CLEVELAND — It’s an unseasonably warm Saturday night, and there does not appear to be great urgency for Cavaliers fans to rush in and watch this preseason game against the Celtics.
Cleveland star Kevin Love will not play, Celtics All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving are not even here, and the game does not even count. But none of that matters to the man in the black sweatshirt and black hat who is sitting in a front-row seat under a basket.
He records some of the pregame festivities on his iPhone. He texts his family members to tell them about his great seat.
Then, about 10 minutes before tipoff, Celtics point guard Terry Rozier walks over and wraps the man in a hug. The two have been waiting and talking about this moment for years, because Terry Rozier Sr. has spent all but nine months of his 24-year-old son’s life in prison. This is the first time he has ever seen him play a basketball game in person.
“I’ve been admiring the young man my son has become,” Rozier Sr. said in an interview with the Globe. “He’s just like me in a lot of ways, but he’s also so much different. He’s a better man than I was.”
Losing a father
Terry Rozier Sr. wants to make it clear that he is not seeking, nor does he feel he deserves, any sympathy. He understands he has made mistakes.
He is not a soldier returning home to see his son play basketball for the first time. He is seeing his son play basketball for the first time because he has been incarcerated for committing violent crimes.
Less than two months after Terry Jr. was born on March 17, 1994, his father was arrested for aggravated robbery and ultimately sentenced to eight years in prison. He was released when Terry was 9, and the two tried to make up for lost time.
The elder Rozier taught his son to box and fish. They’d play football and basketball. Terry still calls it the best summer ever.
But on July 27, 2003, that was all taken away. The elder Rozier and three friends lured a couple to a home to purchase car rims and robbed them. While one of the victims was held at gunpoint, he fought back and the gun discharged, killing one of Rozier’s accomplices, a 17-year-old boy.
Because a person was killed during a crime, Rozier and his two other friends were charged with murder. They ultimately pled guilty to kidnapping and robbery, with a reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter, and in 2005 Rozier was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
He watched his son’s basketball career blossom from a distance, as Terry Jr. progressed from Shaker Heights High School to the University of Louisville to a 2015 first-round draft pick of the Celtics.
The father and son talked to each other about once a week. The younger Rozier said he was never mad at his father. He just wanted him to remain in his life, and there is nothing the father wants more.
“I’ve been admiring my son, how he’s able to change his outcome considering where we come from,” Rozier Sr. said. “His poise, attitude, heart, demeanor, determination, I’ve watched all that grow while I was in prison. Sometimes I’d be talking to him and have to look at the phone and remember this is my little son right here. He’s got his mind all the way together.”
A fresh start
The week before Rozier Sr. was released from the Lake Erie Correctional Institution on Aug. 6, he was too excited to sleep. He’d watch TV and pace around his cell. He thought about what he would do on his first day of freedom, and then he started thinking about the second day, and then the third.
The younger Rozier picked up his father in a large van when he was released. First, they met other family members at a Youngstown cemetery where the elder Rozier’s mother was buried in 2007. Rozier Sr. had never been to her gravesite.
Then Terry took his father to buy clothes and sneakers, and they went to their favorite Youngstown pizza parlor. It was perfect.
Rozier Sr. got a job at an industrial cleaning service, where he sometimes works 12-hour shifts going to places such as factories, mills, and warehouses. His son bought him a modest house in Boardman, Ohio, a suburb south of Youngstown. It is far enough away from the tumultuous life the father left behind, but close enough that it does not feel unfamiliar. He has a porch and a yard, and he is looking forward to getting some new furniture soon.
He has enjoyed wearing nice clothes again and eating at whatever time he wants to eat. Most of all, he is glad to reconnect with his family and meet his grandchildren and to finally see his son play in the NBA in person, rather than on a television in a prison.
‘A true blessing’
About a week before Saturday’s game in Cleveland, Terry Rozier smiled and said how excited he was to have his father see him play.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it for years.”
But as the day drew closer, Terry became more closed off publicly. He said he just wanted to get through the day, and on Saturday made it clear he did not want to say much about it.
Behind the scenes, though, his excitement was evident. He called his father three times on Saturday, the last to tell him he had purchased him a courtside seat.
The father settled into Section 1, Seat 4, Row VIP, two seats down from Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Bock, who is Kevin Love’s girlfriend.
In the first quarter the father used his phone to take videos of his son in action. Just 80 seconds into the game, Rozier spun through the lane for a layup, and his father smiled. Terry seemed well-aware of his special guest and perhaps even anxious, as he took eight first-quarter shots, twice as many as anyone else in the game.
“I can’t even explain this feeling right here,” Rozier Sr. said at halftime from his courtside seat. “To be looking at my son, and be on the floor, too? I can’t even explain it. I’m just so happy. I’m so proud of him. This is a true blessing.”
After the final buzzer, Terry Rozier shook hands with a few Cavaliers and then made a beeline toward his dad to give him his No. 12 jersey.
About a half-hour later, Rozier’s friends and family waited for him in the lower level of the arena. Rozier’s father had his son’s game-worn jersey draped over his shoulder, and he pointed out that it was still wet, and that he could not wait to frame it.
When Terry emerged from the tunnel he hugged his father and asked him if he had enjoyed himself. Of course he had enjoyed himself.
“Wait until you come up for a Boston game,” the point guard said. “That’s going to be even more fun.”
Because he is on probation, Rozier Sr. cannot leave Ohio until Oct. 24, but after that, Boston will be one of his first stops.
As Terry headed back toward the Celtics’ locker room, an arena security guard told the family that it was time for everyone to go. The night was over. But for the father, this goodbye was much different than the others.