Raptors’ DeRozan fighting for something bigger than basketball

Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) is greeted by teammates after scoring against the Washington Wizards. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

TORONTO – Despite getting ready to tip-off the second-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors star DeMar DeRozan had more than just basketball on his mind prior to the game.

Having launched a Public Service Announcement (PSA) campaign with the NBA Monday about the importance and awareness of mental health issues, DeRozan took some time Tuesday morning to address the importance of the message he’s trying to get across.

“When we get to speak out against something that’s bigger than basketball – something outside of the conversation of basketball – it’s important, man,” DeRozan said. “A lot of people suffer from a lot of things. They’re afraid to share, they’re afraid to bring to the light and be better.”

Back in February, during the NBA all-star break, DeRozan – one of the game’s participants – tweeted out and then spoke to the Toronto Star’s Doug Smith about his battles with depression.

Shortly after, and spurred on by DeRozan’s courageous admission, fellow 2018 all-star and Cavaliers forward Kevin Love – who was unavailable for comment for this story – opened up about his own fight with anxiety in The Players’ Tribune.

The result was an outpouring of support from DeRozan and Love’s NBA peers and from the greater public, championing the two for taking up the cause and becoming strong advocates of mental health.

“I think it’s more important [to] everyone that’s going through that in that particular state, that they understand that they’re not alone,” said Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue about the mental health campaign. “And no matter if you’re a professional athlete, where they feel like we’re invincible or we don’t have problems and things of that nature, I think it sheds the light on that, that we’re human just like everyone else.

“So I definitely salute [Love] and DeRozan for what they’re going through and being able to use their voice and their platform to better the state of what they’re in.”

Now, buoyed by the initial ground the pair broke earlier in the year, the NBA plans on running this PSA all throughout the playoffs and Finals.

DeRozan’s hoping that that prolonged exposure at least makes beginning a dialogue about the subject that much more “comfortable.”

“We live in a world where we can’t talk about certain things and push people in the shadows of their own feelings,” said DeRozan. “I think, first and foremost, you’ve gotta make people – kids, grown-ups, everybody – comfortable. It’s not about teasing or making fun of nobody who’s going through something, it’s all about making that person comfortable and understanding that if you come out about it it’ll all relieve a lot of weight instead of putting more weight on your shoulders.”

Livestream the Raptors and other marquee NBA Playoffs matchups, including Games 2, 3 and 6 of the Raptors-Cavaliers series. Plus, get coverage of the NBA Finals, NBA Draft & NBA Awards.

If anything, DeRozan’s initial advocacy in February certainly touched his coach.

“I think the stereotype is if you speak up about mental health, you’re weak, and it’s not the point,” said 61-year-old Dwane Casey, explaining how he initially grew up in a time when detrimental machismo and hyper-masculinity ruled, and any male’s expression of his feelings would labour him as “soft.”

“It’s a new day from that standpoint. I know my philosophy and my thought process has changed. Even back in my days back when I was a player to today, back then when I was in college, if you drink water, you was weak, which is the dumbest thing we could ever do. It’s the same with mental health. That’s not the case. We have to be empathetic with people who we feel like may have issues and understand that there’s more to it than just basketball.”

Clearly DeRozan’s message got across to Casey, and now he’s hoping to change the conversation for, at least, the duration of the 2018 NBA post-season.

“The opportunity presented itself and it’s a great opportunity for myself and a player like Kevin Love to be able to forefront that,” DeRozan said. “And if that can help any people then that’s what we all for.”

DeRozan’s Raptors open up against Love’s Cavaliers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series Tuesday night at Air Canada Centre at 8:00 p.m. ET.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.