Sharing an elevator ride with Joey Dorsey after the interview for this piece took place, he shuffles his feet while saying quietly, “I can’t even tell you, or coach or my teammates how badly I want to make this team.”
What Dorsey doesn’t realize is he doesn’t have to tell anybody anything. Through his willingness to trust his teammates and open up this time around, his actions are speaking louder than words.
Most important, his actions are saying all of the right things.
But let’s go back. Back to the beginning in Baltimore; back to the University of Memphis; and back to an old teammate who doesn’t need to be sold on what Dorsey can do.
“He’s an animal.”
That’s former Memphis Tiger, now Chicago Bull and All-Star guard Derrick Rose describing Dorsey’s game. Unfortunately for Dorsey, his reputation for being a beast on the court has extended to his off-court persona, preventing him from fulfilling his NBA dreams.
At least, it has until now.
After Ronald Dupree was released last week, Dorsey became the 15th man on a Raptors team that can carry a roster of a maximum of 15 players. Dupree’s dismissal puts Dorsey one step closer to his ultimate goal of finding his place in the NBA, one step closer to proving people wrong. And, of course, one step closer to tipping the odds in his favor after a lifetime of the odds stacking against him.
“I don’t know what it is,” Rose said wondering aloud why the his former college teammate hasn’t found a home in the NBA yet. “I’d want to have him on my team. I love playing with him. I think it’s just that chance. I want to see him succeed. He’s like my brother.”
While Dorsey’s success and future with the Raptors still hangs in the balance, the 26-year-old is working hard. On the court in practice, then just as hard off of it as he tries to repair his image. He knows he cannot erase the past. In fact, doesn’t want to.
That’s right. The “making it rain” incident in the Memphis night club, the additional allegations of assault in that same Memphis club on a separate occasion (Dorsey maintains he was defending a teammate), the whispers about his attitude that have lingered long after he left Memphis — Dorsey wouldn’t change any of it because he says those things have helped him grow up.
While Toronto is reserving judgment and giving encouragement until there is a reason not to, Dorsey isn’t used to this. When asked to describe himself, the first words out of his mouth are, “I don’t trust a lot of people. Don’t talk a lot … That’s the only thing I can say about me.”
It’s the only thing until he realizes that this isn’t an interview to rehash what has happened in the past, but one to learn a little more about the 6-foot-8, 268-pound undersized giant who is unanimously lauded by all of his teammates and coaches here in Toronto. The one with a smile that lights up the room whenever the topic of rebounding or hustling comes up. The one who might not have made it onto an NBA roster for certain. But, the one who has definitely made it out of Baltimore.
While there were concerns about Dorsey’s attitude after the Sacramento Kings— who acquired him in the Kevin Martin/Tracy McGrady swap with Houston— released him last spring, the bruising forward has been on his best behavior here in Toronto.
“I have seen absolutely nothing of the negative variety at all,” Raptors head coach Jay Triano said. “He’s one of the nicest guys that I’ve been around. Respectful, works hard in practice and he’s fun. He’s a fun guy to be around. I like to base my opinion on what I see and what I know and maybe he’s pulling the wool over my eyes, but I’m not going to believe anything different until I see something different.”
Triano knows all too well how a bad — and sometimes inaccurate — rep can linger with a player. It almost happened the season before with Sonny Weems. “All of the time,” Triano says of reputations staying with a player. “All of the time … We heard stories about Sonny, too, and [now] Sonny is one of my favorite people to coach.”
Dorsey has developed a tight bond with Weems, a regular in the rotation after he was a throw-in in the Carlos Delfino-Amir Johnson swap last offseason. Having been in Denver and sent up and down to the D-League, Weems knows what it’s like to have to work to prove that you belong.
“You’ve gotta play that role,” Weems says of coming to the Raptors organization. “You’ve gotta show everyone that you’re a good guy. You can’t be in here getting mad at everything because this is a real different organization. A lot of coaches won’t put up with that. Jay Triano won’t put up with that nonsense. In Denver, a lot of things they just let go. You arguing on the court, you could do that all day. You can’t do that here. It’s different here. You’ve just got to get a feel for your coaches, how the organization is. Once you do that you’ll be okay.”
While Weems has successfully shown he belongs on the court, he has also shed the bad reputation that snuck its way into his carry-on when he landed in Toronto. Playing with the Nuggets, Weems says, was very different than playing for the Raptors. Having to untangle himself from a reputation that never truly fit in the first place is as hard as it sounds.
“It’s very frustrating because we’re good guys,” Weems says. “We just come from tough backgrounds. [Dorsey] was in Memphis with those guys and they played a certain way. They carried themselves a certain way on the court that made them win games. He’s still got that mindset. Last year, me coming from Denver, everybody knows them as thugs. People just have to understand us. Get to know us. I think it’ll just take time. Once they get to know him, they’ll see he’s a good guy. Like me.”
Joey Dorsey: A good guy? The same guy who is known around the league for attitude problems and issues in the locker room? Yes, that guy is also the same guy who can’t seem to outrun a reputation that doesn’t match any of his actions since joining the Raptors this past April. That guy is the first person in his family to graduate from high school, getting out of Baltimore and making his mother — the single mother who worked two jobs to raise him and his younger sister — proud. The young man who says he would put himself in harm’s way and risk his own future if it was necessary to defend a teammate.
Perhaps this is why Lakers forward Ron Artest likes Dorsey so much. The poster boy for redemption, Artest worked out with Dorsey this summer in Los Angeles and has acted as part teacher, part mentor since.
Asked about Artest, Dorsey simply said, “Ron’s the greatest guy. Sometimes people just can’t see it.”
In Dorsey, Artest sees someone similar to himself. “I saw a lot of talent in him. If I get a chance to give advice or check up on some guys, I just try to,” Artest said. “I like Joey.”
“When you’re having trouble reaching your goals, that means something’s getting in the way. Like myself: I had a lot of goals I wanted to reach, but you got to ask yourself why you didn’t reach those goals. Most of the time it’s because of something that you’ve done. So, that’s the main thing I talked to Joey about. But, Joey’s good. He’s a good person … He’s just got to understand. It took me a while to understand my environment.”
Slowly, Dorsey is growing up. Quickly, he is learning to understand his environment. He is never forgetting what he left behind in Baltimore. He can’t. Just like his reputation, his history chases him, too.
To really understand what it’s like to grow up in Baltimore, Dorsey compares his home to “The Wire,” HBO’s gritty television show filmed on the streets of his hometown. “[Baltimore’s] tough,” Dorsey said. “Today, it’s worse than the show.”
While that statement might sound like hyperbole, Dorsey quickly tumbles out a story that proves it to be true.
This past January, Dorsey was playing in the NBA D-League showcase. Blowing his first game because of nerves, he was given a pep talk from Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. In the second game, Dorsey came out with a purpose and scored 27 points to go with 22 rebounds while hitting all 11 of his field goals. The performance earned him a slot on the D-League’s showcase first team and his phone was ringing off of the hook with congratulatory calls and texts.
But then, out of nowhere, he gets a different type of call, this one from an assistant coach who tells him that he’s sorry for his loss.
“I was like, ‘What do you mean?’” Dorsey remembers.
He didn’t know what was happening, and after the coach hung up the phone suddenly, Dorsey immediately called his mother in a panic. When he got her on the phone, his mother first tried to hide the pain from her son, pretending nothing had happened. Not on this weekend, not when he had so much to prove. After Dorsey told her about the call from the assistant coach, his mother broke down.
Dorsey takes a breath before revealing the tragedy he found out about that day. “My mom started crying. My cousin had got kidnapped and killed.” The impact hit Dorsey immediately. “It’s very hard for me to trust anybody. I really don’t go back home like that. It’s just like, ‘What am I doing going back home for if they killed him?’” After that, Dorsey shut himself off even more. “I really don’t let people get close to me anymore or anything like that. My mom says you should stop shutting people out of your life, so coming up here, this is good for me. An outdoor place, I can walk around, have friends and have fun. I’m cool with it up here.”
It’s obvious that here in Toronto, Dorsey is counting his chances as well as his blessings. “Just adapting to the team,” he said when asked what he’s trying to work on with the Raptors coaching staff. “I just want to show [Triano] that I can play. I can play here. I can do anything that you want me to do. I will go out there and do it. Put me out there for two or three minutes and you’ll get 110 percent. Go out there every day and look at it like it’s your last. A lot of people don’t get three chances. This is the last one, I think. Right here.”
The relationship that Dorsey has with his mother is one that keeps him going. Regardless of the whispers or rumors that may plague him, which teams may release him or where his path will take him, his mother — the one that nicknamed him Joey ”because I was so hyper, always jumping around … she started calling me Joey like a baby kangaroo” — knows her son.
And Dorsey knows what making this team would mean for him and his family.
“Oh God,” he said. “Growing up, single parent, my mom took care of me and my sister. My mom didn’t want me playing basketball because I used to come home after playing street ball and I’d have a busted lip and black eye because we were playing so rough. I think that’s where I got my game from: The streets, from playing so physical in Baltimore. It was very tough growing up with a single-mother raising two kids, working two jobs. This lifestyle? It’s a gift. I thank God every day that I’m here.”
He continued, “It feels so good. When I was at Memphis my mom would come down to watch me to play. People would be like, ‘Yo, how’s your mom coming down here to watch you play when she’s all the way in Baltimore?’ My mom was catching the Greyhound. She was catching the Greyhound and that took damn near a day-and-a-half to come and see me play. I always told her once I make it, she’ll be wherever I’m at. Whatever city I’m in, I want my mom to be there with me.”
They talk every day. Multiple times every day, even, and always after practice.
“Me and my mom are like best friends,” Dorsey says. “That’s the closest person in my life.”
Charlene Dorsey finally has her passport and is expected to be in Toronto for a visit next week. It’s very likely that she will thank Triano for giving her son a chance.
Dorsey already has. ”I’m glad coach did that,” Dorsey said about the trust Triano put in him. “He said, ‘Never read a book by its cover.’ I’m glad that he looked into me as a player and a person instead of as a guy that they talked about in the stories before I got here. I’m glad that they took a chance on me. It’s a chance for me to start over and gain some trust in the players and coaches. I really want to be here.”
While there is a very good chance that Dorsey will fill the Raptors’ 15th roster spot and have the opportunity to help his mother leave Baltimore, there are pieces of his hometown that will always be with him regardless of which city is splayed across his chest when he hits the floor.
“If I had to do it all over again, I think I’d do the same thing,” Dorsey said of the trouble he has gotten into in the past. “I was protecting one of my teammates [in the club incident]. That’s the biggest thing with me coming from Baltimore. If you’re surrounded by people you love, you don’t let anyone do anything to them while you’re around.”
As long as Dorsey is on the roster, it’s going to be tougher for teams to push the Raptors around. For a franchise that has been plagued with the curse of being weak and dogged with questions about their toughness, Dorsey may be just the right fit to fill out their bench.
While it was his mother who told him he couldn’t continue to shut people out, it has been in Toronto where he has been able to heed her advice. With the youth movement in Toronto, Dorsey has found more than just teammates he can trust.” ”I look at Sonny and DeMar [DeRozan] that way,” Dorsey said. “[Jarrett] Jack, too — everybody on the team. I grew a bond with a lot of players on this team and I look at it like a family now.”