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  • Writer's pictureJoshua U.

Mental Health Awareness Month: DeMar DeRozan, A Voice For The Voiceless

DeMar DeRozan, born August 7th, 1989, 34-years-old from Compton, CA, is a walking basketball success story.  

Made by Joshua Umahi for 'Good Graphics' on The Recess Bell. DeMar Derozan graphic that tells the story of his career.

Made by Joshua Umahi for 'Good Graphics' on The Recess Bell.

At Compton High School, he was the definition of a standout. DeMar played on the varsity squad for ALL FOUR YEARS of high school, setting school records ablaze seemingly every single time he stepped foot onto the court with his explosive scoring ability. The game came so easily to him as a youngster that it was as if he was born to play basketball. 

When his high school tenure came to a close, he earned the right to attend the University of Southern California and continued to hoop close to home. His potential was so clear & evident as a Trojan that after just one year at USC, DeRozan declared for the 2009 NBA Draft and was immediately viewed as a consensus top-10 pick-to-be. As expected, DeRozan's prophecy was fulfilled, as he was selected 9th overall by the Toronto Raptors.  

19-year-old DeMar DeRozan meets former Commissioner David Stern at the podium at the 2009 NBA Draft, after being selected 9th overall by the Toronto Raptors.

DeRozan had already reached an incredible accomplishment in merely making it to the NBA. Per a study from the NCAA in 2020, only about 3.5% of players successfully make the jump from to the collegiate level, and that number is an even narrower one when you change the criteria to just Division I schools. And, from there? Only about 1.2% of players make the leap from college to the NBA. So, DeRozan was already a basketball "1-percenter" at this stage after signing his NBA rookie-scale contract.  

But his destiny called for more than just simply making it to the Association. 

At this point in time, in 2009-10, the Toronto Raptors were viewed as an unspectacular franchise. They had a good cultural run during the Vince Carter era but had returned to the land of irrelevance since Carter's departure in 2004. Chris Bosh rose into Carter's place as the franchise player after Carter was traded to the New Jersey Nets, but Bosh also departed Toronto after DeRozan's rookie season in 2010.  

The keys were in DeRozan's hands now, and he didn't just drive the bus up the hill of prosperity -- he did so with the weight of an entire nation riding in the back.  

In DeRozan's nine seasons as a Raptor, from 2009-2018, his accomplishments were vast. He reached 4 All-Star teams and was selected to the All-NBA team twice. He led the Raptors, alongside teammate & best friend Kyle Lowry, to 5 consecutive playoff appearances from 2014-2018, and DeMar scored the 7th-most points in the entire NBA during that period. He signed a 5-year, $139 million contract extension in 2016, not only earning the largest player contract in Toronto's franchise history, but secured generational wealth for himself & his family. 

Kyle Lowry (left) and DeMar DeRozan changed the tenor of Toronto basketball during their run as teammates from 2013-2018, and did so while being the best of friends the entire way.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan changed the tenor of Toronto hoops during their shared run from 2013-2018 and did so while being the best of friends the entire way.  

So, that's all the good of DeRozan's Toronto tenure. But if you pick up the prism and look at it from a different angle, there were a lot of disappointments as well. Despite the consistency & frequency with which DeRozan's Raptors made the playoffs, they had never advanced past the Conference Finals, and bowed out in either the first round or second round four times in 5 postseason appearances.  

In three consecutive postseasons from 2016-2018, DeRozan's Raptors were ousted by LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers each time. Now, on the surface -- losing three straight times to the greatest player of the generation & his "superteam" is not something to feel overly ashamed about. BUT, these were not just regular playoff series losses. These were ass-whoopings. These losses happened in such embarrassing fashion that Toronto was mockingly dubbed "LeBronto" as James completely had his way for three straight Springs.  

DeMar DeRozan contests a LeBron James shot attempt during the 2018 Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

DeRozan's Raptors were completely overwhelmed by LeBron's Cavs in DeRozan's final three postseasons with Toronto -- or as some dubbed it, LeBronto.

After the Raptors got swept by the Cavs in the 2017 Playoffs, DeRozan offered up a quote that caught quite a lot of scrutiny and mockery:  

"If we had LeBron on our team too, we would have won." 

The Raptors then proceeded to get swept by LeBron and a diminished Cavs squad in the very next postseason in 2018, shining a very bright light onto the state of DeRozan's career. People wondered aloud whether he was a player that could lead a team to the Finals as the #1. His play vs the Cavaliers cast serious doubt onto that.  

Before going over the next chapter in DeRozan's career, I'll take this opportunity to analyze a certain something that took place off the court for DeRozan in 2018.  

Before their painful postseason in 2017-18, the Raptors enjoyed their most prosperous regular season in franchise history. They won a stellar 59 games, the most in their franchise's then-23-year history. They finished with the 1st seed in the East for the first time in franchise history and set a franchise record with a 34-7 record in home games. As of February 17th, 2018, the Raptors entered the All-Star break on a 7-game win streak & a spectacular 41-16 record overall following a convincing 122-98 victory over the Chicago Bulls three days prior on the 14th. 

Remember that date highlighted above, though. February 17th, 2018. Despite DeRozan and the Raps' resounding success up to this point, DeMar tweeted the following (at 6 in the morning, in the middle of All-Star Weekend in his hometown Los Angeles, mind you) that sent alarm bells throughout the NBA, sports world, and popular culture. 

Mental health matters historically have not been talked about in-depth in the sports world. Male sports, in particular, have always carried a machismo (or macho) culture along with them. 

machismo: (n) strong or aggressive masculine pride.  

Men reading this know what this entails. As a man, it is a common occurrence to hear the retorts of "man up" or "toughen up" -- or something along those lines -- whenever the attempt to open up about something troubling is made. I personally had experienced that throughout my childhood and upbringing. It just was what it was.  

A pro sports locker room, however, can be far more unforgiving than growing up in a typical American household. As referenced before, as far as the NBA, these men are "1-percenters" -- men that have overcome unconscionable odds & adversity to get to where they are -- a task that can only be achieved through toughness & bravado, as varying as the levels of that can be.  

Then when you factor in how the media covers these men?  

Far too often, when an NBA player makes a critical mistake at the end of a game & their team loses, they get the prize of the Stephen A. Smiths and the Skip Bayless's of the world calling their mental makeup into question with the use of adjectives such as "soft", "choker", and the like. 

So, you can only imagine the scrutiny that DeRozan was commonly facing during the latter stages of his Raptors years. Statistically, DeRozan's numbers historically had fallen off from his regular seasons to his postseasons.  

23.4 PPG for DeMar from 2013-14 to 2017-18 in the regular season,  

down to 21.9 PPG in that same span of time in the playoffs. 

Unfortunately, DeRozan had earned the reputation of being a "playoff dropper" -- someone that was known for consistently shrinking and falling short when the games mattered the most. Whether fair or not, that is the theme that the media had established for his career. Not an easy rep to carry when you have the high pride of a male pro athlete. 

But what I just stated above is the prism from which A LOT of sports fans look at these athletes. As unfortunate as it may be, many sports fans look at basketball players as robots, or just people moving around on a TV screen for the world's entertainment. When fans get as critical of these athletes as they do, they often disregard the fact that these athletes are human beings too. They bleed the same blood as us. They have the same thoughts as us. And they go through tough things & trauma in life, just like everybody else.  

Let us remember and try to envision the environment in which DeRozan was raised. Growing up in Compton, CA, DeRozan has commented over the years on the "aggressive nature of life" that he consistently experienced as a kid. He's also made comment on losing countless family members & friends to either death or incarceration, and the amount of heartbreak and trauma that that produced. 

DeMar DeRozan at his jersey retirement ceremony at Compton High School in 2015; DeRozan played for Compton High from 2004-2008.

As previously discussed on The Recess Bell's mental-ity forum, it's extremely important to figure out a way to release our trauma (ESPECIALLY our childhood trauma) in a healthy manner to keep it from festering in our minds and bodies to the point that we get sick -- depression is a mental illness after all.  

I've never gotten the opportunity to ask him directly, so I don't know what I'm about to say for sure. But I cannot imagine that DeRozan was fully cognizant of the ripple effect that his tweet on 2/17/18 would have on the combined worlds of mental health & sports.  

His NBA colleague, Kevin Love, who played for the rival Cavs at the time, opened up about his own personal bouts with depression and anxiety soon after DeRozan's tweet, appreciative of DeRozan for starting a conversation that needed to be started. DeRozan's main postseason rival, the aforementioned LeBron James, publicly praised DeRozan and Love for their willingness to tackle such a sensitive, taboo subject.  

Amazingly, with all that said; after the Raptors' early postseason exit in 2017-18, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri orchestrated a deal that is one of the most audacious in sports history. 

DeMar DeRozan, "Mr. Raptor", was shipped out & traded for superstar Kawhi Leonard on the morning of July 18th, 2018. This deal was a sobering reminder to everyone of how unforgiving the world of sports can be.  

DeRozan had shifted the culture of basketball in Toronto to unforeseen heights. He scored over 13.2k points for the Raptors in 9 seasons. Alongside his best buddy Kyle Lowry, the two combined for one of the best feel-good stories in basketball. And, of course, he just pulled the curtain back on his battles with depression and sparked a nation-wide conversation. 

But there's famously no such thing as loyalty in sports. For all DeRozan had done for the city of Toronto, he was dealt away with no hesitation for Kawhi, a star player who was due to be a free agent in the next summer following his unceremonious exit from the San Antonio Spurs. And if that wasn't difficult enough to stomach, DeRozan had to watch Kawhi dominate right away in Toronto & take the Raptors to a championship that same season -- something that DeMar was heavily criticized for not being able to do during his time above the border. 

DeMar DeRozan with the San Antonio Spurs; Kawhi Leonard with the Toronto Raptors.

After DeMar and Kawhi traded places, DeRozan managed only 1 playoff app. in 3 seasons in San Antonio, while Leonard capitalized on DeRozan's groundwork and won a title in his lone year in Toronto.

DeRozan's career has since settled in following his very eventful 2018 -- he played in San Antonio for 3 seasons, earning multiple platitudes from head coach Gregg Popovich and local members of the media for his impeccable leadership and mentorship of the team's young players. From there, DeRozan signed a 3-year, $81.9 million contract with the Chicago Bulls, which is set to expire this summer. 

It's unclear what DeRozan will choose to do this summer; where he'll choose to go. He's 34 years of age but has shown he's still capable of playing high-level basketball. In his previous three seasons in Chicago, DeRozan posted averages of 27.9, 24.5, and 24.0 points per game, while playing in 93% of the Bulls' games over the three-year span. He'll be a well sought after free agent this offseason, that much is known. 

So, he'll continue to build out his on-court legacy, still hoping to win the championship that eluded him in Toronto. But as far as his off-court legacy goes, he's accomplished more good than a championship would ever bring, no matter how much he might not believe that as a competitor.  

The stigma of mental health in sports takes a lot to start to break down. DeRozan's done a lot thus far to accomplish that goal, though -- most notably by starting his own podcast titled "Dinners with DeMar", which gives fellow athletes and public performers a platform to push the conversation of mental health further & further along. 

DeRozan launched his podcast, "Dinners With DeMar" on February 20th, 2024, nearly 6 years to the day of his tweet regarding his battle with depression.

DeRozan's podcast has featured fellow hoopers Draymond Green, Dwyane Wade, and Damian Lillard on its first three episodes. You can support and watch his project here.

As I mentioned before, DeRozan has fulfilled his basketball prophecy -- that is truly what he was put on this planet to do. 

It has become clear, though, that being a mental health champion is also what he was born to be as well. His life's experiences speak to that. 

And just maybe -- hear me out... 

Being a champion in the mental wellness field matters far more than being one on the basketball court. 

DeMar DeRozan, All-Star


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