TORONTO — What to get the guy who gave you everything?
That’s the challenge for the 19,800 lucky fans that will find their way inside Scotiabank Arena – the house that Vince Carter may have built but the one that DeMar DeRozan grew up in, decorated and never wanted to leave.
Here’s a hint – should anyone need it – about what to offer DeRozan when he takes the floor as an opponent for the first time on Friday night:
Give him everything. Don’t hold back, because he never did.
Don’t qualify it. Don’t measure it. Just let it flow.
Remember when he gave Milwaukee 52 on New Year’s Day or when he ‘emptied the clip’ in Game 7 against the Pacers or rescued the Raptors on the road in Game 4 against the Bucks?
Or when he said “I got us” after Chris Bosh left or signed as soon as he could when he became a free agent without even a split-second of drama?
Or all the nights when he made repping an overlooked franchise in an overlooked NBA market a mission he was put on earth the fulfill, like some kind of superhero sent from Compton?
Remember that and how it made you feel and pay it back.
Because here’s another hint: DeRozan misses what he meant to Toronto as much as Toronto should miss him.
“I watch certain shows and certain introductions for certain people and when they get that long standing ovation, I always thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” he said Thursday at the San Antonio Spurs’ downtown hotel. “I never received one so if it’s one of them long standing ovations, it’d definitely be overwhelming because… it’s crazy when people get on their feet showing their appreciation, so … I don’t know, I’m looking forward to it, to feeling the love,”
DeRozan was in Toronto for the first time since he was traded in the summer by Raptors president Masai Ujiri in a bold effort to change the trajectory of a franchise that DeRozan had helped elevate but couldn’t get over the hump.
He gazed out on some familiar faces wearing a familiar fur hat he used to keep him warm when he lived here but dug out of storage from his place in San Antonio for the occasion.
Would he spend some time in the city walking around, seeing the sights?
“No, too cold,” he said.
Spoken like a true Torontonian. Once you’re one of us you can complain about the weather all you want. DeRozan has earned that much.
What to think, what to feel about his first visit to his first NBA home?
He’s not sure. Reducing a decade of his life since he was drafted by the Raptors let alone the “whirlwind” six months since he was traded into a digestible morsel was beyond him in advance of Friday night’s homecoming.
He’ll enter the visitors dressing room for the first time; he’ll go head-to-head against his best friend and teammate for six years, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry. He’ll be trying to send the sell-out crowd home unhappy after nearly a decade of doing everything he could to make their nights memorable, their seasons worth something.
He wore his heart on his sleeve – right around where he has the word ‘loyalty’ tattooed cursive on his wrist.
And he paid for it. The trade – justifiable as it was – came like a jolt from a downed hydro wire, leaving him questioning everything he had come to stand for while sitting in a fast food parking lot trying to make sense of the news.
The anger has passed. In San Antonio he’s landed in a good place. His game – carved out piece by piece, off-season by off-season, has travelled well. He’s leading the Spurs in points while averaging career highs in rebounds and assists.
He’s come to terms with being on the wrong end of a break-up, of being told he’s no longer the one, of finding out how he felt about the relationship didn’t matter anymore.
“… She’s moved on and I’ve moved on,” he said, metaphorically. “We both have.”
The uncomfortable truth is Ujiri made the correct call from a basketball point of view. The risk was dealing DeRozan’s steadiness for Leonard’s superstar upside on the offensive and defensive end.
And while Leonard has had to be cautious about his health and is still a flight risk in free agency, it was the kind of calculation the franchise needed to make.
The payoff has been in seen in spurts on the floor with enough promise that the best is yet to come.
But Leonard – or anyone else – won’t or can’t replace the connection DeRozan built with the franchise and the city.
It may never be replaced. When again is a shy teenager from Los Angeles going to grow into a man and a father and a franchise icon before our very eyes, all while being about as humble and down-to-earth a high-profile professional athlete as you could ever meet?
“I just know this is a really good dude, and I didn’t know him any other way. Right?” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who was an assistant with DeRozan for five seasons, told reporters. “I didn’t know him any other way. He was easy to coach, he was easy to talk to. And he was a great performer.
“I just can remember telling many people over the past five years, he’s the best dude ever. People would ask you, what’s he like to coach? He’s the best dude ever.”
It’s tough to replace a person like that, let alone the one who leads your franchise in scoring, games played and games won.
When DeRozan spoke about his feelings arriving back in the city for the first time since the trade he wasn’t nostalgic about the sights or the sounds or the 70 minutes he spent in traffic getting downtown from Pearson at the onset of rush hour.
But the 29-year-old father of two couldn’t help reflecting on nine years that have drifted away, never to return.
“It’s night and day,” he said of the difference between who he was then and now. “It’s just my approach to life, my approach to the game, my knowledge of the game, on and off the court.
“I became a man. I always go back and think, I was 19, turned into a father, raising two little girls that drives me crazy, so to see that sitting from here, it just lets you know.”
It’s not the way he wanted it to end. He never wanted to have a reunion under these terms. He was in for the long haul. But even so, he doesn’t wish he held anything back, that he was too cool to share how he really felt.
He put himself out there. Maybe we can all learn from that.
“No, I don’t regret what I felt. It was real,” he said. “You can say you love a woman and just because she comes back and says she don’t like you the next week, it ain’t your fault. It’s like ‘OK, cool. I still love you though.”
On Friday night at Scotiabank Arena, Toronto should let No. 10 on the San Antonio Spurs know the feeling was – and is — mutual.