It was the beginning of another long practice in the middle of the 2008-2009 college basketball season. The Trojans trudged into the locker room and grudgingly changed into their uniforms.
Out of nowhere, then-freshman forward DeMar DeRozan barged into the room, screaming and yelling at the top of his lungs. He picked up and threw anything he could get his hands on.
His bewildered teammates looked at each other, trying to figure out why DeRozan was so angry.
“Then, all of the sudden he started dancing around. It was one big joke, and he was just playing with us,” senior guard Dwight Lewis said. “[DeMar] is really goofy. He was one of the goofiest dudes on the team last year.”
Whether by breaking into song and dance or attempting to shoot the basketball backward across the court to impress his teammates, DeRozan knew how to keep the mood light and prevent daily practices from becoming monotonous.
“It is real important to get that bond with your teammates, and to let them see that you have a sense of humor,” DeRozan, now a player for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, said before a recent game against the Los Angeles Clippers. “You have to have fun every now and then.”
At USC, DeRozan said he had the time of his life. After growing up on the streets of Compton, DeRozan roomed with teammate and popular hip-hop artist Percy “Romeo” Miller Jr. in Troy Hall. Miller and DeRozan grew up playing together on traveling basketball teams, and Miller refers to DeRozan as his “best friend” who is “like a brother.”
“We have a lot of stories,” Miller said. “[DeRozan] is kind of shy around girls. You wouldn’t think that a top NBA player would be shy around girls, but he is. Me being Romeo, it came naturally, but he was shy. That is why he is such an amazing player. He put basketball first.”
DeRozan would not argue against Miller’s claim.
“[Of course Miller] should be better [with women],” DeRozan said. “He was a number one recording rapper at one point. But I think I got around so I am not worried about it.”
On the court, DeRozan averaged 13.9 points per game and 5.7 rebounds as a freshman. He helped the Trojans win the Pac-10 Tournament, and was named the Pac-10 Tournament MVP.
DeRozan’s success convinced scouts that he was ready for the NBA. DeRozan, however, was torn between returning to USC to avenge the team’s second-round loss in the NCAA tournament, and going to the NBA.
“It was stressful,” DeRozan said. “I talked to everybody. I got everybody’s input. I don’t know everything, so I just try to learn from people.”
However, Miller convinced DeRozan that he needed to think for himself.
“I told him, ‘That is a decision you have to make on your own. You have to go with your heart,’” Miller said. “It is like getting married. I am not going to tell him if it is the right wife or not. He had to make his decision.”
With his mother, Diane DeRozan, who has lupus, DeRozan ultimately decided that his family needed the money that the NBA was offering.
“DeMar told me, ‘You guys can sit down and take it easy. I can take care of you guys because you did so much for me growing up,’” DeMar’s father, Frank DeRozan, said.
The Toronto Raptors drafted DeRozan with the ninth pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, and signed him to a multimillion-dollar contract. One of the first things that DeRozan purchased were fancier clothes to comply with the NBA dress code, after never having owned a suit in college, and warmer clothes to help him survive Toronto winters.
Through Wednesday, DeRozan was averaging 6.1 points per game with the Raptors. He has played well enough to earn a position in the starting lineup, averaging 17.6 minutes per game.
“We are trying to keep his minutes up, and he has certainly done nothing to have those minutes be cut,” Raptors coach Jay Triano said. “DeMar works hard everyday, he is an excellent student of the game, he wants to learn and get better, and he has an excellent attitude.”
Added the Raptors’ All-Star forward, Chris Bosh, “DeMar brings athleticism, both on the defensive and offensive ends. He has shown that he can really attack the basket and score in the half-court. That was a big thing we were lacking before.”
DeRozan is also a contributor off the court, keeping his teammates in Toronto entertained, often through rookie hazing.
“DeMar brings a lot to this team,” said Raptors’ forward Hedo Turkoglu. “He brings doughnuts, coffee, newspapers and towels to the games before we get into the showers.”
In the NBA, DeRozan may be perceived as nothing more than a lowly rookie, but with the start of the college basketball season arriving, the Trojans are missing his presence.
“If [DeRozan] was still here, we would have a number one team,” Miller said. “We still have a great bunch of guys here, but if you can have the addition of an NBA player, it always helps.”
Miller is not alone in thinking the Trojans would be a top team if DeRozan played his sophomore season at USC.
“I believe that,” DeRozan said. “A lot of things would have been different, but we will never know now.”