At home, Ross set up a miniature basketball court for his son, like the one he used to play on as a kid. He and Tristan would play together, going back and forth, running and shooting and dunking. When they were tired, they’d cuddle up and watch cartoons.
Ross had been teaching his son the difference between Marvel and DC. Tristan is a Spiderman fan. No word on Batman yet. But even as Ross departs the team that drafted him and the city he came to call home, he’ll search for time to show his sidekick what he’s learned about being a hero.
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