*Please note this story is entirely fictional, and is the fruit of the author’s imagination.
Catch, shot fake, one dribble right, swish. Catch, shot fake, one dribble left, swish. If the ball machine had a conscience, it would have gone mad of boredom long ago, the routine repeated time and again beyond count. But the shooter was not bored; he was in his element.
With another set done and the day’s first rays of light shining through the thick glass windows at the top of the gym, DeMar DeRozan wiped the sweat off his brow as he made for the bench. The lukewarm water he sipped tasted sweet on his tongue.
While running through the next drill in his mind, DeRozan’s attention jerked back to the present at the sound of approaching footsteps. Rarely had anyone joined him for these early morning workouts. The guest’s attire was not fit for shooting however, dressed as he was in a tightly-fitting navy blue suit. The confidence with which he strode toward DeMar was unmistakable, and the Compton native rushed to embrace his idol.
“Kobe, what’s good, man?”
The two exchanged pleasantries, but the conversation soon turned somber.
“I hear you’re going through some things, man.” Bryant put a comforting hand on the pride of Toronto’s shoulder, the younger man nodding solemnly. “All the best wishes to your pops, brother. Come with me, it’s time for you to see something. You’ve earned it.”
“What you gonna show me?” DeMar asked curiously, following the Lakers legend toward the large orange Gatorade bucket in the gym’s home locker room.
“What you’re about to see… even I didn’t get to see this before I won my first ring.” He lifted the white lid off the top, exposing the light blue liquid. “But I think you need it now, and I believe you’re ready.”
DeMar’s eyes followed Kobe’s hands as he reached for the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small red vial.
“With this potion, the Gatorade becomes something else.” Kobe continued, seeing the confusion in DeRozan’s eyes. “It’s the mirror of the G.O.A.T.. The mirror shows many things – things that were, things that are, things that may have been, and some things that have not yet come to pass.” The five-time NBA champion cleared his throat, and emptied the vial’s contents into the cooler. The liquid reacted swiftly, changing colors multiple times. “Go ahead,” Bryant motioned for DeMar to approach while he took a step back, “look within.”
The fluid swirled unnaturally as DeMar peered into the container, its walls suddenly seeming boundless. Where there was nothing but blue water just a moment ago, a familiar scene materialized into being. He saw himself as a young boy no older than nine, his face contorted with the pangs of hunger. He was sitting at the dinner table with a spoon in hand and an empty bowl before him. His mind instantly recognized the memory.
His father came through the front door carrying a box of breakfast cereal. Lakers young rising star, Kobe Bryant, was pictured dribbling a basketball on the face of the box. Written in a large and impossible to miss font on the bottom: ‘Open for your chance to win one of many available prizes!’
Young DeMar gobbled the cereal with milk while digging for something, anything, inside the cardboard with his left hand. He froze abruptly, mouth still full, as he felt something unusual. He pulled his hand back quickly, accidently spilling some of the cornflakes onto the table, to the chagrin of his parents. His reward – a plastic yellow and purple card that read: ‘Redeem this code by telephone for two tickets to the Los Angeles Lakers home game against…’
“WE’RE GOING TO SEE KOBE!” DeMar spit out his food, liquid and all, jumping up onto his smiling father.
The image changed, and DeRozan saw himself change with it. He was a teenager now, hounded by his father inside a basketball gym.
“You soft, boy! Come on!” his dad yelled out just after DeMar lost his balance thanks to a hard shove. “You saw those scouting reports? ‘Passion to be a superstar always questioned.’ They doubting your passion! You wanna prove ‘em right, crybaby? Get up!”
DeMar felt himself smiling fondly reliving the scene, deeply thankful for the tough love in retrospect.
Another sudden shift to a different court, one that over time became his temple – the Air Canada Centre. The warm feelings brought on by the appearance of his second home changed to embarrassment and disappointment once he realized what he saw. He was rushing toward the locker room, refusing to look at anyone on his way there. The jumbotron read: ‘Raptors 94 – 125 Wizards, first round series: Wizards win 4-0.’ The sensation felt impossibly fresh, the wound raw and bleeding.
The scenery changed once more, and DeMar felt himself gliding along a graveled road set on a barren plain. At long last, he arrived at a fork with two paths to choose from. Beyond each one was a fog of ever-changing snapshots.
On his left, he saw himself getting older, his jersey consistently morphing to represent a different city as he aged. He was plying his craft at half-empty arenas, collecting chips on his shoulder that he could never brush off in the form of annual All-Star snubs. He was scoring north of twenty points a night on perennial bottom-feeders looking toward the draft. DeRozan felt his anger boil within, and turned his gaze defiantly to the other path.
The right hand path was what he remembered, what he had chosen when faced with the crossroads. In the fog, he saw himself turning the lights on in a small gym in Brazil, long before the sun threatened to do the same. The area code kept changing, from Rio to L.A. to TO, but his habits did not. The sweat converted to equity before his eyes – playing with the Raptors deep into May, winning the game at the buzzer in Madison Square Garden, and culminating in a top-notch performance at the All-Star game in Los Angeles in the presence of his proud father.
DeMar moved on along the right path, past the haze and his most recent memories, ready to return to the present. He was content. But the mirror was not finished with him yet. The barren wasteland morphed into a steep mountain with a massive golden gate at its top. Without a moment’s hesitation, DeRozan nudged himself ahead.
As he neared the summit, the sky turned dark, the scene before him eerie and foreboding. The golden gate towered above him, as legends of the game played pickup ball beyond it. They were instantly recognizable, but he could spare only a second to look at them, for the path across was obstructed.
The gatekeeper stood half as tall as the massive gate, a sickening grin upon his face. Guarding the entrance into the land of basketball immortality was a behemoth of royal blood – a king, a tyrant, ever-destined for greatness – LeBron James.
All around him was carnage, limbless corpses and beaten heroes. Missing both his knees was the NBA’s youngest MVP, Derrick Rose. Beside him lay the once supremely-confident Isiah Thomas, and next to him rested the giant dust-covered body of long-forgotten defensive anchor Roy Hibbert.
DeMar saw others who still had fight in them left, crawling away in search of another rumored gate. Among them were the zen-apprentice Paul George, and even the self-recharging human battery in Jimmy Butler.
But directly in front of the gate and its guardian, DeRozan saw two familiar shapes side by side. Heavily bloodied, they supported each other to their feet to the booming sound of the tyrant’s laughter.
The image changed for only a split second, but it nestled itself deep within DeMar’s psyche. In it, he glimpsed the king on his knees, Kyle holding him down with all his strength, while DeMar leaped over his partner to land the finishing blow.
The scene shifted back just as rapidly, and LeBron was standing there once more, guarding the golden gate. Only this time he was not laughing. Instead, he stared directly into DeMar’s eyes intensely, breaking the fourth wall. ‘I see you,’ a voice rang in DeRozan’s head, though the king’s lips did not move.
His heart all but escaping his chest, DeMar fell back onto the locker room floor, once again alone with Kobe and the conspicuously normal-looking bucket of Gatorade.
“I know what it is you saw,” Kobe remarked. “You’ve come a long way already, farther than almost anyone imagined. But this last step is the hardest of them all,” he extended his right arm and pulled his protégé back to his feet.
DeMar’s expression changed from one of apprehension to a familiar calm determination as he spared the mirror one last look. “I got us.”
If you enjoyed this one, here are the other episodes in the Alternate Basketball Histories series: P.J. Tucker’s origins, OG Anunoby’s origins, Jonas Valanciunas’ trials in Indiana, Norman Powell’s instrumental contemplation, and the dark secret behind Freddy’s rise.