Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan will always go home to Compton
‘Not one dollar that I earned since being in the league made me. This place here, this city made me.’
COMPTON, California — It’s nearly noon on a warming Thursday outside DeMar DeRozan Gymnasium at Lueders Park, and eight cops are mysteriously congregating nearby and putting gear on as a helicopter flies overhead.
A homeless man and a woman are slowly trying to figure out what to do on separate benches. Nearby, children are in a pool that rapper Kendrick Lamar used to swim in as a kid that is surrounded by a tall fence with barbed wire atop it. Across the street from this popular park, which the Lueders Park Piru gang named itself after, there are two liquor stores, trailer home housing and Louis Burgers II, which promises the best burger in all of Compton.
Meanwhile, DeRozan is inside the gym during the second of three days of his free basketball camp for 110 Compton boys and girls ages 6 to 16. These youngsters look at the three-time NBA All-Star with beautiful reverence and hope for a better day than what is outside this old gym that will finally be refurbished soon. This Toronto Raptors star has joined a long list of stars in sports and entertainment from Compton who have overcome the worst to stand tall after being around gangs, drugs, violence and police brutality.
No, DeRozan has not forgotten where he comes from and the importance of giving back.
“This city has so many greats and different areas you can look up to,” DeRozan told The Undefeated while sitting in a metal chair outside the gym named after him. “You got Kendrick, you got Serena [Williams], you got me when it comes to basketball. You got so many people that have come out of Compton that make it great. You got Dr. Dre, [Ice] Cube. There are so many things that people are doing great.
“We have that all-around confidence. You’re able to see it. You drive and you see Dr. Dre’s Beats by Dre [billboards]. He’s worth a billion dollars. He’s from Compton. Kendrick, all the great things he does. It just gives you that hope that I can do it, too. It goes back to what you’re up against when you’re coming up. It makes you resilient to want to be great. Once you have that in your mind fighting against the odds you have to fight against, once you get through that, the sky is the limit.”
DeRozan talked with The Undefeated about Compton, his camp message, the mental pain he suffered from gang violence as a kid, the Raptors, free-agent teammate Kyle Lowry, Drake, Will Ferrell, Floyd Mayweather and more.
What is your motivation for doing this free basketball camp in your hometown?
For many of the reasons I come back. I come back to keep myself completely humble. Not one dollar that I earned since being in the league made me. This place here, this city made me. Even before coming here, I worked out at my high school this morning. I’ve been at my high school working out the last three weeks. The last eight years [in the offseason] I’ve been at my high school working out. People see me around and it’s nothing new. This is where I came from. I’m one of y’all. I want to inspire the next person in whatever that may be. For me, it’s a need. I carry my city to when I go to the NBA. I don’t carry the NBA over to my city. That’s the pride I walk with and carry myself with.
Anything a kid from Compton has said to you that stuck out?
These kids say so much, honestly. I can just see the hunger in these kids when they say certain things. You can tell they want more than where they are at. I can relate with that. I was the same little kid as them. When they say certain things, everything sticks with me. It’s crazy the imagination that they have. I just want to get them to understand how great it can be if they go after their imagination. It’s not as hard as you think it is. It’s just a willingness to go forward.
Do you bring your two young kids?
My daughter was here yesterday. It’s crazy because my daughter always says, ‘Daddy is going to Compton. I want to go to Compton.’ It’s crazy. Yesterday I was playing with her on the slide. And she said, ‘Daddy, someone colored on the slide.’ And it gave me a sense of like, ‘This is why I work so hard, so my daughter doesn’t have to go through the same things I went through.’ At 4 years old, I would know that’s graffiti. It gave me another sense of reality. It’s crazy how life is changed. What you fight for with your kids. For a second, I didn’t know how to explain it fully. ‘Nah, baby, that’s not coloring. Somebody did something they shouldn’t have done on here.’
When you walk into this gym and see your name on it, does that ever get old?
It’s always new. I was playing at this park when I was in the fourth and fifth grade. Even looking at the [nearby] pool, that was the first pool I almost drowned in. I remember the lifeguard jumping in, saving me, to tapping on the backboard here and being excited. To see my name in the gym is more than humbling. I can’t explain it to this day.
What was the good and bad about growing up in Compton?
First, the bad is the environment, no matter how much you try to steer away from it. Being around gang territory, growing up in it, you don’t think about it as being that bad because you grow up in it. It’s kind of all you know. With that, you kind of have to teach yourself how to change, want more and want better. To me, that’s what growing up in Compton gives you, a sense of you want to be better. It’s really tough to try to be better. But this is what molds you and makes you into a man to figure out what it takes to be better. That was my approach just growing up in a tough environment and being able to get through anything. For me, it wasn’t much I had not seen. I use that as motivation to get away from it.
What were the scariest things you saw growing up?
I never wanted to try to glorify how I grew up like it was cool to say, ‘I’ve seen this. I’ve been through this.’ But for me, you deal with seeing death a lot early on. It kind of does something to the mind that is not fully matured yet. I lost a few of my uncles to gang violence. I lost some of my friends to gang violence. Some of my friends killed my friends. That was something that was always emotionally tough for me to accept. It gave me a sense of detachment to get close to a lot of people. I put all of that frustration and all those emotions into sports and focused in.
Do you have nightmares that still haunt you?
Yes. For sure. There are a lot of things that I saw early on that stick with me. No matter what you do, certain things make you relapse. That goes back to my point that I’ve never really talked about it or glamorized it because I never wanted to put that energy into something that I’ve dealt with for so long. It’s always something that sits in the back of your mind. You see certain things. If you turn on the TV, you can probably see somebody making fun about something rough I grew up around. That’s why when I’m around these kids I always try to make them feel good. Give them something positive to talk about for the next day, the next week, for the rest of their life, that sticks to them in a positive side. That’s all what it’s about for me. I remember being that kid where the first NBA player I met was Darrick Martin. It was like seeing God. Just to know he was an NBA player and knowing I could turn on the TV and watch him play, that gave me inspiration. Darrick Martin was my man. I used to be in contact with him at my grandfather’s house. Just to see him as a kid was crazy to me. Even he will tell you the story of me being a kid at my grandfather’s house. I was starstruck for that. I can only imagine now when I’m around kids if I can give them that kind of feeling.
What is the message you give the kids at your camp?
My message is I’m not here to say ya’ll gonna make the NBA or the WNBA if you work hard. It’s just about being disciplined and consistent in whatever your passion is and strive for that to be great. It doesn’t have to be athletics. You can take your discipline you learn from being at these camps and apply that to life skills or something you may want to do. It can be coaching. It can be any kind of field giving that discipline out to fight against all odds. It’s the same with sports. I look at sports like kind of like life. Everything is not going to go your way. You’re not going to make every shot. You aren’t going to have a good game every game. Even to this day, I walk every single day like it’s a basketball game. It may not be my day, but I am not going to quit. I am going to keep going and keep pushing to get through it. That’s the same thing I am trying to get these kids to understand. Learning and sports applies to everything that you do. It’s going to pay off.
What kept you from going down the wrong path in Compton?
Half of my family was gang members. My closest friends were gang members. I lost my uncles to gang violence. I lost my best friend to gang violence. All that at an early age. Early age. For me growing up around that, I know every single gang member. Why do I want to be a gang member? I wanted to hoop. When I got to high school, there were gang members that used to come see me play and there was never any issue. They would all be happy to see me play. Even today I hear stories about guys being happy to see me play. That’s what they came for. That made me feel better than your normal gangbanger. … For me, I loved bringing everybody together, so it kept me away from that. I remember one year my mom went to 20 funerals of people that were gang members.
Did you ever have any problem with Los Angeles police?
It was always small things. Nothing crazy. Police were always around. For us, it was always like, how could we avoid them if we see them? With that, we also used to just ask for baseball cards. Police, when I was young, you used to ask them for baseball cards. …
(DeRozan next asks Goodwin Sports director of public relations Mary Ford if she can ask three of his cousins to come to him so he can ask them about the baseball cards that police officers used to pass out in the neighborhood. Before they arrive, DeRozan continues.)
We always had drama. There used to always be a bunch of us hanging out, whether we were going to the park or playing basketball. We might not be doing nothing. Then the police would mess with you, question you or ask you what is going on. We used to mind our own business. We were not doing anything. But it was a part of growing up in Compton, being around gang members. I wouldn’t look at you as gang members if you were my cousin, my uncle or my friend.
What do you think about the current state of the NBA?
It brings a lot more excitement and anticipation to what’s next. I can’t wait to see how the season is going to pan out. … Wait, hold on. … (Three men walk up to DeRozan.) Hey, remember when the police used to mess with us and they used to ask for baseball cards? Why did they used to have baseball cards? (One man says cops used to offer baseball cards all the time to local kids as a means to bond with them. Another man said that he used to always get a Los Angeles Dodgers Darryl Strawberry card. Another says he used to get Los Angeles Kings hockey cards, too. DeRozan thanks the men and they depart.)
Getting back to the state of the league, I hear a lot of criticism. But I bet you people watch and wonder what is going to happen if one of these teams get knocked off [in the playoffs]. That’s what it’s all about. That is what you’re fighting for. That is how true competitors look at it. That’s how I look at it. Teams get who they want. I just work my butt off so when I line up with whoever, my goal is to try to take the team down.
You have an Olympic gold medal. You’ve been an NBA All-Star. You’ve made a lot of money. But you’re missing an NBA championship.
No matter how hard it is to watch, I watch [the NBA Finals]. I try to get my mindset there emotionally, spiritually and physically because it looks so damn fun because every single play, you’re dying to get a stop, you’re dying to get a bucket, you’re dying for everything. That moment is what you play for, especially now. My mindset when I work out in the summer — it’s not the season — I work my butt off in the summer so I can feel good at the end of April. May, I want to be hitting my best stride. That is what at this point of my career I work for and try to get to. If you look at the time, next year will be my ninth year. You don’t get too many opportunities to get to the Eastern Conference finals, to be two [wins] away from the Finals. You don’t get too many chances.
While many NBA stars have changed teams, why has it been so important for you to stay loyal to the Raptors?
That is just how I’ve always been. Once I become close or attached to something, it’s always been my responsibility that no matter how bad something gets or how great something gets to don’t leave it astray. You got to be willing to go through the good and the bad and the bad and the good. That’s been my approach through everything, my friends, my family.
How did you take being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals?
It was tough. We got swept again. That’s one of the worst feelings, honestly, to go out that way. It sucks because you don’t expect it to go that way. It was rough. It was tough to get out the house the next day once I got home. It is something I told myself that we have to build from, individually and teamwise. Sometimes you have to take that pain, soak it in and use that as fuel. That is all I can do. That was the only positive way to look at it.
Did you ever talk to teammate Kyle Lowry about his ankle injury that caused him to miss the deciding Game 4 loss?
I didn’t talk to him about it. I just went out there and tried to figure out how to play with whoever we had to play.
Are you in Lowry’s ear about his pending free agency?
Not at all. One thing I never did was … if you were drinking right now, I would tell you not to go drive. For you being my man, I’m just looking out for your safety. But if you got to go apply for another job that you feel is best for you, I can’t tell you not to do that. That’s your decision. That’s the way I look at it. In the same instance, you have to make this decision because you’re not only making it for yourself, you are making it for your family to live, what’s best for you, everything. It’s not on me to tell you what you need to do or what you shouldn’t do. If I’m really your friend, you should be able to do what is best for you and I will support you. If you need me or have a question for me, I can give you my honest opinion. Other than that, I can’t come to tell you that you need to do this or you need to do that. I just never believed in doing things that way.
Do you worry about Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri departing for the New York Knicks?
I don’t worry about that. I think [he stays]. I look at it like, if I’m New York, who is the next best guy you could go after? It’s Masai. Why wouldn’t they want to target him? I don’t look at it like it’s a bad thing. Masai has that reputation because he is great at what he does. That organization wants to be great so they can feel like they can compete. So, what is the first thing you do? You go look for the next great person.
Do you try to recruit free agents?
I don’t. My thing is if I go out there and play my butt off and make my teammates better, as a basketball player we should all be able to look around and say, ‘Oh, I’d play great with this guy. …’ I shouldn’t have to convince you to come do a story with me. You came to do a story with me because, you know what I mean? It was on me after you flew in to say, ‘Marc’s my man, let’s make this happen.’ It’s a mutual thing. It has to become a mutual thing before anything. My biggest thing is if I recruit somebody and something goes wrong, I’m going to feel at fault. Now if it’s mutual then, all right, we are doing this thing together. Not, ‘Man, just come try this out a year. …’ We don’t have too many years of this to try out. Every NBA window is closing. So, if it’s something we can’t have mutually, then I’ve never really got into it.
What do you think of the state of the Raptors?
One thing is we always figure it out, man. I don’t know how we do it. You have to give credit to the front office, to the coaches, to the player development. I don’t know a year these last three or four years where we haven’t been counted out, underdogs. We went to the Eastern Conference finals [in 2016] when no one had us going there. We won back-to-back 50-plus games. We got some key guys at the trade deadline that could have helped us if we were healthier. We always figure it out. That’s one thing I always feel confident in. No matter what, we’re going to figure it out. I know how hard I work. How much better I am going to be when I come back. I just hope everyone else does the same.
You had a part in a skit at the first-ever NBA Awards show last week with Drake and Will Ferrell. How was that experience?
Drake is one of my good friends. Will Ferrell is USC alumni but a guy I always wanted to meet. He is one of the funniest guys out there. To be able to do that with Will, I had a good time even if it was just two minutes. It was awesome.
What kind of friendship do you have with Drake, a Toronto native and big Raptors fan?
Whatever he needs from me he knows I am one call away, and vice versa. He always been supportive, not just with basketball but anything, period. He is one of them dudes who is a hell of a person. He will give you the shirt off his back. He gets nothing but respect in return. It’s hard to find people like that who are genuine.
How did you get close with boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr.?
I am in Vegas seeing him train and, obviously, I see him at basketball games. Going to fights talking to him. It’s a building thing over time. It was never planned. … He was training here in L.A. I was boxing training there. He was there one day, and I told him I was going to go watch him work out. He said, ‘C’mon.’ He’s cool.
Are you going to go to see Mayweather fight Conor McGregor in Las Vegas?
I am going to stay home and watch that fight. I like to watch it on TV. It’s something about boxing, you don’t get the real experience that you get watching it on TV. Plus, I want to be able to have everybody around and watch it all together.
Why did you begin doing boxing training this offseason?
I was finding a different way to push myself. It’s always easy to do something you are comfortable with, which is basketball. That’s always easy. I try new things out of my comfort zone that makes me work extremely harder. Things like that I carry to the basketball court. I swam the past couple of summers, and that was one of the toughest things to do, pool workouts and swimming. It’s exhausting. I got used to that where it didn’t suppress the feeling I wanted to feel, exhausted. I’m trying boxing. That’s a hell of a workout. I find a new appreciation for it. You think you have a limit that you could push yourself. But with boxing, it’s a whole different thing because you have to be alert or in great shape or you will be knocked out.
Is it true that you’ve been working hard on your 3-point shot this offseason?
There are always things to work on. It’s another element to my game that I haven’t exploited yet. Once I get that, it’s another level where, ‘You can tell he’s been working. He got better.’ For me, that’s what it’s all about. Finding other ways to get better and different things to my game.