DeMar DeRozan returns to Toronto love fest, but can't get fairy-tale ending

TORONTO -- The cheers came in waves.

One after another, they cascaded over Friday's sellout crowd at Scotiabank Arena, crashing onto the court and washing over DeMar DeRozan. For 108 straight seconds, Toronto showered DeRozan with every ounce of love and respect he had earned from the city over his nine seasons with the franchise, acknowledging what everyone here has always been ready to admit:

This was a moment neither side wanted to happen.

Not the fans in Toronto, who watched a kid from Compton, California, grow up to become Canada's favorite son. And certainly not DeRozan, who not only wasn't interested in leaving Toronto, he still is open about how much he loves the place.

Yet here they both were, brought together again for one surreal night in which DeRozan, despite playing in San Antonio Spurs colors, was treated like he was still wearing a Raptors jersey.

"It's an honor," DeRozan would say later. "To come back and get a reception like that, it's definitely humbling, beyond gratifying, and I appreciate it."

When asked how it measured up to the way DeRozan described his feelings about coming back here -- comparing it to breaking up with a longtime girlfriend -- he smiled.

"Yeah," DeRozan said. "You're like, 'Damn, she's still fine as hell.'"

Sports are a funny thing. None of those 20,058 fans who stood and cheered for DeRozan would argue that he is a better player than Kawhi Leonard, the man he was traded for last summer. Neither would the Raptors -- or, frankly, the Spurs themselves.

But sports, and the fandom that drives them, are rarely based in logic and reason. And it is that general lack of either that made DeRozan's departure this past summer so difficult for so many here to digest.

Toronto is a world-class city, a sprawling metropolis on the northwest shores of Lake Ontario that is one of North America's largest urban centers. But as the only international team in the NBA, the Raptors and their fans still -- at times -- have the mentality of a team playing in one of the league's smallest markets, as opposed to one of its biggest. There is a constant, collective feeling of this franchise, and this city, having a chip on its shoulder and a need to prove its worth to the rest of the basketball world.

The love here for DeRozan stems from those same feelings. When he arrived here in 2009, the Raptors were at a low ebb. A few years earlier, Vince Carter -- the one truly transcendent star the team had in its brief existence -- had forced his way out of town in excruciatingly ugly fashion. A year after DeRozan's arrival, Chris Bosh would leave as a free agent to join forces with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami.

There were real doubts at that point if any star player would be willing to put down roots in Toronto over the long haul -- as well as if the Raptors, who to that point had won just a single playoff series, could ever become a legitimate NBA force.

DeRozan, by virtue of both his own individual improvement and the team's steady climb to relevance, became the face of a Raptors squad that quieted those doubters.

Suddenly, a franchise that had made the playoffs only five times in its first 18 seasons in existence made it five in a row and advanced in the postseason in each of the final three. Over his nine years in Toronto, DeRozan became the face of Canadian basketball as the country began producing precocious young talents at an ever-accelerating rate -- young players who grew up rooting for DeRozan and his Raptors.

At the same time, DeRozan went from a player whom Toronto was questioned for inking to a four-year, $40 million contract extension in 2012 to one who, by the time he could be a free agent again in 2016, was a clear max-level player.

And it was then, in the summer of 2016, when the bond between DeRozan and Toronto was forever cemented. DeRozan, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard from metropolitan Los Angeles who went to USC, had grown up idolizing Kobe Bryant. That summer, Bryant retired, leaving the Los Angeles Lakers with both the max cap space and the starting shooting guard spot available for DeRozan to serve as Bryant's replacement.

Only DeRozan didn't replace him. In fact, he didn't even think about it. Instead, he agreed to return to the Raptors without even taking a meeting from the Lakers -- or anyone else.

For a franchise that had spent so long waiting for such a moment -- for a star to choose to stay in Toronto, to willingly want to be there -- it forever cemented DeRozan's place in the hearts of every member of this fan base.

"It was amazing," said Kyle Lowry, who spent six seasons as DeRozan's teammate. "The fans are awesome, and the city was awesome."

Still, that love didn't mean that logic was completely absent from this night. When Friday's game boiled down to the final minutes, becoming a back-and-forth affair anyone could win, fans' traditional allegiances took hold.

So, when Leonard buried a huge turnaround jumper over DeRozan in the closing minutes, the fans burst into cheers. And when DeRozan got trapped at midcourt by Leonard and Lowry with 20 seconds to go, losing the ball and allowing Leonard to go the other way for an uncontested dunk to give Toronto the lead, they cheered louder. Then when DeRozan passed up a chance to take the potential game winner and gave the ball to Davis Bertans, who missed, they cheered even louder.

Finally, when Toronto escaped with a 120-117 victory, they cheered louder still.

Ultimately, for all the love fans have for the players while wearing the jerseys of their favorite teams, sports are about the laundry -- not the people wearing it. And on this night, DeMar DeRozan played here for the first time in a jersey with something other than Raptors across his chest.

So, in the end, DeRozan going home as a loser was -- for the first time here -- an acceptable outcome.

When those 48 minutes ended, though, the love immediately returned. The fans gave DeRozan yet another standing ovation as he exited the floor. He walked off amid a procession of Raptors who had come to greet him -- which he reciprocated with a surprise appearance in Toronto's postgame locker room. He gave Pascal Siakam grief about falling for his pump fake and playfully pretended to be dragged out of the room by Serge Ibaka.

They were just further examples of how deep the bonds run here for DeRozan, the skinny kid from Compton who became a star in a city where he helped make basketball relevant. He never wanted to leave Toronto, and Toronto never wanted him to leave.

Sports, though, rarely have fairy-tale endings. Instead, they're usually messy ones -- just as DeRozan's exit from Toronto was last summer.

But time heals all wounds. And one day, DeRozan will get his rightful place in the rafters -- possibly as the first player in franchise history to have his number placed there.

On this night, though, cheers would have to suffice. And so they came, wave after wave of them, a nearly two-minute thank-you for everything he had done for the Raptors, for Toronto, for basketball in this country.

And for just a moment, DeMar DeRozan was home again.