“Yo, Ollie!” Drake yells toward his manager and good friend Oliver El-Khatib, his trademark smile spread across his face. “Where’s my office?”
We’re in Toronto at the brand-new BioSteel Centre, a gorgeous, 68,000-square-foot training center situated 10 minutes from the city’s downtown area, where the team began practicing in mid-February. It’s home to two shiny basketball courts, a workout area with fresh-out-the-box equipment, a barber’s chair, a film room, a mini-cafeteria and a “war room” with a wall of stat- and analytics-filled monitors that looks even a little too intense for actual war.
Drake’s kidding (I think), but if the Raps were to give The Boy his own personal nook in the facility, it wouldn’t be without good reason. In a weird but undeniable way, the 29-year-old rapper is responsible for pushing a momentum into the franchise that’s resulted in all sorts of positive movement for the organization, perhaps the building of this facility included. It started with him showing up to a bunch of games, injecting some cool into a franchise that hasn’t exactly dripped with it since its founding in 1995 (the Vince Carter era excluded). Then that sideline role became official, with Drake in 2013 assuming the title of “Global Ambassador,” an unpaid position that nonetheless gives him all sorts of random power. He has since added a full-blown nightclub to the Air Canada Centre, where the team plays; collaborated with the team and Mitchell & Ness to release Raptors gear; and hosted entire game nights in his own honor (on “Drake Night,” fans received a black-and-gold OVO/Raptors shirt and could dance in the “Hotline Bling” booth). The players even wear a black-and-gold alternate jersey, appropriately referred to as their “OVO Alternate” uniforms, a few times per season.
So yeah, when Drake, fitted in a crisp suit with a sparkling, diamond-encrusted OVO Sound pseudo-championship ring on his left ring finger, takes a break from the making of his upcoming album, Views From the 6, and strolls into the SLAM cover shoot with a few buddies, a couple managers, a videographer, a wide-shouldered, expressionless man who says no words at all, and Diamond—his adorable 13-week-old Akita puppy—he’s right to roam around a little more like a team employee than simply an excited fan (which he admittedly is, too). But the other two guys featured on our cover who arrived a few minutes earlier—they’re kind of relevant to the franchise’s relatively newfound energy as well.
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry took two very different paths to Toronto. The 6-7 DeRozan was raised in Compton, CA—a city with a name that at this point speaks for itself—and after a 2008-09 stint at the University of Southern California, he was drafted by the Raptors, whom he’s played for ever since—“his whole life,” Lowry says. DeRozan holds the franchise record for most wins, and he’s played the second-most minutes and in the third-most games in Raptors history. He’ll break those marks, along with a lot of other records, if he re-ups with the team when he’s a free agent this summer.
Lowry, the Raptors’ 6-0 starting point guard, came up in Philadelphia, played two seasons at Villanova, then spent a few seasons in Memphis and a few in Houston before landing in Toronto in 2012. He developed a reputation during that journey as someone who can be a little too tough, both a good thing (he absolutely battled every time he walked onto the court) and a not-so-good thing (he fell out with a few coaches along the way). That said, Lowry has since developed a maturity that’s helped him alter his rep and command the respect of his peers and coaching staff. “The heartbeat of this team,” is how DeRozan describes him.
Before they linked up with Drizzy to shoot the images you see in SLAM 198, I sat with the duo in the corner of the Biosteel Centre’s main court to discuss where they’re currently situated, as individuals and as a unit, and how the hell they got here. And the fact is: It’s a pretty, pretty good place. Both in the physical sense—I mean, this building we’re in is massive and gorgeous, and Toronto is an underrated-ly fun city—and in a basketball sense. As of this writing, the Raptors are 52-25, good for second in the Eastern Conference. They reside behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers, who, despite an irrefutable abundance of talent, have had no shortage of off-the-court turmoil throughout this season. Meanwhile, the Raptors have experienced an almost confusing lack of drama, and over the course of the past month or so have positioned themselves to be the team that skirts by the Cavs if they do let the noise get to them and slip up this spring.
If that happens, it will be because of the leadership and play of two very real friends. Both two-time All-Stars, Lowry is averaging 21.5 points, 6.4 assists and 2.1 steals per game, while DeRozan's averaging 23.7 ppg and 4.5 rpg.
“It’s pretty obvious: Those two guys are our guys,” says Luis Scola, the Raptors’ oldest player at 35. “We’ve gotta do everything to make them happy, do everything in our power to help them play better. Those are the guys who are in the driver seats, and they’re gonna drive the car—they’re the ones who are gonna take us as far as we can get.”
SLAM: Can you each tell me about the other’s role on this team?
Kyle Lowry: DeMar’s role is to be a leader, be a scorer, be a guy we can count on every single day, every single game, to get his 20 to 30 to 40 points a night, plus give us some good rebounding. And also to go out there and take the challenge of knowing he’s gonna be double-teamed and knowing he’s going to be in tough situations, but still be able to come through for us. At the end of the day, we need him as a team to be that guy who we can go to and say, “Here, go get us a bucket.”
DeMar DeRozan: Kyle’s a leader, our floor general—the general of the team. The heartbeat of this team. One of the guys that, once he steps on that frontline, everybody else falls in line as well and understands that we’re about to go to war and we’re going to go out there and fight for each other. Once you have a teammate with that caliber of attitude and presence, it’s gonna make everything else easy.
When during this season did you guys realize, “OK, we’ve got something here—we could do something special”?
KL: I think we felt that a while ago, man. I think we felt that when we took Brooklyn to Game 7 [in 2014]. I think that was where me and [DeMar] felt like we could be special together and take this city to another level. We’ve got some great pieces around us—some young talent, like JV [Jonas Valanciunas], Terrence [Ross]. Right now, with the pieces that they’ve put in—Biz [Bismack Biyombo], Cory [Joseph]—it’s been a really good fit for everybody. It’s been one of those things where we felt we could really be special together.
Kyle, you’ll have just turned 30 when this story comes out, and DeMar, you’re 26—pretty young to be the team’s veteran leaders, all things considered. What’s that responsibility like?
DD: I think it’s great when you have guys that look for you to be that. I think it makes your job easier. It’s been a process for me, since I’ve been in the League, every single year, of trying to figure out how to be a great leader. [When I was drafted] I was so young and in the position of having to take on so much responsibility. Since Kyle’s been my teammate, it’s kinda been easier.
KL: It balances.
DD: Yeah, it balances it out. You have somebody you can look to when you feel like you may be lacking, leadership-wise, and you look to the guy next to you. That’s one thing that helps with my process—the knowledge of the game of basketball that he has. When he came to the team, I learned so much from him, and it kinda accelerated my process. Especially being so young—I’m seven years in the League. We’ve been All-Stars together, and now we’ve got a younger group of guys that look up to us. We just try to be the right example of working hard and winning.
KL: This is my 10th year—I’ve been fortunate to have had some good leaders. It took me a while to understand it. When you’re given the keys to the team and you’ve got somebody like DeMar to help you, and you’ve got these young guys behind you, you don’t want to show a bad example. You want to show a good example, so they can show this story one day and say, “Man, I had leaders like Kyle and DeMar.”
Early on you had a reputation as being a little hardheaded.
KL: Little bit.
Now it appears you’ve evolved a bunch. Has that been a conscious change on your part?
KL: I think it’s just been life, just growing up. And you know, being a father, a husband. Being able to just grow and see things and go through life. You’re going to hit trials and tribulations, and you’re going to have failures and setbacks. But it’s how you get back up. It’s how you respond to those things. I think I’ve done a good job of responding to those things, and during the process, taking tidbits from people, and seeing how they go about things when they have a problem. It’s just a learning process. Ten years is a long time in the NBA. It’s still a process, though. And as a man, you’re never done growing.
DeMar, you think you’re still that same guy you were when you were drafted?
DD: Hell nah.
KL: He can shoot now.
DD: It’s definitely night and day. Man, I couldn’t even put a word on how different it is. Coming in, I got drafted at 19 after a year of college...
KL: You said what? College? Dog, when you say “college,” just say you went to school. ‘Cause you didn’t really go to college. [Turns to me] He went to one class. Once. Ever. [Laughs]
DD: I was 19, coming into the League, everything was so new to me. People try to prepare you and tell you what the League is going to be like, but it’s nothing compared to what it is. I’d never been away from home until I got drafted, and I get drafted to Canada. It was a whole new experience.
You make it sound like the country drafted you—which I guess was basically the case.
DD: Yeah. I didn’t have a passport until I got drafted.
KL: That’s crazy.
DD: I had to learn to grow fast. My first year I was here by myself, because nobody in my family came up, because nobody in my family had a passport. It was a life-changing experience for me, and not just for basketball. Just being able to grow and mature faster, and look at things in a different light—that’s how it was coming in. And looking at me today, being a father, [someone who] accomplished so much already in my young career, from winning a gold medal to being an All-Star to being the winningest player in franchise history—so many things that are still things I can’t believe when I go home at night. It just shows the growth.
Playing for the Raptors is a little different because you aren’t just representing a city—you’re putting on for an entire country. Tell me a little about what that’s like.
KL: It’s different. In the States, you have your certain city that you play for. I played for Houston, where there’s two other teams [in the state]. I played in Memphis, where it was a small market. Here, it’s really a country. We try not to think about it, and it’s not like we’re constantly thinking, Oh, we’re in another country, but when we go to Vancouver [to play pre-season games], we sell out, and people know who we are. We go to Ottawa, we sell out. We go to Montreal. We go to Halifax. That’s from Atlantic time zone to Pacific time zone that we have to cover, and they’ll watch us and live and die on our moves, watching every game. It’s crazy. It’s an experience that you have to be a part of. People are like, It’s Toronto, but nah—it’s not just Toronto. It’s Canada.
DeMar, you’ve been here seven years.
KL: His whole life.
Has the way the team is looked at changed a lot over time?
KL: You see this building we’re in right now? [Laughs]
DD: It’s so much. Just sitting in here, looking at this place—this place wasn’t even thought of when I got here. I look downtown, look at the freeways—there’s so many buildings that weren’t here my first couple years.
KL: You see that Open Gym episode? It was on a show we got up here called Open Gym—they showed the Air Canada Centre in the 1990s. It was literally the arena and then dirt. Nothing around it. Now it’s a major city right there.
DD: Even in the franchise, internally, I’ve seen it grow so much. It’s crazy to see the market, how much it’s grown, how much people want something to do with the Toronto Raptors. You see the fan base grow outside of the country. If we play anywhere that’s close to the border—if we’re playing in Detroit, Portland, New York—we see so many Raptors fans.
KL: If we play anywhere, we get Canadian Raptors fans. There’s Canadians everywhere.
DD: We can’t go nowhere without people coming to us, like, I’m from Canada! We love you here! Then for me, seeing how much it’s changed, then All-Star being here, the whole world seeing Toronto in the light of us pushing it and trying to get people to understand what it’s like—it’s definitely unbelievable. You really don’t realize the time that goes by and process that’s going by until you’re actually in the moment. It’s one of those things where, when you look up and we see this big ole’ facility here, it’s definitely crazy.
I saw your coach Dwane Casey walking around here earlier. He was carrying himself like a pretty serious guy—but those are usually the funniest people behind the scenes.
KL: Man, I’m telling you, if you wanna see some funny stuff, go find some clips of his interviews. He’s the most country-est, down south, old-school...
DD: Case, he be hard on us, but he is one of the greatest dudes you can know.
DD: It’s just great to have a coach like that, knowing that he’s gonna give you the freedom to be yourself, as long as you just go out there and play hard. It’s rare to find coaches of that caliber. And with the success that he’s had with us, I just always wanna see him succeed. With that, everything Case gets—if it’s Coach of the Month, whatever—he thanks us. And we’re playing for him.
KL: He’s our guy. Everybody tried to make a big deal out of me and him—we didn’t see eye to eye my first couple years [in Toronto]. But honestly, that man’s done a lot for my career.
DD: With [Casey and Kyle], their relationship is like a marriage. You look at everybody’s marriage—you’re gonna fight, you’re gonna argue, but y’all gonna enjoy the great times together. That’s what it’s all about. His relationship with Case is like a marriage. Me and Case, it’s like, father-son.
KL: Yeah, he’s yo daddy. [Everybody laughs]
DD: I kinda come between them.
KL: When [DeMar] comes around, [Casey and I] gotta figure it out and make it work. He’s like, “Listen y’all, why can’t we just figure this out?” That’s him—that’s his role.
DD: And at the end of the day, we all laugh at it. If it’s something that’s going on, I just look at Case, like, I got him [points to Kyle].
KL: We don’t have too many moments of those anymore. But it’s been fun, man. It’s crazy how things work out.
Who’s the funniest dude on the team right now?
KL: Gotta be Biz [Biyombo]—Biz is funny. Biz always calls himself the President of the DRC. And I’m like, Biz, you ain’t the President, I’m the President! He’s like, “You’re too little to be President of the DRC!” And before all games, me and DeMar, we try to score on Biz. We’ll push him, and if we miss, he’ll be like, “Yeah! I lock up All-Stars! I lock up superstars! I lock up people from Compton! People from Philly! I run this!” He’s just an animated dude.
DD: I used to hate Bismack when he was on Charlotte. But him being on your team, he’s one of the dudes that’s a great teammate, a great friend to have, and his energy and his presence are always positive. He always comes in with classic Jordans...
KL:...he’s got all of ’em.
DD: He has no idea they’re exclusive. One day he had on some Jordans, and I was like, Man, you’ve got some fire on your feet! He said, “Well, I don’t even know what these are. I’m gonna wear them in a game, then, since they fire.” He just don’t know.
Say you guys are down, like, 6 points, two minutes of the game left. Who’s job is it to yell at everybody to get it together?
KL: Oh, me and DeMar. Me and him. And ain’t no yelling. We don’t even yell.
DD: It’s just a look.
KL: No words are said. No words.
It’s not really a secret that the Cavs appear to be in a weird place—they fired their coach mid-season, there’s tons of speculation about what LeBron is up to on social media, there have been reports that players are unhappy, etc. Do you feel like there’s suddenly this opening in the East that you guys could be in prime position to take advantage of?
DD: I think we just worry about ourselves, honestly. We never got caught up with what somebody else is doing, or how they’re doing it, or their approach. We’ve just always been us. We always play with that chip on our shoulder, and we always like being under the radar, so to speak.
KL: It might sound cliché, but it’s really how we operate. We really don’t worry about nobody but ourselves, man. That’s how we work.
But you guys have to have seen all the headlines that have come out recently.
KL: Everybody does. Yeah. We all read Hoopshype, we all read...
KL: I was about to say SLAM Magazine! We read SLAMonline—I go on SLAMonline’s Instagram, I follow @SLAMonline.
DD: They be throwing the pictures up of everybody, birthday shout outs, all that.
KL: You see that Ron Artest picture today? [Laughs]
DD: But I think, to give an example of our team, it’s like when you go to the club and everybody in the club is up, jumping around, turning up on the couches—we’re the guys who are just sitting in the corner, quiet...
KL: Having fun.
DD: Yeah, having fun. We let everybody else get the spotlight and all that. We’re gonna do what we gotta do over here and be mellow with it.
Drake is on his way here right now. How cool is it to have someone like that in your corner?
KL: For us, it’s gotten to the point where he’s our friend, and for a guy to be a megastar, to be a guy that we can call our friend, and to be at our games, to be as supportive of us as he is, you can’t put that in words. He truly loves what we do, loves the city, loves the organization—he’s a part of us for a reason. We just appreciate the respect that he’s given us. Me, him and DeMar—I can call him a friend and I’m sure DeMar, you can call him a friend, too.
DD: I mean for me, my first year here, that’s when Drake first started coming out. To see him grow and evolve into the megastar he is, and always supporting the city, the country, us, to be our team ambassador—this man got his own team jersey that we wear. To have that, it’s definitely incredible. He’s really our man. He texts me and Kyle in our group chat after games and all that. He’s really supportive of what we’re doing, and vice versa. Now, to be here, to be on the cover with him—SLAM’s been a part of my life since I was a kid. I used to cry to want to get a SLAM Magazine with Penny on it.
KL: And take the magazine and put the cutouts on the wall.
DD: Man, I had a whole room full of...everybody.
KL: I had the Jordan one—the 45 [SLAM 6, July ’95.—Ed.]. I had that poster up.
DD: To have that, and just to think of then to now, to being on the cover. Man, I’m going to 7-Eleven every day when this comes out.
Who else is in this group chat with Drake?
KL: Just us three.
DD: A lot of times, it’s not even about basketball.
Do you guys get early music previews?
KL: [Whispers] Little bit.
DD: Yeah, a little bit.
You guys just both got quiet at the same time.
KL: [Laughs] No bullcrap though, it’s really a friendship. That makes it a lot better. It’s not like we’re calling him to be like, Yo, we need this... Nah, we can just call him and be like, What you doing, dog? Have a conversation. “Let’s go get dinner.”
But can he hoop?
DD: Yeah. The crazy part is, in L.A., he lives down the street from me, and I go to his house in the summer and we hoop in the backyard or just chill, and just to have that—like, Yo, you at the house? I’m in L.A. and he’s like, “Yeah, come by the house.” That is definitely cool. His passion for basketball is really there. He always be playing all summer in the backyard, hooping with his boys and everything. I’ll go there and shoot around with them and all that, but I’m not really the concrete-playing type.
KL: Ain’t enough money for him out there.
Adam Figman is the Senior Editor of SLAM Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @afigman.
Action photos via Getty Images