TORONTO — DeMar DeRozan has found closure.
When the player once fondly known as “Mr. I am Toronto” was unceremoniously jettisoned from the Raptors last summer in the blockbuster deal to acquire Kawhi Leonard, the hurt lingered long. But the 29-year-old insists he’s moved on.
“Last summer was a whirlwind for me,” DeRozan said. ”I was just trying to get things in order and understanding what to do next. I haven’t had a chance to really sit down and reflect on it, understand it, or put it in some sort of perspective.
“But it’s a tough… not even just a game, but life is tough in general and there’s always going to be some type of curveball coming your way and you feel like it’s unfair. It’s just part of life and you have to find a way to let that be some sort of challenge to be better in whatever way possible.”
DeRozan was back in Toronto with his San Antonio Spurs on the eve of his much-anticipated game against the Raptors, a game that’s been circled on many a calendar — including his — since that shocking day last summer.
While DeRozan, who played nine years in Toronto, has said his relationship with Raptors president Masai Ujiri was done the day he was traded, Ujiri told media on Wednesday that “time heals.”
“Time does heal everything,” DeRozan responded. ”That doesn’t mean it’s going to go back to the same way that it was. I’ve moved on, I’m happy where I’m at. Still talk to most of the (Raptors players). So that’s that. That part will never changed, but we’ve all moved on.”
DeRozan certainly looked like he’d moved on Thursday. Almost like he’s been spoiled by the Texas sunshine, he showed up to Thursday night’s press conference at a swish Yorkville hotel wearing a fur aviator hat pulled down over his ears.
Asked if he had plans to head out into the city, he laughed and said “It’s too cold.” (It was 1 C, almost balmy for a Toronto winter night).
What did he have planned for the evening?
“Hopefully Kyle (Lowry) comes and brings me something to eat.”
How’s he liking the San Antonio weather?
“I love it.”
He joked that he “didn’t miss the construction” in Canada’s largest city.
DeRozan, who saw himself as a lifetime Raptor before the trade, has tried to envision what Friday night’s return to Scotiabank Arena will be like. He couldn’t recall if he’s ever been in the visitors locker-room. He looked forward to seeing longtime arena staff. At Thursday’s press event, he greeted Raptors beat writers with hugs and handshakes.
“I’ve been extremely mellow about it, just trying to take it day by day, hour by hour because once it comes, it’s going to go by just like that. Sometimes you just want to go enjoy the moment because the moment … like I enjoyed the hour and 10 minute bus ride in (from the airport)… coming to the hotel, all them things. Not try to rush it and not get too anxious about it. One thing I learned, you can’t speed up or slow down time.”
One of the most popular Raptors ever — if not the most popular — will undoubtedly receive a hero’s welcome.
“I’ve watched certain shows with certain introductions, with certain people, when they get that long standing ovation. I always thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” DeRozan said through wide smile. ”I’ve never received one, so if it’s one of them long standing ovations, it’s definitely going to be overwhelming, I’m looking forward to it, to feeling the love.”
DeRozan was feeling it last month when the Spurs hosted the Raptors, recording his first career triple double: 21 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists on a night that saw San Antonio’s crowd serenade Leonard with thunderous jeers.
“Going back, you know what’s expected, but it just felt like a road game,” the even-keeled Leonard said Thursday. ”Environments like that can only get us better, being able to have the fans up in their seats excited, wanting the team to lose, it just prepares us for the playoffs.”
The Raptors look vastly different than the team that saw its three-game win streak end at the hands of the Spurs, acquiring Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin just before the NBA all-star break, and sending Jonas Valanciunas, C.J. Miles and Delon Wright to Memphis.
Kyle Lowry also didn’t play in San Antonio.
“I was kind of mad that (Lowry) didn’t play last game,” DeRozan said. ”I’m looking forward to playing against him. I learned so much from Kyle. Kyle gave me a sense of a different side of understanding basketball and I learned so much from him, being my point guard, being my best friend, just everything that came with that. When it came to being on the court with him, he’s probably one of the toughest individuals I ever got a chance to play with.”
DeRozan is averaging 21.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists in 54 games with the Spurs. In his final season with the Raptors he averaged 23 points, 3.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse said he hopes his team handles the emotions of Friday night’s game better than it did in San Antonio. The Raptors (43-16) have their lofty sights set further down the road, at a franchise-first berth in the NBA finals.
The Spurs (33-26) are seventh in the west and are playing for a favourable position in the playoffs.
But Nurse said he is looking forward to seeing DeRozan.
“I love DeMar. I had a great five years with him,” said Nurse, an assistant under Dwane Casey before Casey’s firing. ”It was fun to watch him grow. And we had a tremendous amount of success. It was neat to see him, just the stages that I remember – like when becoming a great screen-and-roll player, becoming such a good passer, handing the double teams. Those were stages he kept on making as he goes.
“And on the fond side of things is just watching him work out. He’s got his pace that he works out at, right? And he does these shooting workouts too, and I don’t think it’s everyone’s cup of tea. But there’s times when I’d sit there and watch one shot after another go right down the middle and watch his footwork and rocking back and forth, and it was artistry to me.”