MINNEAPOLIS – Don’t let go of the rope. It’s one of Tom Thibodeau’s most familiar exhortations, a mantra of sorts to keep his teams locked in, digging down and generally committed through whatever grueling test they’re facing, be it a game, a road trip, a spate of injuries or the entire season.
The trouble for Derrick Rose with that particular Thibs-ism is, so often, he has been the rope.
On one side of an unfortunate tug o’ war, we’ve had the Rose loyalists, the fans, friends and family who believe that the 2010-11 NBA Most Valuable Player’s return from injury hell to elite status is just one more, legit opportunity away.
Pulling from the other side, there is a growing group of Rose skeptics who are convinced that the Chicago kid’s best days – his most explosive, elusive, game-changing moves – are behind him, strewn on the floors of too many surgical rooms and rehab gyms.
Rose, 29, knows they’re there.
One group pulling for him, the other doubting him. And in an unusually candid and forceful moment Saturday, the normally soft-spoken Rose delivered a stark message to them all.
“Yeah,” Rose said after his first full practice since signing a minimum-salary contract Thursday to join the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“This is how I feel about the whole perspective on it: You can have your perspective on me as far as I’m a bum, I can’t play, I can’t shoot, this and that. All right. Cool. I have no hard feelings with that. I’m cool with that. If that’s how you feel, that’s how you feel.
“But at the same time, I don’t need your [bleeping] validation.”
Rose’s eyes burned bright, in a direct response to the many health challenges he has endured from acquaintances and strangers both, picking at whatever good or bad is left of his basketball career.
“I know who I am,” Rose continued. “I know the type of player I am. So, you respect that and I respect that, and we should be good. That’s how I feel about it.”
In other words, you work your side of the street, Rose will continue to work his.
If there are NBA administrators like Thibodeau, the Wolves’ head coach and president of basketball operations, willing to give him another chance, he’ll be chasing the ghost of his own self while trying to help somebody win.
One more chance
Rose’s latest grab at faded glory began in Sunday’s matinee against the defending champion Golden State Warriors at Target Center, where the Timberwolves beat the Warriors, 109-103. Rose scored two points on 1-for-5 shooting from the field in his Wolves debut.
It probably is his last, best shot to salvage something from a 2017-18 season that’s been largely lost due to injury, yes, but other factors outside Rose’s control as well.
What looked like a terrific opportunity back in training camp – signing with Eastern Conference power Cleveland Cavaliers and home to the game’s best player (and Rose nemesis) in LeBron James – got sideways fast. In the Cavs’ second game, on a drive to the rim, Rose got whacked across the face and neck by Milwaukee center Greg Monroe. He landed badly on the baseline, suffering a “jacked-up” left ankle that left him in a walking boot and sidelined him for 11 of Cleveland’s next 15 games.
Then word got out just before Thanksgiving that Rose had left the team, reportedly to contemplate his future as an NBA player. He was gone for nearly two weeks, at least part of it back home in Chicago, during what Cavs GM Koby Altman called “a very challenging and difficult time for Derrick.”
Rose didn’t play again until Cleveland’s 44th game. In nine appearances over the next three weeks, he was a shell of the three-time All-Star he’d once been, averaging 6.3 points, 1.6 assists and 13.3 minutes, while shooting 39 percent. On Feb. 8, he was one of six Cavaliers players dealt by Altman at the NBA trade deadline, sent to Salt Lake City as a throw-in to acquire Utah’s Rodney Hood and Sacramento’s George Hill.
Two days later, the Jazz waived Rose.
Four weeks passed before Thibodeau got the green light from Minnesota owner Glen Taylor to sign Rose. The Oklahoma City Thunder had sniffed in his direction, only to opt for veteran backup Corey Brewer. Rose had family duties to attend to – he and Alaina Anderson had a baby girl in Chicago to start the week – but he also had spent time working out by himself in the Cavs’ facility or at Cleveland State’s gym.
“I still have faith. No matter what happens, I still have a lot of faith in myself and my ability. It’s just about opportunity and catching a rhythm.
The end seemed near. Given Rose’s limited involvement this season, he probably would have been a long shot to land with one of the league’s 30 teams in 2018-19, had Thibodeau not reached out.
The people on the dark end of Rose’s rope were winning. Now, this buys him time for a shout-out to the folks on the other end.
“‘Don’t give up,’ Rose said he would tell them. Talking later at the downtown Minneapolis hotel where he’s staying, he wanted to assure people that his desire to play remains strong, his passion to keep trying still burns, and his mental fitness for this and future challenges on or away from the court is fine.
“I still have faith,” Rose said, two bags of ice strapped to each leg. “No matter what happens, I still have a lot of faith in myself and my ability. It’s just about opportunity and catching a rhythm. Whenever I do catch a rhythm, I’d rather see what it is then. Than to, like, give up knowing I have so much left. Like, ‘Damn, I should have kept playing.’
“I’m going to give it my all. And once I do, then it’s like, ‘All right, cool. I gave it my all, now what’s this next phase in my life?’
“But as far as right now, I’m still in it. I’ve got two kids that can look at me now. The oldest, my boy [P.J.] is 5 years old. He’s looking at me right now. He sees everything. I’m going to tell him, ‘No excuses. Don’t come to me cryin’, this and that. Nah.’ He’ll see what I’ve had to go through. ‘Now suck it up and go out there and do what you’ve got to do.’”
A career interrupted
For some NBA players whose careers got waylaid by injuries – Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Penny Hardaway – their bodies finally refused to cooperate. They went from 60-to-0, no wiggle room on whether they would continue.
Rose, for all his setbacks, has worked his way back – not back to his previous form – from each and every injury. From the ACL blowout that started him down his hobbled path in April 2012 to three subsequent meniscus knee surgeries, from the left orbital fracture he suffered when he caught teammate Taj Gibson’s errant elbow in the face in the opening practice of 2015-16 to the lingering ankle sprain dealt by Monroe’s blow in October.
In that sense, Rose is more like Bernard King, Sam Bowie or Grant Hill, standout players whose career trajectories were forever altered – but not ended – by injuries.
Rose speaks as if he has reached some level of peace with his maladies, referring to his injuries as “part of the game” and his particular “cross” to bear. “I’ve just had five surgeries more than other people,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it. That don’t mean that I can’t play. That don’t mean that I lost my love for the game. No.”
What Rose doesn’t like is the “fragile” label that’s been affixed to him. He’s less interested that he has played in only 486 of approximately 789 regular-season games so far, while proud of the 130 he logged with the Bulls (2015-16) and Knicks (2016-17) more recently. It seems clear that the reckless abandon with which Rose played – and the excruciating torque he put on his knees with his bounding, zig-zag attacks through the lane – wreaked havoc on his knees.
Beyond that, though, he’s not buying any pattern business.
“You see how I was injured [in October]? I was taken out of the air,” Rose said. “People are like, ‘Aw, he’s always injured.’ Are you just watching highlights, just looking at clips, like new fans are these days? Or are you watching an entire game? Are you just reading reports that come up on your phone?”
Scouts say that Rose has lost both quickness and leaping ability, without developing a perimeter game to compensate. They also bundle his Cleveland hiatus with the AWOL episode last season with the Knicks, when Rose left the team without notice before a game against New Orleans, to question his reliability and commitment.
Rose disputes the comments about his game, citing the circumstances in New York and Cleveland.
“I could sit here and tell you, ‘I’m gonna try to change this. Do this and do that.’ Nah, I always felt, it starts with my rhythm,” he said.
“[In] New York ... I was playing the triangle [offense favored by former Knicks president Phil Jackson] and still playing pretty well [18.0 ppg, 4.4 apg, 32.5 mpg]. In Cleveland, when did I really have a chance to catch a rhythm? When did I play 20 games straight? Or 10 games? Five games?”
As for his reliability – or likelihood to take a powder on the Wolves the way he did on the Knicks and seemed to do on the Cavs – Rose said there is no issue there, either. In the past couple weeks, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan (depression) and Cleveland’s Kevin Love (panic attacks) have opened up about psychological challenges they and other athletes face. But Rose shook his head as the question was asked.
“Oh no, no, no,” he said. “I’m blessed, man. Beyond blessed. It’s not even ... what do I have to complain about? I don’t have anything to complain about. Of course, I wish I was on the court more. I think in time, with the right opportunity, I’ll be out there more.
“I’m not depressed, even though I think everybody deals with some depression in some way. It’s about how you deal with it. We’re emotional creatures. We hold onto things. I try to meditate, try to do little things to change my mindset and try to read things to easy my nerves.”
Rose admitted he did wonder if he would get another chance, once the Cavs traded him to a Jazz team that had no use for him.
“Especially when you get dropped by a team like Cleveland, that needed players,” he said. “It makes other teams think, ‘Damn, if they didn’t keep him...’”
Rose has not spoken with James since being dealt, he said.
“The way I take it, I don’t take it as personal,” Rose said. “They didn’t need my services. That’s the way I look at it, OK? I understand. It’s business. Does that stop me from working hard? Does that stop me from still putting out goals and trying to reach my goals? No.”
Familiar faces aid return
Now Rose is reunited with Thibodeau, Gibson, Jimmy Butler (sidelined after his own meniscus surgery) and familiar coaches and staff making up the “TimberBulls.” He even trusts Thibodeau, often criticized for the heavy minutes he loads on his top players, not to break him.
“If anything, I want him to play me,” Rose said. “I want to show to him that I can still play. I want him to see me and be like, ‘Damn, he’s still got it.’ I want him to count on me. I want to be held accountable. You know what I mean? I don’t just want to be, like, an average guy on the team riding along just to see how far they go. I really want to add.”
Like all stories, there’s a beginning, there’s a middle and there’s an end. I don’t think it’s a finished story.
Said Thibodeau, who ran Rose Saturday through a rigorous refresher course on his playbook: “Obviously when he was at an MVP level, that was the peak. But he also, my last year in Chicago, he had a great year. ... He still has the potential to be very good. He’s young, that was the other part of it. He knows some of our guys, he knows the system.
“Like all stories, there’s a beginning, there’s a middle and there’s an end,” the Wolves coach added. “I don’t think it’s a finished story.”
Gibson thinks Rose can shoulder some of Butler’s late-game duties, simply because the scoring guard has strong muscle memory of such situations. He, too, hopes Rose’s story can take a happy turn.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed,” the veteran forward said. “I truly believe in him. He’s got a lot left in the tank. It’s just, sometimes life doesn’t go your way and you have to push through it and keep fighting.”
Thibodeau has said that Rose, like starter Jeff Teague and backup Tyus Jones, can play both backcourt spots, so he can mix-and-match based on situations. Rose anticipates no problem walking that line between asserting his game and rocking the Wolves’ boat.
“My job coming here, I’m not trying to step on nobody’s toes. I’m not trying to take someone’s spot,” he said. “I’m not trying to show myself. Nah. I’m here to win. Me going out there and playing, hopefully you all see that. ‘He’s making money plays. He’s playing to win. And that’s what we wanted from him.’”
Not that Rose, lest we forget from up top, needs anyone’s bleeping validation. Boosters and doubters can pull this way or that, but he said he’ll be the one who decides when his time is up.
“When my love of the game is not there,” Rose said, sounding sincere near the end of his 10th season overall. “When I get tired of going to the gym.
“Don’t get me wrong, we all go through that. But after a couple of days, I get antsy, I want to be in the gym. When a week or two goes by and I haven’t touched the gym, even in the summer, oh yeah, I’d know it was over.”
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