The virtue of DeMar DeRozan

ByMark Kriegel Via <a Href="http://espn.go.com/" Title="espn" Class="espn_sc_byline">espn </a>
February 26, 2018, 4:57 AM

&#151; -- TORONTO -- It's a nice, neat story in a town where storylines themselves are acts of commerce: the return of DeMar DeRozan. But while he's humbled and honored to be starting in yet another All-Star Game, he's not buying into the script.

"I wouldn't call it a homecoming," he says.

On Sunday, the NBA's most egregiously undermentioned MVP candidate will play in his fourth consecutive All-Star Game, his second as a starter. Since this year's site is Staples Center, it'll inevitably be seen as a reunion for DeRozan, a Raptor by way of USC and Compton High School.

Los Angeles has become what New York once was: the de facto capital of the game. This year, four All-Stars -- DeRozan, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Paul George -- hail from L.A. Two more -- Klay Thompson and Kevin Love -- have L.A. roots. Beyond the abundance of homegrown talent, there has long been a sense for players that Southern California is the place to be, a destination, if not as a Laker or a Clipper, then as an offseason home. It's not just the weather; it's the proximity to Hollywood. In a league built on star power, L.A. isn't merely good for your game, it's great for your brand.

But again, DeRozan isn't buying it. "I never cared about branding," he says.

Compton, like Hollywood -- or perhaps, in part, because of Hollywood -- occupies a place in the American imagination. For DeRozan, however, there was nothing imaginary about it. He grew up on Aranbe Avenue, the only child of Frank and Diane DeRozan.

"I had kind of given up hope when I found out I was pregnant with DeMar," Diane says. "That's why I call him 'the blessed one.'"

Life in the neighborhood -- an approximate 10-block radius emanating from Marian Anderson Elementary School -- revolved around a single affiliation: the Poccet Hood Compton Crips. That was his identity, the result of birth and geography. It came before religion, even before race.

"It's the first thing you feel accepted by," DeRozan says. "It's all I knew. I look back on it now, and it makes no sense. But growing up, it made perfect sense."

At 5 years old, DeMar attended his first funeral. His uncle Kevin had been shot in the heart by a member of the rival Bloods gang. If Diane recalls her brother as "a good guy who went to work every day," DeMar remembers him as "one of the biggest Crips in Compton." It was as if someone famous had died. "Kind of like a parade," he says.

"I've been to so many funerals in the hood, I lost count," Diane says. "But that was the first time DeMar knew of death."

He'd get used to it soon enough, though. Underlying each ceremony, the preacher's sermon, even the grief itself, was a palpable sense of dread and an expectation of more violence.

"You remember that feeling," DeMar says. "It's kind of sickening."

He has seen drive-bys at funerals. He has seen people die at funerals.

"Always extra drama," he says. "You carry that hatred and frustration with you."

If his world seems clearer in retrospect, then so does the game. DeMar started playing with his father around the time he began going to funerals. "I couldn't wait for the weekend so he could take me," he says.

The venues would change -- Lueders Park, Gonzalez Park, Wilson Park, Compton College -- but the cycle was the same. What began with great expectations ended in rage. These weren't merely one-on-ones. Over time, they became epic, Oedipal struggles. Frank had played linebacker growing up in Louisiana. All DeMar really knew, though, was that his dad was 6-foot-4, about 260, and apparently, merciless.

Wherever his son was vulnerable -- in game, body or spirit -- Frank would find that place. And push. Hard. He'd block the kid's shot. He'd knock him down. And he'd tell him:

You soft.

Crybaby.

Your opponent ain't gonna care.

You ain't s---.

DeMar might punt the ball away or complain to his mother. But Diane couldn't help but notice, "The madder he got, the better he played." Frank, for his part, never broke character. In his mind's eye, DeMar saw him as The Hawk -- regal, invulnerable, without sympathy or remorse.

And then one Sunday, they're driving on the 101 freeway to visit DeMar's considerably older half-brother in The Valley. DeMar is in seventh grade. It's just the two of them, and Frank keeps swerving right. Frank plays it off like everything's OK, but the rumble strips tell DeMar something different. When they get to Jermaine's house, Frank is still playing it off. But DeMar notices he can't pick up a domino with his left hand.

The next day, Diane picks up DeMar from school and brings him to the hospital. It's official: Frank had a stroke. He didn't break, though, until he caught sight of DeMar at his bedside. Then The Hawk began to weep.

"I can't die," he said. "I can't die until I see you make it."

Around this time, Diane was also diagnosed with lupus, a painful autoimmune disease that causes the body's tissues and organs to attack themselves. With neither parent in good health, and DeMar already dunking on grown men, his course seemed set.

"People ask me what I would have done if it wasn't for basketball," he says. "I can never give a good story because I honestly don't know. I had no other options."

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