As they embark on their 20th season with more bad than good to look back on, Toronto Raptors fans could probably agree on one thing: this is a club that has forever lacked a moral centre; a core set of values to bolster a franchise and a fan-base alike when times inevitably get tough. A set of values they can look back on as the foundation for whatever success they end up having.
What do the Raptors stand for? How do they play? What kind of players are the Raptors’ players?
For too long those questions have gone unanswered.
It’s been two decades of expediency; situational ethics and accepting whatever players are available and willing to take Toronto’s money and venture north to an ESPN-free universe. Once they got here, the fear was if too much was asked of them and they’d pass right on through. Typically, they did anyway.
Which brings us to DeMar DeRozan. It’s a stretch to call the sixth-year guard the best player in Raptors history — he might not even be the best on his team. But it’s no exaggeration to suggest DeRozan is the most important player in the history of the franchise, in no small part because he wants to be.
In conversation, DeRozan can come across as a bit sleepy-eyed and can easily be characterized as laid back, at which point you’ve grossly underestimated him and he’s about to blow right by you.
At heart DeRozan is a rebel, an explorer, someone who can only be happy carving his own path. As an uncharted territory, Toronto turned out to be the perfect place for him to be drafted.
"After Vince [Carter] left it was a team that no one paid attention to. Everyone heard that," he was saying after practice on Monday as the Raptors prepared for their season opener against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday at the ACC. "No one wanted to play here, no one wanted to come here. After Chris [Bosh] left it was just so on and so forth.
"Me personally, I never looked at anything like that," he said. "I’m different from everybody. I don’t care what other people’s opinion is. A million people could tell me something and I’m going to believe my own opinion. "
For some – or most – being drafted to an NBA outpost would be accompanied by some trepidation. For DeRozan, it’s been career affirming.
"It’s different … but I never complained about anything," he said. "I just came in, did my job and wanted to be part of something where there was nothing until there was something, and I feel great about it."
The steadfastness of his basketball worldview is so old school, so throwback, that it’s almost revolutionary. DeRozan takes the language of commitment to a new level. As fans, we’ve grown willing to accept athletes who leave a toothbrush and a change of clothes in the closet as the best we can get. Then DeRozan shows up with flowers, talking earnestly about what neighbourhood has the best schools.
He’s not going anywhere, and he’s got no problem doing things the hard way.
"I never wanted to be the guy, when I’m finished, that has four different team jerseys hanging up in my house saying I played for them, I played for them, I played for them," he explains. "If I could finish my career here and say I did everything here, I’d feel more accomplished than doing it every other place.
"I take pride when I come in here and there’s a division title hanging up, that’s going to be here forever and I had a part in that," he said. "There’s going to be more to come for a franchise that don’t have everything the Garden might have or the Staples Center might have … I want to be part of something that can go on longer than my career."
The next time a potential franchise cornerstone gets quizzed about how much they really want to be in Toronto, DeRozan’s emphatic, unequivocal clarity will be the standard.
"Did so-and-so say he ‘really wanted’ to play in Toronto? Or did he say he ‘wanted to die here, in his uniform’?"
"No? He didn’t do a DeRozan?"
"Screw him. On to the next, then"
This attitude, the embodiment of the idea that Toronto is a city worth sacrificing for and committing to, coupled with DeRozan’s quietly ferocious determination to improve, could be the most important thing he ever achieves as a Raptor.
He made a great leap forward on the floor last season, emerging as reliable go-to scorer on a playoff team and in the post-season. At age 25, it seems reasonable to assume the best is yet to come, though it’s unfair to expect DeRozan to suddenly turn into some hybrid of Kevin Durant and LeBron James. That would diminish the gift DeRozan is really offering here.
After 20 years of uncertainty, false starts and not-so-high highs followed by crashing lows, DeRozan is promising real things: stability, reliability, consistency and a willingness to set the bar high and strive to surpass it.
These are foundation-type values. Applied over time they don’t guarantee success, but they guarantee the best possible chance at success. They set a tone for those here and for those who have yet to arrive. It’s an element the Raptors have been missing for 20 years.
"I just [want] to be an example, where, when I finish playing, I’ve done everything that people say you couldn’t do if you play for the Raptors," he said quietly, convincingly. "Everything from being an all-star, to winning a gold medal, to hopefully winning everything else so that at the end of the day there won’t be any excuses — I did it here, so why can’t you?"
This is what DeMar DeRozan represents. This is what he stands for. Thanks to him, after 20 years, a franchise that has more often been lost has found itself.
After all these years, we finally know exactly what it means to be a Toronto Raptor.