He talks about watching Bryant famously score 81 points against the Toronto Raptors while sitting on the edge of the bed in Compton as a teenager on a Sunday night, mentally cataloguing every single shot.
His hairstyles traced Bryant’s — shorter, longer – DeRozan’s moved in sync. As he became a rising high school star in the Southern California high school scene DeRozan terrorized opposing defenses while wearing Bryant’s signature sneakers.
And when he hit the NBA and began searching for a way to crack the code on becoming a star, it was Bryant’s template he turned to: the footwork, the physicality, the determination to turn every touch into a scoring chance.
“Early on, I tried to be like Kobe, do everything he did,” DeRozan says.
We all have heroes growing up but DeRozan is in the unique position of seeing his career and his childhood dreaming become intertwined.
His childhood and his livelihood are coming together as DeRozan returns to Los Angeles as a starter in Sunday’s All-Star game.
Major sneaker brands typically use the weekend to launch their new lines and DeRozan – always a Nike athlete – has earned the honour of being the headliner for a relaunch of a series of Bryant’s signature shoes.
In Sunday’s game he’ll be wearing a pair of Kobe 1 Protro’s — a retooled version of the shoes Bryant wore when DeRozan was watching him score his career-high 81 against the Raptors.
The Raptors star is still trying to calibrate the way time has fallen in on itself in the space of just more than a decade.
“It’s a crazy thing to be able to carry your favourite players’ shoe legacy,” he says. “… It’s definitely a compliment, an honour, everything I can think of because, like I said, that’s one of the greatest players to ever play the game so to have that mutual respect and for me to be able to do something like that is cool.”
This All-Star game is full of meaning for DeRozan. That it is in L.A. means he’ll be able to fully share the experience with his family and in particular his father, Frank, whose health has been shaky enough this year that DeRozan has flown home for visits on off days more than once so far this season.
It also means more time with his daughters who have been living with their mother, Kiara Morrison, since she and DeRozan broke up early this season.
“[I’ll] try to do as much as I can with everybody close to me,” he says, “… kind of let them witness the experience as well … it’ll be my youngest daughter’s second one, my oldest daughter, she knows mostly all the guys. It’s always exciting for them … that’s a cool thing for me that I have fun [with them] so when they’re older, they can look back and say hopefully their daddy was cool.”
This is DeRozan’s fifth all-star game and he’s far from jaded. He loves that fact that his All-Star experiences have been so closely meshed with some of Bryant’s 18 All-Star appearances.
In 2016 the game was in Toronto and DeRozan was the unofficial host for the last All-Star game Bryant played in during his career. When the game was last in Las Angeles in 2011 DeRozan played in the rookie-sophomore event and participated in the dunk contest. “You thought that was everything but when you’re an all-star you realize Sunday was the big thing,” he says.
But in a way his most vivid All-Star memories are from the 2004 game, also in Los Angeles, when a 14-year-old DeRozan, living in Compton – about 13 miles south of Staples Center — could only watch Bryant as he always had: on television.
“I just remember being in Compton, honestly, and being able to see the lights downtown and thinking I had something to do with all-star weekend because it was in your city,” he says. “[I] could see advertisements, you see all the stars going there. It was one of them things as a kid you see, you wish to be just anybody important, to be able to go to things like that …”
“Not saying I believed I was going to be a part of it but it was just one of those moments where you see things like that, being in Compton, you just wanted everything. You wanted to be, if it’s a rapper, to be him, if it’s a basketball player, anybody. That’s all you cared about.”
By that measure, DeRozan’s appearance Sunday is more than a homecoming, it’s a confirmation of a lifetime of yearning, often with Bryant as his distant muse.
An interesting twist is that as DeRozan’s game is peaking he’s moved away from the fierce dominance that characterized Bryant at his statistical heights, when he would put 81 on a hapless opponent because they were weak enough to allow it.
After setting career marks for usage last year when 34 per cent of Raptors possessions were used by DeRozan, he has touched the ball less (he’s down to 30 per cent usage rate) and passed the ball more (a career-high 25 per cent assist rate) than he ever has since he first became an All-Star in 2013-14.
After setting career scoring marks a year ago while letting the three-point revolution unfold around him DeRozan has worked to incorporate the NBA’s most important shot into his game earlier in his career than Bryant ever did, and is showing signs of being a better three-point shooter than his idol was.
Bryant remains a role model, but DeRozan is no longer patterning the specifics of his game on the player he idolized as a teenager.
“I don’t try to do or be like him [anymore] or anything,” he says. “But the mentality part of it is everything and when it comes to that, I try to be everything as close to him as possible.
“I take stuff from him and add that to my game but at the same time, I opened up … feeling free with expanding everything in your game and finding more enjoyment with that.”
Things change. DeRozan’s evolution is proof.
But while his growth as a player is being recognized with his All-Star status, that doesn’t mean DeRozan is so far removed from the kid who watched the event unfold from his home in Compton that he can fully grasp walking across the same stage Bryant starred on for so long, quite literally in his idol’s shoes.
“I’m pretty sure after Sunday I’ll have a lot more to say about,” he says. “I still don’t believe it. Friends [in LA] are saying things they see around the city now, whatever it is, billboards, whatever it is … even for this being my [fifth] all-star game, every single one kind of heightens for me because you never thought I’d be [where] I am today.”