Hardly home but always reppin’
Raptors All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan never loses home
Frank DeRozan is relaxing in the front row of the bleachers at Compton High School, and if you didn’t already know he was the father of the most famous NBA player the school has ever produced, his outfit is a dead giveaway.
On his head: a white NBA 2016 All-Star Hat. Pulled over his blue long-sleeved sweatshirt: an NBA All-Star jersey. Then DeRozan stands, turns and points out the words on the back of the jersey — DeROZAN DAD — written just below the No. 10 that his son, DeMar, wears for the Toronto Raptors.
“I said ‘C’mon, son, why’d you put this on the back,’ ” DeRozan says. “He told me that he wanted everyone to know that I was his dad.”
DeRozan wants everyone to know that his son is a product of Compton, Calif. It’s a city in southern Los Angeles County known more for being a hot zone during the Rodney King riots, an epicenter of the 1980s and ’90s crack epidemic and rise of gang violence as well as home to that era’s most popular purveyors of gangsta rap. Compton has spent the past 30-plus years trying to shed the reputation.
Many of the locals believe that the persistence of Compton’s reputation is undeserved. They point to the long list of success stories that have emerged from this city that includes Richard Sherman, Venus and Serena Williams, James Harden, Eddie Murray, former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle (he went to Compton Community College) and actor Kevin Costner.
Even former President George H.W. Bush spent six months living in Compton with his family during 1949-50.
From N.W.A. to Kendrick Lamar to Tayshaun Prince, Frank DeRozan has watched a lot of the locals get their shine. And he thinks his son can be another person who can contribute to changing the perception of Compton.
He’s happy that the spotlight, for at least another round of postseason basketball, will be shining on his son.
“He’s a humble kid who’s fulfilling his dreams,” DeRozan said of his son. “He’s able to show these young kids that you can overcome whatever challenges you face in life.”
There are buses that line up each morning in Hollywood that take tourists to various destinations in Los Angeles County. Some take the scenic routes through the Hollywood Hills, a few do slow rolls in front of celebrity homes and others take riders to the beaches of Venice and Santa Monica.
Then there’s the L.A. Hood Life Tour, which takes tourists south of Interstate 10 into South L.A. Its destinations include the Jungles (the housing development where Training Day was filmed), the intersection at Florence and Normandie (the site where trucker Reginald Denny was dragged from his truck and brutally beaten during the riots), and Compton.
The tour is run by Hodari Sababu, who said he came up with the idea while thinking of ways to make money after his 10-year prison bid for drug distribution was up.
“I started this tour five years ago, and I’m not gonna lie, people want to see all the crazy s— they saw in the movies and the music videos,” Sababu said. “When the movie Straight Outta Compton came out, this tour blew up.”
The tour includes a stop at the Adams Funeral Home, on Compton’s north side. Why Adams? Well, on the right day tourists can take a ride through the drive-through window where people could view a body through bulletproof glass.
“Back in the day of serious gang-banging, there was a lot of violence at funerals,” Sababu explained. “This way, there’s no gathering. People drive through, pay their respect, and leave.”
That was the era of Compton in which DeMar DeRozan was born in 1989, the tail end of the crack epidemic.
It was the violence from the streets of Compton that produced DeMar DeRozan’s name: it’s a variation of the name of his mother’s younger brother, Lemar, who died in a drive-by shooting at the age of 20.
So DeMar DeRozan was raised in an extremely protective environment. When he wanted to play basketball at the park — he began obsessively dribbling a ball at 3 years old — his mother, Diane, or dad Frank would take him to the nearby courts at Wilson Park and watch his every move.
“There were times in Compton where the parks were run by the gangs, and that was one of them,” Frank DeRozan said. “We watched him close because we refused to let him be taken by the streets.”
The helicopter-parenting often confused DeMar DeRozan. But as friends became caught up in the violence and the drugs in Compton, he began to understand.
“As you get older and you hear what’s going on around you, you realize just how tough of an area it was,” DeRozan said. “I appreciate everything that my parents did for me to help me along.”
DeMar DeRozan’s nickname as a kid was Deebo. But that had less to do with the bullying tactics from the popular character in the franchise of Friday movies, and more to do with his size. He was tall and athletic, catching the eye of a local coach when he soared over the rim for a tip-in dunk during an eighth-grade youth league game.
“I sat in the stands and I was like ‘Wow,’ ” said Tony Thomas, who was an assistant coach at Compton High School. “I had seen him in a few parks before, but to see him do that in a game at that age? That was the time I knew he had a chance to be special.”
The assumption was that DeRozan would attend Manuel Dominguez High School, which had produced a long list of basketball stars, including Tyson Chandler, Cedric Ceballos, Tayshaun Prince and Brandon Jennings.
But two weeks into DeRozan’s freshman year, he walked to the front of the classroom of a math class taught by Thomas. “He actually appeared on my roll for two weeks, but he never showed up,” Thomas recalled. “When he walked in, I sat up tall in my seat and had this big smile on my face. And he looked at me and says, ‘Let’s put Compton on the map.’ ” And that they did. DeRozan averaged 29 points as a freshman, and by his senior season he was ranked among the top 10 basketball players in the nation after leading Compton to a 26-6 record.
“He was always in the gym – he’s the hardest working kid that I’ve ever seen,” Thomas said. “He helped turn this program around. Last year, we won the school’s first division championship since 1969. That was built on DeMar coming here, and making the school attractive for the local kids.”
Even with scholarship offers from North Carolina and Arizona State, DeRozan stayed close to home to attend USC. Many felt it was a package deal: DeRozan played AAU ball alongside rapper Lil Romeo, a basketball player of little national significance who also got an offer from USC. Both played on the summer league team sponsored by Romeo’s father, Master P.
“I wanted to see him go to North Carolina, where he would have gotten a lot of national recognition,” Thomas said. “There was a lot of drama around his decision.”
DeRozan immediately emerged as a star, leading the Trojans in scoring and winning the Pac-10 tournament MVP award as USC won the title. He left school after that season, becoming a lottery pick of the Toronto Raptors in the 2009 NBA draft. (Ironically, Lil Romeo left USC as well.)
During the 2009 summer league in Las Vegas, DeRozan called his father, who worked as a videographer for the city, and asked him to get a plane ticket to Vegas to pick up his bonus check. The one-way ticket was $302, and his father complained it was too expensive. “Don’t worry about the ticket,” DeRozan told him. “Just come.”
When Frank arrived, DeRozan handed him a check for more than $400,000. “Dad, you don’t have to live near the railroad tracks in Compton anymore,” Frank DeRozan recalled his son telling him. “I’m buying you guys a new house. It’s time for you guys to get out.”
DeMar DeRozan bought himself a house just north of Los Angeles, more than a 90-minute drive from Compton. He could have said goodbye to Compton forever. But he never left. Each summer during the offseason, DeRozan drives down to Compton and enters the aging gym. For hours each day he goes through vigorous workouts under the watchful eyes of his trainer, high school coach and current Compton players.
“He’s been a big help to me and my career,” said RaySean Scott, who just finished his senior season at Compton and has a scholarship to Florida Gulf Coast. “That fact that he comes back every year, and talks to us, and plays with us — he’s made me believe that I can be a good basketball player.”
Asked why he maintains such strong ties to Compton when others have bailed on the community, DeRozan asked in return, “Why would I not go back?”
“Compton is a big reason why I am the person I am today. I play in Toronto. But Compton is home.”
As Frank DeRozan watches the end of the Compton High School workout, coach Thomas enters the gym with a box on his shoulder, and drops the weighty package to the ground. “It’s T-shirts, for our summer league team,” Thomas said. “DeMar sent them.” Frank DeRozan smiles. It is not rare for DeRozan to bankroll the team, paying for transportation and such. “He really cares for this school,” said his father.
And he’s generous to his family — to a limit. A couple of years ago, DeRozan asked his father what he wanted for Christmas. his father’s reply: A Rolls-Royce Ghost. “He wouldn’t let me have that,” his father said, laughing. “he said he was getting one for himself, so he bought me an Escalade.”
About a five-minute drive from Compton high school is Lueders Park, the place where DeRozan’s dad would bring him for late-night workouts when the high school gym was closed. In November, the city recognized one of its favorite sons, renaming the facility DeMar DeRozan Gymnasium. Frank and Diane DeRozan stood by their son’s side for the ceremony.
“I’m not going to lie, I had tears in my eyes,” his father said. “To have a gym named for your son? That’s a tremendous honor.”
Thirteen-year-old Daniel DeHughes attended that ceremony, and got a chance to meet his favorite player. “It was exciting and exquisite,” DeHughes said. “If he can make it, I know I can.”
Listening to DeHughes was Xavier Williams, 24, who has worked at the gym the last six months. He sees the kids playing at the facility and outdoor playground today, and thinks back to the days when you couldn’t enter the grounds of Lueders Park unless you were gang-affiliated. “Every city has its ups and down, good and bad, and we’ve been through the same,” Williams said. “But this city has a totally different perspective now. And having a gym named for a guy like DeMar is an inspiration for the community.”