Michelle Perkins-Ball spent hours scouring the internet and making cold calls, looking for a needle in a haystack, before she found a lead on her next targeted guest speaker.

The Toronto high school teacher and girls’ basketball coach likes to find positive role models to speak to her students and is willing to make the extra effort to try and make it happen.

When the Toronto Raptors played the Chicago Bulls in pre-season action at Scotiabank Arena on Sunday, it meant beloved franchise icon DeMar DeRozan returned to the city on Thanksgiving weekend. For the students of Saint Oscar Romero Catholic Secondary School in Toronto, it meant an opportunity of a lifetime.

“DeMar DeRozan is a really amazing example of someone who’s willing to talk about life outside of the business of sport, and especially when he’s been talking so openly about mental health challenges,” said Perkins-Ball.

“How appropriate was it that it was World Mental Health Day on (Monday)? And here we are meeting DeMar DeRozan who has shown young people, not just NBA stars but anybody, that it’s important when you need help to speak out about it and to reach out for help.”

Perkins-Ball always had DeRozan near the top of her list of people who inspire students for the way he makes himself vulnerable. When she realized the Bulls schedule and school year did not align for an in-class visit, she thought the next best thing would be to bring the students to him. After hours of trying to co-ordinate, Perkins-Ball eventually got connected through Goodwin Sports Management, whose founder, Aaron Goodwin, is DeRozan’s agent.

“I was finally able to reach two beautiful women and I want to give them credit and thanks, Mary Ford and Michelle Chan of Goodwin Sports. They facilitated this whole thing through the Bulls for us.”

For student and girls’ basketball team member Adayana Martinez, meeting DeRozan was a way to fulfil a family dream. Students were able to take an additional person with them to the game, so Martinez took her mother. It was a way for her to honour her late uncle.

“He and my mom used to play basketball all the time when they were kids, and they used to dream about going to an NBA game and meeting a player,” Martinez said. “My mom got the chance to do that and she was really excited when we got home because she said she did it for her brother and for her.”

To Majur Bior, a member of the junior boys’ team, the meetup was so astonishing that he had to show everyone he knew. He was livestreaming while walking along the court, but when DeRozan showed up, he put the phone away. The moment became all about the appreciation.

“That was amazing. Like, he came back to the first team that he played with, he showed love to the Raptors fans, the fans that came to support him and the team,” Bior said.

While DeRozan’s off-court character is what was behind the desire to have him interact with students, his work ethic — something he’s known for across the NBA — was also a source of inspiration.

Michelle McKoy, another player on the school’s girls’ basketball team, has been watching DeRozan since the 2014 season, during his days with the Raptors. She admires DeRozan’s constant improvement and uses it as personal motivation.

“Our team, I think we’ve been inspired by his hard work and his motivation to just always be a better player,” McKoy said. “I didn’t actually know we were going to actually meet him. I thought we were going to watch him, but it was a good surprise at the end. It was very exciting and also nerve-wracking, but a great experience.”

Demar Grant is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Demar via email: