Posted Apr 6 2011 12:02PM
CHICAGO -- There was a buzz at Murray Park on Tuesday afternoon, but it was coming from the pavilion, not the playground. The polls were open for the city's aldermanic elections and this hub of the West Englewood neighborhood on the South Side, at the intersection of West 73rd St. and South Wood Street, was getting a midday trickle of local residents involved enough to vote.
The numbers weren't great -- just 29.1 percent of the electorate turned out, compared to Chicago's 42 percent overall. It wasn't known if any of the candidates campaigned on a pledge of two backboards for every court. Maybe someone should have.
A newcomer to the park had to blink on a chilly but mostly sunny spring day to make sure that this wasn't some trick of shadows. The fine rust-and-algae colored asphalt of the Murray Park basketball court sat dormant and seemed likely to stay that way because ... well, because the east end was closed for business.
No backboard. No rim. Just a stark black pole, capped by a plate with vacant holes for bolts no longer needed.
The playground where Derrick Rose grew up and learned to play the game has only one goal these days. Which is not the same thing as Rose's singlemindedness in leading the Chicago Bulls toward the top berth in the Eastern Conference and the 2011 NBA postseason.
Sure, a bent rim or a busted backboard can be a nice snapshot of a someone's monster dunk. But who needed a souvenir this badly?
"I'll tell you what happened," a park denizen said, sidling up. "The first day that basket was up -- first day -- somebody dunked and bent the rim again. Next day, they come out and take the whole thing down. 'You ain't gonna be bending no more rims.' Used to let us get a ladder and tighten that thing back up. Other one's already loose."
And it's been like this for how long? "Coupla years," said a second man. "Four or five months at least," said a fellow who referred to himself as Rose's "Uncle Will," though it clearly was more boast than blood. The first man interrupted. "Last summer. Been like that the whole time since," he said.
It was dreary symbolism -- of some sort. The home court of one of the quickest end-to-end players you'll ever see was stuck without that other end. "Maybe with D-Rose being an MVP and everything," one man said, "we could get another basket here now."
Uncle Will chimed in. "Tell them we need jobs, too."
Eight hours later, nine miles due north, at a United Center that sits a block west of Madison and Wood, Rose drove hard for a three-point play with 1 minute, 52 seconds left to keep the Bulls afloat, 94-89, against the Phoenix Suns. At 33.2 seconds, Chicago's lead again down to two, he saw the defensive switch, Grant Hill coming over, and immediately stepped back for a 19-foot jumper that dropped.
As he has so many nights this season, late in a close game, Rose made the other end of the court disappear. And it started at Murray Park, back when the playground was flush with backboards.
* * * * *
Dubbed "Pooh" by his grandmother, Derrick Rose was a late arrival, the junior member of his particular band of brothers. Dwayne is 16 years older, Reggie has him by 14 and the gap between Allan and Derrick is seven years. Hardly peers. Too spread out, the youngest from the others, to be rivals, either.
The older brothers were more like father figures in the single-parent home of Brenda Rose. The three oldest sons handled the man-stuff and basketball. The mother handled the rest.
"My mom just stayed real firm," Reggie Rose said, "making sure he got his grades, that he went to school. Also make sure he'd take out garbage or wash dishes, y'know? A lot of kids might want to stay out all night with their friends, but Derrick would call us some nights and say, 'Mom's trippin'.' Or she'd get on the phone with us and say, 'He ain't goin' nowhere.' We'd tell him, 'Hey, your mother says you can't go. What can we do about it?'
"Derrick's so young, he doesn't remember the Ben Wilson stories, the Ronnie Fields stories," Reggie said, citing two of Chicago basketball most regrettable cautionary tales. Wilson was a high school star who led Derrick Rose's eventual high school, Simeon Career Academy, to the state championship in 1984, then was killed in a street shooting days after accepting a scholarship to Illinois. Rose learned much later of Wilson and wore his No. 25 at Simeon, much like Wilson's former prep teammate, Nick Anderson, who wore No. 25 in the NBA to honor Wilson.
Fields was a teammate of Kevin Garnett at Farragut Academy on the West Side in 1995, a flashy guard and dunker a year behind Garnett who broke his neck in a February 1996 car accident. He recovered but never fully revived his basketball dreams with various brief stints overseas and in minor leagues.
Said Reggie: "Derrick don't even remember the Len Bias stories, these guys with great upsides who, just one mistake in your life can take all that away. So we were basically building a wall around him, making sure nobody could get in his head, entice him to make a decision where he could change not his career, but his whole life."
Derrick often bristled at the heavy-handedness of his brothers and his mother back then, but no one let up.
"Growing up in Chicago, if you play a sport, the gangs don't really mess with you," Reggie said. "But like my mom always said, 'Yeah, you're going to the basketball court to play, but bullets don't know your name.' "
At Murray Park, the wall of Rose brothers threw long shadows over the youngest. For a while anyway. He was 8 or 9, they were teenagers and beyond.
"Dwayne, he could dribble real good, so he'd dribble and Derrick would be chasing him, trying to steal the ball," said Reggie, who played at the University of Idaho. "I was more of a shooter, a scoring fanatic basically, so I'd just be shooting and talking to him. Allan was more athletic, jumping, and he's closer to age with Derrick, so he would just dunk on him.
"As years went on of us roughing him up -- my older brother playing with him, I'm shooting and talking smack, other brother dunking on him -- it seems like Derrick took all the skill levels that we had and put it in one body."
Early in the day, when the court was open, they would walk the two blocks from their home on Marshfield and play until the other older kids showed up. "As the day went on, we'd stick him in a game," Reggie said. "And he'd hold his own."
Derrick Rose smiled at the memories after the Bulls practice Monday. "I was the only one that could play with them that was my age," he said. "The other kids, my friends and everybody my age who'd be around, [the older guys] thought they were too young. So my friends would watch me play -- they used to cheer for me against them."
The competition made facing all those kids in Rose's grade a snap. Almost too easy.
* * * * *
Thomas R. Green is a grade-school coaching legend in Chicago and Illinois, earning spots in two Halls of Fame through his team's victory totals and the number of high school and college graduates he has produced over 30 years. Green had Rose for two years at the Beasley Academic Center after the budding point guard, thanks to all those asphalt tutorials, had already won championships in 5th and 6th grade at Randolph Elementary.
Was Rose good for any of those SportsCenter highlight moments back then?
"Oh yes, lots of those. Lots of those," the coach said. "In 7th and 8th grade, there was always an army of high school coaches following us around from game to game. Potential recruiters and AAU coaches. He was like an urban legend. People came to see, 'What will Derrick Rose do next? Will he throw a lob? Will he make a 75-foot bounce pass on the money? Will he make a spectacular play or hold the other team's top scorer to zero?' "
Playing with a teammate and scorer, forward Tim Flowers, who would join him at Simeon, Rose got Beasley two titles, going undefeated one year and then with a single loss in 2002-03.
"He was a tremendous talent," Green said, "tremendous ball handler, very athletic, great court vision, willing to share the ball. Everyone loved playing with Derrick because he was a distributor, a pure point guard. It wasn't his mindset to have a killer instinct to score, to go to the basket or to play selfishly to score."
Said Alex Reyes, an assistant coach at Beasley: "The only time he would take over a game by scoring was when they were in a position to lose."
All the traits that Rose's subsequent coaches were to value in him -- staying relentless as long as time remains on the clock, outworking the next guy, sticking with a game plan, finding and involving teammates, listening -- were there at this elementary stage. So Green isn't surprised what the explosive player, just 22, has already achieved.
"That's not surprising," Green said. "What is ... is that we know him. It's almost like someone saying, 'I used to go to school with Mahatma Gandhi.' You went to school with who? That little guy is the MVP of the NBA? It's hard to believe."
We've heard Allen Iverson, we've heard Dwyane Wade, we've heard others to date. But let the record show that Green offered the season's first Gandhi-Rose comparison.
"I'm going to tell you something about his commitment and dedication and loyalty," Green said. "At the end of our 8th grade year, June 2003, he graduated. My wife passed away in October. I had no idea he and and his mom were coming to the funeral. They lived in a very bad neighborhood -- no car -- and my wife's funeral was late at night in November. It was rainy and it was cold."
Brenda and her 15-year-old son took three buses -- south down Ashland, east across 95th St., south again down Michigan -- and then walked another few blocks to the church where Sandrell Green lay.
"Family, loyalty, the team concept," Green said. "We stay together as a group. Trust. I don't know if I helped him that much with skill development. We ran our set plays, we did do our work on patterns, our fundamental drills. But that was the highlight of the whole thing [coaching Rose]."
* * * * *
The same, strange lack of scoring aggressiveness that was noticed in Rose's grade-school game followed him to high school. Simeon head coach Robert Smith spotted it right off: Diligent in running plays, careful to heed a coach's instructions, deferential to teammates. Too selfless as a point guard, Smith concluded.
"That was something we addressed from Day 1," Smith said. "So we had this rule that, if he didn't shoot 10 shots in a game, they would have to run in practice. He wouldn't shoot -- he would only pass, except for certain situations when he thought we needed a basket and then he would do what he needed to do.
"When we put the little rule in that guys would have to run if he didn't shoot 10 times, the guy on the bench keeping the stats would get asked, 'How many shots did he take yet?' And if he didn't take enough, they'd be like, 'Derrick, you've got to shoot three more times!' "
The goading paid off, bumping Rose from 19.5 ppg as a sophomore to 20.1 as a junior and finally 25.2 as a senior. His last two years at Simeon, his team went 66-6 and became the first Chicago Public League school to win back-to-back state titles. Rose himself had long been in the spotlight, enough that he was recruited heavily and often -- Smith and Reggie Rose handled the requests and pitches from the likes of William (Worldwide Wes) Wesley and others -- and the player committed early to Memphis. That released some of the pressure for Rose's final year at Simeon, and explained some of his on-court decisions, too.
"It seems like every coach I've ever played for, they all told me the same thing. Like, be aggressive," Rose said. "I could have averaged more [points] but I knew my teammates would have more fun like that. I knew I was going to have a decent career in basketball. I knew that they probably weren't going to play basketball anymore."
"I dunno, It was something I just felt, that I was going to be able to play basketball longer than they would. My joy was just making sure that they was happy, and everything was smooth from there."
Smith can see other remnants of Simeon in Rose to this day, how his sense of timing, for instance, was honed to mesh with the other players. "I had to tell him, 'You can't pass [a teammate] the ball like that because he's not ready. You're three steps ahead of him. You're making the pass when he doesn't even know you're ready to pass,' " Smith said.
Still, the coach's biggest takeaway with Rose was that generosity of spirit on the court, a trait that makes him a true point guard and a teammate welcomed on Team USA, in All-Star locker rooms and, most of all, in Chicago with the Bulls.
"I still remember, after the last game for the state championship [in which Rose finished with two points, eight assists and seven rebounds], he said, 'These guys may never get a chance to play a competitive game of basketball like this ever again. And I'm headed to Memphis, and in a couple of years I'll definitely be in the NBA,'" Smith said. "When you think about it, that's a credit to him being the type of person that he is."
* * * * *
Looking back, Memphis was a bittersweet experience for Rose. It served him well, prepping him in a single season to be the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. The lottery had shined on the Bulls' 1.7 percent chance, and Rose wasn't gone from Chicago for even 10 months. The Tigers made it to the NCAA championship game, losing in overtime to Kansas after Mario Chalmers hit a game-saving 3-pointer near the end of regulation, a moment that still grates on Rose.
That was followed by the embarrassment over Rose's questionable SAT test scores, leading to the decision that he was ineligible and that Memphis would be stripped of its 38 victories and tournament earnings. And there was coping with coach John Calipari, whose style on the Tigers bench was 180 degrees from the quiet, introspective Rose.
"My high school coach wasn't that strict on me, but Cal definitely was," Rose said. "He was more in your face, like a fight-you type. You see him in the games. Yelling on the sideline. He'll chase you up the sideline yelling at you."
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau will chew him out, too, because the rookie NBA head coach and Rose both feel he can handle it. But at least he'll wait until Rose gets back to the bench or in a timeout huddle. His vocabulary isn't quite as salty as Calipari's either.
Thibodeau got to know Rose last summer, initially by phone while Rose was prepping for the World Championship games. Frequently, constantly by phone, as it turned out.
"We talked after almost every game that he would play. From A to Z," the Bulls coach said. "When they were playing over in Turkey, we'd talk and he'd ask me questions. 'How would we handle this? How would we guard this?' Then I'd ask him things I saw in the game, 'What were you thinking in this situation?' I saw how important it was for him to get things right."
That's why Thibodeau can be so demanding now. Rose basically has given him the license to berate.
"People just don't get to me like that," Rose said before last weekend's Toronto game. "If they do, I don't let them know that, because that's when they think that there's a chance they've got a way to distract you. I just try to play like everything's all right but I'll be thinking to myself, 'Just slow down' and stuff."
Fact is, Rose welcomes that brand of blistering. Hard coaching is what's gotten him this far, from the brothers' playground prodding to Reggie Rose's stint as coach of Derrick's AAU team, the Chicago Express, for three summers. (By the way, the shooting guard on that team was the Clippers' Eric Gordon.)
"I really, really was hard on him," Reggie said of his brotherly shoves. "I tried to push him to the point that -- really, I was trying to break him. He'd be tired, wanting to come out of a game, and I'd leave him in. Some people in the stand would be like, 'Wow, why's he treating this kid like that?' They'd tell them, 'That's his brother.'
"But now, Derrick can look at me like, 'I didn't see the vision that y'all had for me.' "
The expectations for and attention around Rose are almost at laughable levels now. He could be pulled in a thousand directions all at once, if outsiders mattered all that much, or at least a hundred if the standard-issue group of NBA hangers-on were in play.
But Rose, like Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and a few others, seems to be part of a post-entourage generation. His mother is "everything" to him. He keeps a few friends close and family closer. And that's it.
"I don't think I will ever change," Rose said. "There's no point in changing. My mother let me know that basketball is just a sport and I shouldn't think I'm better than anyone because I can hit a layup. So if I ever came to her bragging about anything, she'll definitely let me know that I've changed or bring me back down to reality. I think I have a good group of people around me who won't let that happen."
They didn't let it happen at or on the way to Murray Park. They won't let it happen now.
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