DeMar DeRozan’s Slam Dunk Book Club started in 2010, his NBA rookie season. He was quiet, but that didn’t matter; he showed up, he was present.
For nine years, over 100 grade-school kids met at a Toronto high school on Saturdays from mid-February to mid-April, practicing reading and basketball. And while enticing kids to read by offering a sports portion of the day was enough, most endured the program solely to meet their NBA hero at the end of the session.
Over time, DeRozan came out of his shell, interacting with kids who stared up at his six-foot-seven frame with eyes as wide as saucers when he walked into a room. He gave words of encouragement and answered questions from curious listeners about what it was like to be in the NBA.
After nine seasons with the Raptors, DeRozan was traded to the San Antonio Spurs before the 2018-2019 season. But the book club didn’t end with his departure from Toronto and neither did his influence on a number of students off the court.
DeRozan caught the eye of Patrick Rutledge, a former Toronto District School Board Trustee, during his college hoops days at USC and when he was selected by the Raptors ninth-overall in the 2009 NBA draft, Rutledge had an idea.
Already operating a book club in partnership with the TDSB and another former Toronto Raptor, Rutledge wanted to re-brand the program. After connecting with DeRozan’s agent, Rutledge was able to make his pitch.
“We’ll put his name on the program. It’ll become the DeMar Slam Dunk Book Club — kids will know it’s DeMar. And the hour is at the end of the program just before the Raptors’ season ends. We’ll have a Saturday where he’ll come out and meet the kids,” said Rutledge. “They said, ‘That’s fine, we’ll do it.’”
Rutledge made a point of creating a program that was financially self-sufficient, requiring only DeRozan’s name and one hour of his time every year. The program was funded mostly by TDSB and each student paid a small $50 fee to help cover the cost of counsellors — high-school students hired to read and play basketball with the younger kids.
When funding from the TDSB wasn’t possible in 2013, the program was in jeopardy. Rutledge made a call to DeRozan’s agent and said if things changed and funding came through, the session would go on as planned.
Three weeks later, the money was there, but to the surprise of Rutledge, it wasn’t from the TDSB.
“I got a phone call from them, telling me DeMar wanted to pay $15,000 to the program,” said Rutledge. “That just sold me, I said right then and there, ‘This guy is legit.’”
DeRozan gave beyond what was asked of him, providing 30 to 40 tickets to a home Raptors game every season for students involved in the book club, in addition to team merchandise, but it was his time that meant the most to students.
“People ask me what made it work and that hour with DeMar is what made it work. Everything aside, the fact that the kids knew they could spend an hour with DeMar, that’s what made it work,” said Rutledge.
Miles Boehm-North spent two sessions in 2015 and 2016 as part of the DeMar Slam Dunk Book Club. Miles loves basketball, had stats memorized at a young age, and loves DeMar DeRozan.
During one of the book-club sessions, when Miles was 10 years old, he was chosen to ask a question of the NBA player. But when Miles stood up, he didn’t ask about the NBA or other players, he impressively rattled off stats from DeRozan’s college days and told DeRozan he admired and appreciated him.
Over 100 young students, parents, and book-club counsellors in the gym that day fell silent. DeRozan studied Miles, who then shared some other things about himself: he suffered from anxiety and depression, he was sometimes bullied at school, his parents were no longer together and it wasn’t always easy.
DeRozan responded that day, thanking Miles and sharing that he too, didn’t always have it easy. He said he was picked on in school and assured the child that things would get better.
A few days later, Miles received a gift at home from DeRozan, delivered by Rutledge. In it, a signed jersey that read “#1 fan, thank you” and a hat signed “you’re the best.”
“I’m glad that he appreciated what I said and I’m glad that I said it because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here right now,” said Miles. “I wouldn’t expect any athlete to do that but he’s just like a normal person, just like I am and just like you are.”
For Rutledge, it was the lasting impact of moments like that, between DeRozan and Miles that made the book club special.
“If a kid like that can have the confidence to stand in front of all of his peers and talk about something that personal, because this athlete is standing in front of him, that makes this worthwhile,” said Rutledge.
Basketball and reading aren’t two pastimes most people would associate with one program, but it works. Students use their physical energy to work on basketball skills and after cooling down, can focus their attention on the book at hand, reading aloud to counsellors. For both, practice makes you better.
Of the hundreds of students who attended the book club over the nine years DeRozan lent his name, Jordan Campbell, 11, and Tristan Hutchinson, 13, friends who attend Rawlinson C.S. in Toronto, were quick to share why the nature of this book club makes sense to them.
“I like the education part and the basketball part, because you get to do both at the same time and that’s sick to me,” said Jordan. “When you get better at reading, you can get better at other subjects, like math, and that can help you get a better job.”
He dreams of being an NBA player when he grows up and wore a black and gold Raptors jersey when we spoke, complete with DeRozan’s name and number 10.
Jordan heard about the book club from Tristan and joined in 2014. His mom, Meryl, keeps Jordan’s certificate of participation, but for the 11-year-old, meeting his favourite NBA player was the highlight. A photo shows Jordan younger and smaller, sitting next to DeRozan. He recalled they high-fived and DeRozan asked Jordan about his favourite book.
When questioned about where the moment ranks in his 11-year life so far for him, Jordan raised his right hand as high as he could, beaming.
“Oh, 100. 100 per cent, 100, 100.”
Tristan smiled, though seemingly shy, when asked about his book club experience. He’s going to high school next year and knows a few older kids who were counsellors with the program.
In addition to basketball, he’s got a passion for film photography, recently learning to use an old camera and to develop film in the darkroom at the school where his dad teaches.
For Tristan, the connection between basketball and reading is simple.
“To be able to shoot well, you need to practice a lot and it’s pretty much the same thing with reading. You need to read a lot and they pushed me to go forward and I got better at it,” he said.
During one session, Tristan was chosen to spend time with DeRozan one-on-one, sitting and reading in the hallway of the high school where the program was taking part, for a promotional video Rutledge was putting together for the book club’s website.
Tristan recalled their conversation, mostly about books and school.
“At first, it was kind of weird with him, DeMar DeRozan, sitting next to me. He didn’t seem like a super big NBA player, he seemed like a regular person… well, not to me.”
In 2018, DeRozan started shifting his off-court focus to mental-health issues, revealing in a seven-word tweet during the All-Star break that he struggled with depression. At the end of the season, Rutledge presented DeRozan with a plaque during his hour with students, thanking him for his time with the Book Club.
As Rutledge said recently, a nine-year run with one athlete is pretty great, they were lucky. And as DeRozan returns to Toronto for the first time since the trade that turned his world upside down, three of the hundreds of kids he connected with off the court, encouraging to read and stay in school, are grateful for the moment in time he was in their lives.