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The Many Dimensions of DeMar DeRozan

After enduring the darkest stretch of his life, the Bulls star has finally found joy in Chicago. DeRozan opens up about dealing with his grief, finding new success amid a record-breaking season, and discovering that life is about more than just surviving. “It’s about living.

Jack C. Gregory

Never break. DeMar DeRozan’s father used to say those two words, again and again, as his son was growing up in Compton, California.

Many times, DeMar came close. Close to unraveling, close to shutting down. He couldn’t trust many people around him. As soon as he got attached to someone, they would disappear. Uncles, friends, classmates. He would come to school, see an empty desk that remained unfilled for days, and nothing more needed to be said. Gunshots, gangs, and funerals haunted his neighborhood. He almost became numb to the violence, the possibility of death. Every time he left his house, he knew he might not return. He understood, as his mother, Diane, puts it, “You’re here today, and maybe gone tomorrow. You have to make the best of it.”

Loss was the rhythm of his life, but he’d dream up new melodies. “Having an imagination, thinking I was Michael Jordan, in the middle of Compton,” DeMar says. As soon as he shut his eyes, he’d retreat to a happier place. One where his home, which had little furniture and no fridge or cable TV, had transformed into the United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls. Thousands of fans were screaming his name. Little DeMar became Michael, clutching an imaginary ball, releasing a fadeaway jumper as the shot clock expired. He’d hold his follow through, sticking his tongue out as his tiny body fell back onto his bed.

Now DeRozan is draining those game-winners for Chicago in his first season with the Bulls. The 32-year-old is playing the best basketball of his career and was just named to his fifth All-Star team, his third as a starter. With 38 points in a win over the Kings on Wednesday, he surpassed Wilt Chamberlain to become the first player in NBA history to score 35 points or more in seven straight games while shooting above 50 percent. His magnificent play has revitalized the Bulls, who at 38-21 sit in first place in the East, leading to even some outside MVP consideration. It’s a phenomenal turn of events for a veteran who has continuously reinvented himself in recent years, from a player once viewed as a one-dimensional leaper into a dynamic playmaker and leader.

“For a guy that’s been around the league as long as he’s been in the league, it’s easy just to sit there and say, ‘OK, I’ve arrived,’” says Bulls coach Billy Donovan. “He’s still always trying to find ways to get better. And I really, really admire that: that he’s not satisfied.”

The spirit of Jordan looms around him. In the rafters, on the hardwood, in the iconic statue out front. DeRozan aches to live up to that greatness, to finally win a title, but another part of him is simply trying to heal. The past four years have been among the darkest of his life. He has experienced depression. He lost his father, Frank, in February 2021. And his professional life was upended by a stunning trade from the Raptors, the team he gave his heart to for nearly a decade, to the Spurs.

Given all he has endured up to this point, the years of loss, of setbacks, of doubts, DeRozan finally feels a sense of release, an unfamiliar feeling. “Freedom,” DeRozan says. “It’s kind of like driving on a bumpy road for so long that you get used to it. To where, when you finally hit the smooth pavement, you really don’t realize how smooth it is because you’ve been riding on a bumpy road for so long.”

A lifetime of pain taught him that happiness can be fleeting—but joy? Joy lasts longer, he’s learned. And he has found more of it than he ever envisioned. “This is the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” his mother says. She can see it in the way her son walks onto the court. He is sure of who he is on the floor, and who he wants to become off of it. He has perspective, patience. Sometimes he even lets a smile break through in the middle of play. “A Christmas present all year round,” she says, “just to see your child happy.”

He is full of joy—but grief lingers beneath. He still wishes his father Frank, who was his best friend and biggest advocate, was here to see him achieve what he has now. To just be by his side. Tell him what he is doing wrong, what he is doing right. “I’m still trying to figure it out today, and kind of still come up with a blank,” he says. “Because it just happened.”

“My dad was my everything,” he says. “He’s the reason why I am who I am.” Frank taught him discipline. He was everything DeMar wanted to be: resilient, hard-working, loving, proud. Starting when DeMar was in high school, Frank would wear customized T-shirts and jerseys that said: “DeRozan’s Dad.” Frank had felt the absence of his own father, and never wanted DeMar to know that ache. So, he never left DeMar. Pushed him hard. Loved him harder. But in a world intent on breaking people down, Frank wanted to toughen up DeMar.

An imposing man who had played football, Frank taught his son to never show weakness. As a boy DeMar used to cry when he lost games. Frank would yell: “You can’t be crying all the time! You got to stop all this crying!” When Diane told Frank he was being too hard on DeMar, Frank would counter: “He’s going to be a man one day. The tougher I am on him, the better he’ll be.”

He would yell if DeMar missed free throws, and DeMar would cry, kicking the ball and wanting to quit. But he wouldn’t, because his dad wouldn’t. “I never seen him break,” DeMar says.

Frank had battled various illnesses throughout the years, including kidney issues. DeMar would fly back and forth from San Antonio to Los Angeles to visit him in the hospital. DeMar would sit near his bed and just breathe with him. It was painful, seeing Big Frank, as family and friends called him, so vulnerable, so frail.

And then Frank would say something that would remind DeMar to stiffen his upper lip: “I’m gonna beat you in basketball once I get out of this hospital.”

Frank had prepared DeMar for life without him. A life where DeMar would become his own man—and a father—and have to look deep inside and see what he is made of. Chris Farr, DeMar’s close friend and longtime trainer, who has worked with him since he was 18, often tells him: “D, deep down, you know you was built for this.”

“Sometimes before you become who you are,” Farr tells him, “things have to go get worse before it gets better.”

All his life, DeRozan has been trying to keep himself together. Fly over anything threatening to pull him under. But he knows now that life is about more than never breaking. It’s about more than just surviving.

“It’s about living,” he says. And part of living is accepting all the parts of his journey. Accepting himself—loving himself, even. “That just started,” he says. “I’m in the process of that now.”

2011 NBA All-Star Weekend - T-Mobile Rookie Challenge and Youth Jam
DeMar DeRozan dunks during the rookie-sophomore game in 2011
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Many nights, toward the end of his time in Toronto, DeRozan couldn’t sleep. He’d lie awake in his bed, just thinking. It was around 2018, when he often started feeling restless. Exhausted. Sometimes he’d get only a couple hours of sleep, before mustering the energy to train the next morning.

His mom sensed something was wrong but didn’t quite know what: “I know my child was hurting on the inside, but I couldn’t get it out of him.”

Not many could. DeRozan was quiet, introverted; outgoing when he needed to be but more comfortable keeping to himself. Bottling his feelings so no one could exploit him. That kept him safe as a child. If he hid traces of weakness he could survive. Even thrive. Just as Frank taught him to.

He was in elementary school when he first envisioned taking his family to another place, another time. “Mom,” 8-year-old DeMar told Diane one day, “I’m going to take care of you. And I’m going to take care of Dad.”

As he got older, it was clear he would be able to keep his promise. He dazzled for USC, climbing up draft boards and becoming a lottery pick. He electrified crowds, soaring over opponents for one highlight after another.

But all those years later in Toronto, there was still something missing. He didn’t feel energized by his success. He felt drained. Kyle Lowry, his best friend and teammate at the time, knew that when DeRozan was on the court, he could escape the emptiness he felt. The overwhelming sense of loss tugging at him. But after the game, the two of them would say to each other: “Back to reality.” Back to sadness. Back to sleeplessness. “[Kyle] seen me come out of the matrix,” DeRozan says, “once we walk back in the locker room.”

DeRozan was named an All-Star Game starter in his hometown of Los Angeles in 2018. Coming back was supposed to be special but soon turned frustrating. Tiring. So many people were demanding things from him. Money, tickets, attention. “He has a lot of expectations of people looking at him,” says Tony Thomas, his former Compton High coach. “It’s just so much pressure. It started to take its toll.”

He felt the weight of people close to him putting their problems onto him. He missed his kids, whom he hadn’t seen in a week or two. He was depleted. “I had nothing to give. Nothing,” he says. “Physically, emotionally, mentally.” He hit a wall: “I was down and out.”

That weekend, he fell asleep one night around 7 p.m. and didn’t wake until 9 a.m. Before going to bed, he came across a Jim Carrey interview in which Carrey described depression as the body asking for a “deep rest”—a rest from the character that the self plays.

He hadn’t told many close to him that he was feeling depressed. It was difficult to explain, as what he felt during All-Star Weekend wasn’t elation at the achievement but the culmination of a flurry of negative emotions that had been slowly compounding: “Things that I went through that I suppressed time after time.” It wasn’t one moment but a bunch that blurred together. Chaos he witnessed as a child, as a teen, seeped into his bones, and wouldn’t let go. He had made it out of Compton but Compton wouldn’t leave him. “All these things that accumulate, that you kind of sweep under the rug, it kind of hit the fan when so much in the present time is coming at you,” he says.

“I didn’t want to tell nobody,” he says. “I carried it.”

His closest friends and family found out when DeMar tweeted: “This depression get the best of me...” He posted a picture of the Joker on his Instagram story, writing: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

The posts went viral, but DeRozan just wanted someone to hear him.

“You kind of just lash and lash out,” he says, “and kind of scream for help.”

McDonald’s All-American High School Basketball Games
DeMar DeRozan at the McDonald’s All American Game in 2008
Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

DeRozan had been suppressing years of grief. It started with his mother, who lost her brothers to gang violence. DeMar’s best friend in high school was also killed. DeRozan was supposed to hang out with him one night. “Nobody know I blame myself,” DeRozan says. “Because I waited too long to call him.” For a while, he’d crawled into a shell on the anniversary: “It shut me down and shut me out.” The losses continued from there. Diane’s mom and dad died within a week of each other. Diane wasn’t sure DeMar would recover, given how close he was with his grandmother: “I thought he was going to stop playing basketball,” she says. But DeMar kept pushing. He stayed focused. Didn’t attend parties. Never drank alcohol (and hasn’t to this day). He was always early for practice, telling Coach Thomas: “I gotta make it.”

He had to—for his parents. When he was in middle school he found out his mother had lupus, an autoimmune disease. Around that time, his dad had a stroke. DeMar was in the car with Frank when it just started swerving to the side. It was terrifying. When Frank went to the hospital, he looked at his son:

“I can’t die until you make it,” Frank told him. “Because I know you’re gonna make it.”

DeMar couldn’t afford to be fearful, learning to navigate around the gangs that hovered in his neighborhood. He became even more determined to make the NBA. “Growing up in an urban community, you supposed to fail, you know?” he says. “So, for me, it’s like, well if I’m supposed to fail, well, fuck it. What do I need to lose? If I’m going to fail, well, let me go at it as hard as I can.”

He played so much harder, so much faster, than his peers. “A man playing with boys,” says Aaron Goodwin, his longtime agent, who has known DeMar since he was an eighth grader. DeMar was determined to prove himself but assumed basketball would one day be taken from him, just as so many of his loved ones had been. So, he wouldn’t take the game for granted. He needed to play. Playing helped him compartmentalize. “For me, playing when you going through so much,” he says, “was just me tapping into my childhood imagination of feeling free.”

“Some of my greatest games I’ve ever had was me going through the worst things in my life.” The day after his best friend died, he dropped 60 against Compton College in a scrimmage, destroying anyone in his path. But when the game ended, his grief resurfaced.

Back to reality.

The brilliance of DeRozan has been his capacity to endure anything and give everything, all at once. But what changed in February 2018 was that he realized he could no longer do just that. He could no longer compartmentalize. Lock things inside. Somehow, he had to bridge the gap between his imagination and his reality, between what had happened to him off the court, and what was happening to him on the court.

But how? A lifetime of clenching made him unsure how to release. He grew up thinking the aggression he witnessed was normal. So was standing up for himself, acting tough. “You grow up thinking that’s right, that’s normal. You carry that along,” he says. “And so, when it’s time for you to feel vulnerable, you fighting against it with yourself. And you start to have whatever resentment toward yourself. Whatever frustration, whatever doubt, whatever hatred towards yourself, because for years you thought one way.

“But now you’re dealing with so many emotions,” he says, “and it’s clouding your thoughts and your judgments.”

2018 NBA All-Star Game
DeRozan speaks at the All-Star Game in 2018
Photo by Steven Baffo/NBAE via Getty Images

Diane encouraged DeMar to speak with a professional. She shared that she had seen a psychiatrist herself. “There’s nothing wrong with it,” she told him.

Because he avoided talking about his trauma for so long, though, he felt guarded when he did start to talk. I don’t know you, he thought. I’m not about to tell you everything I’m feeling because I don’t think you would fully relate.

The more he opened up privately, though, the more comfortable he became speaking publicly. A few months after his viral posts, he flew to Portland for an internal event with Nike: a private talk with the Arlee Warriors, a state-champion high school basketball team from Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation, a community that had high rates of suicide.

At first DeRozan seemed shy, sitting in the front of the room, elbows on his knees. Then he started to talk about his feelings. How important it was to not bottle things up. The Warriors were in awe of DeMar—this superstar who had the courage to say, I struggle, too. Some players began to share their own struggles. “To see them be honest with their emotions was powerful,” says Zanen Pitts, the Warriors’ coach.

Afterward, DeRozan connected with one player, Greg Whitesell. Whitesell shared that he had been struggling, and DeRozan listened, offering comfort and advice. “He actually cared,” Whitesell says. “He was there to actually help.”

DeRozan saw that when he allowed himself to be vulnerable, others felt safe to do so, too. The kid who once felt insecure about how much bigger, how much stronger, he was than his classmates was now putting himself out in front of an audience. “Next thing you know,” DeRozan says, “that’s really therapy.”

He doesn’t always receive the credit, but DeRozan changed the face of the modern NBA—and professional sports—in the way mental health is discussed. He laid a foundation for others, speaking candidly and frequently about his struggles. Kevin Love would follow suit and speak out about his experiences with anxiety and depression a month later.

“If it weren’t for DeMar,” says Love, “I don’t know if I would have gotten to the point where I could share my story, and be the person, though I’m not perfect, that I am today, who has decided to seek therapy, has tried to be a voice and further what he had done for me and for others.”

Love was at a point where, as he puts it: “I didn’t want to face myself.” But when he saw DeMar’s posts, he felt like he could start to confront his own pain. “What I realized, through him, is only when we own our darkness, can we be present with the darkness of others and really pay it forward,” Love says.

Later that year the National Basketball Players Association launched a mental health and wellness program to provide players with better access to counselors. “Athletes, at one point in time, it was not cool to talk about mental health,” says Chris Bosh, a former Toronto teammate who had mentored DeMar his rookie season. “It’s like, ‘Hey you need to keep that tight and you need to win this game.’”

“For [DeMar], it was good to just own it and let people know, because I think a lot of people get desensitized when you’re successful or when you’re famous or if you can play basketball,” Bosh says. “People don’t think you have problems or people don’t think you’re human.”

Other prominent athletes such as Naomi Osaka, Dak Prescott, and Simone Biles have followed suit with their own stories. The more he spoke, the more DeRozan helped destigmatize mental health, creating space for others to share their vulnerabilities, especially Black boys and men. “We’ve got to be vulnerable,” Goodwin says, “which most of us don’t, because we don’t want you to see the weakness in us. DeMar gave us all permission to do that.”

DeRozan continued to raise awareness when he could, cognizant of the rising rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness among young people. “He’s one of the people that made it OK to talk about [mental health]. To understand that it’s something that needs to be dealt with,” Gregg Popovich, his former coach with the Spurs, says, “and it doesn’t diminish you as an individual to be able to state that. It actually gives you strength and helps a whole lot of other people. And he knew that.”

Denver Nuggets v San Antonio Spurs
DeRozan and Gregg Popovich in 2021
Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

The biggest jolt to DeRozan’s professional life came in 2018, when Toronto traded him to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard, culminating in the Raptors winning the 2019 title.

DeRozan was shocked. He felt betrayed after nine seasons with the team. Leaving also meant leaving behind Lowry, his best friend. “Oh, that hurt my child,” Diane says. DeMar called her in the middle of the night to tell her, and then broke down in tears. “That devastated him.”

All DeRozan had known was loyalty. His mother taught him to love hard. “If someone love you,” she’d say, “you love them just as hard.” And he loved Toronto. Told fans he wanted to stay there forever, win a championship.

He kept a smile on his face in the coming days, telling everyone he was all right. He told Popovich that he would do whatever was needed from him for the team to succeed. But he was deeply hurt. “It took him a long time to get right,” Farr says. “He was down and depressed.”

DeRozan began to adjust to his new surroundings in San Antonio, where he’d spend the next three seasons. He pushed himself harder than ever, challenging himself to be a more complete player. He didn’t come into the league as a 3-point shooter, but he knew the league was transitioning to a shooter’s game and he worked to add the shot to his arsenal.

“We used to always joke with each other about how we were considered dunkers,” says Rudy Gay, one of his closest friends, who played with him in Toronto and San Antonio. “Certain people would take that as a compliment, but he took it as a little bit of an insult. And he brought so much more to the game. Every year, he added something.”

Popovich challenged him to be a better defender, and DeRozan bought in. He also proved to be a gifted passer and facilitator, something he was rarely asked to do in Toronto. He flourished, averaging 6.2 assists in three years in San Antonio, exactly double what he averaged as a Raptor.

Once again, though, he was playing with a heavy heart, traveling back and forth between San Antonio and California to see Frank as his health declined. He continued to show up for his team as if nothing was bothering him. As if it didn’t take everything in him just to stand up straight.

Never break.

“He keeps such a steady demeanor,” says Popovich, who encouraged him to take the trips, “that it belies probably the emotion and tension and everything that’s probably going on in his body because of his personal situation with his dad. The trade … To his credit, it never affected one minute of his play on the court.

“Unbelievably mature,” Popovich says. “I have nothing but great respect and love for him.”

DeRozan’s transition from the Raptors to the Spurs would turn out to be one of the most difficult stretches of his life, which included the tragic deaths of two close friends, Nipsey Hussle and Kobe Bryant. DeRozan had idolized Kobe since he was a kid. He adopted so many of Kobe’s moves. That midrange. Those up-fakes. Diane remembers an excited DeMar coming up to her one afternoon, years ago. “Mama! Kobe called me!”

About a year after Kobe died, Frank passed. It crushed DeMar, seeing his mother cry. He felt helpless, seeing her this way. “Empty inside,” DeRozan says. “My mom’s probably the strongest person I’ve ever encountered.”

He felt he had to be strong for her, as she had always been for him. She would park her car out in front of the outdoor basketball courts in Compton, watching teenage DeMar hoop, making sure he was safe. He was her miracle baby. She feared she’d be childless, because of health issues. She delivered him with an emergency C-section, calling him The Blessed One.

She still does, now that it’s just the two of them, grieving Frank. DeMar didn’t know what to say to make her feel better, so he just held her. Let her crawl into his broad, muscular frame and weep. He was 31 but he was 8 again.

Mom, I’m going to take care of you.

Last summer, DeRozan approached free agency for the first time. He had his heart set on going to his hometown Lakers for the 2021-22 season, so he could be close to his mom. He also already had a good relationship with LeBron, and the two spoke about DeRozan joining the purple and gold. “It looked like he would be home,” Goodwin says. And then? “Everything changed.”

The Lakers ended up instead trading for Russell Westbrook, and Goodwin began to look elsewhere. He pushed for DeRozan to be in Chicago, thinking it would be the best fit. Marc Eversley, Bulls GM, had been with DeRozan in Toronto, and knew he’d be a fantastic addition not just as a player, but as a person.

Goodwin also thought joining the Bulls would be a chance for DeRozan to be a veteran leader with a younger group and a chance to stand out in the Eastern Conference. DeRozan never complained about being overlooked. His joy comes not from praise but from work. For him, the joy is in the doing. The pushing himself past what he thinks he can do. What others think he can do.

In a recent loss to the 76ers, DeRozan gave everything he had, finishing with 45 points. The Bulls star walked over to Donovan in the closing moments, putting his arm around him. “Coach,” DeRozan said, “I just want to let you know I really, really tried hard tonight to get you to be the All-Star coach.” DeRozan had played out of his mind—and his attention was on Donovan? “It touched my heart beyond belief,” Donovan says. “The genuineness, the sincerity, the honesty. And just who he is as a human being.”

Minnesota Timberwolves v Chicago Bulls
DeRozan in Chicago in 2022
Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

When DeMar looks at his daughters, Diar, 8, Mari, 5, and Dayah, 9 months, his hard exterior melts away. His push for perfection pauses. He sometimes lets them stay up past their bedtime, and snuggles them under his arms, watching Disney princess movies. Other times, he takes them to the gym. They giggle as DeRozan bricks a shot. “Come on, Daddy! Make that shot!”

As he grows older, as it’s been nearly a year living without Frank, he realizes the way he grew up, and the way his daughters are growing up, couldn’t be more different. He’s learning a gentler approach.

“My oldest daughter changed my life forever,” he says. “She taught me empathy. Patience.” He thought he knew those things in his early 20s, before she was born. “I didn’t know a damn thing. It just put me in a place of being a protector, a provider, a giver, all emotionally, that I didn’t know I had within me.”

He is present. And he knows that’s exactly what Frank was. Present. Frank was always there. Frank’s toughness, his hardness, was love. Staring down anyone who dared insult DeMar in the stands was love.

DeMar misses his dad but is comforted by the knowledge that he is no longer suffering. He sees his mother nearly every week, makes sure she exercises and eats well. She has good days and bad days with lupus. He worries about her. But when they are together, some of those worries wash away. Sometimes they just sit on the couch and laugh, remembering old times in Compton.

He’s sleeping much better these days. And he continues to find solace in speaking up about mental health. He’s excited about hosting a new show called Dinners With DeMar, where he will have dinner with prominent athletes and entertainers like Michael Phelps, Ben Simmons, and Meek Mill, as well as non-famous people, discussing mental health issues and how to cope with the stresses of life.

He knows his own depression, his own grief, isn’t something to overcome, either. “It don’t work like that,” he says. It’s something he lives with. Confronts daily. “You never just completely beat something and be totally fine.”

He’s learned how to better handle his triggers. DeRozan says he looks at it like a video game, remembering playing Mario as a kid. He’d get frustrated, wanting to quit, when his character would die. Then he started to understand timing, how to get to higher levels. Then he’d encounter another challenge, learning how to calmly approach it.

He’s using that approach now, knowing his struggles can coexist with his joys.

And maybe there’s a new way of embracing that joy. Embracing himself. But he doesn’t quite know how to do that yet, fully love himself. His path. His flaws, his failures. All the things that make him extraordinary. Resilient. Vulnerable. It might take a while, but there’s a brightness in his voice, when discussing the possibility.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll have a better story for you 20 years from now,” he says. He imagines what that could look like, what that might feel like—but doesn’t yet know. He has to find out for himself.

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