Derrick Rose says he doesn’t know how it will be Friday when he returns to the United Center for the first time not playing for the Bulls, for the first time since his shocking trade to the New York Knicks last June, his first game ever against the team he most loved.
“Going back to Chicago, I really don’t know what to expect,” Rose said earlier this week after Knicks practice in New York. “I know it’s going to be love. I know there will be some totally opposite, couple of boos here and there. But, really, I just want to win the game.”
That really is all Rose ever has been about, from the prep school stardom to the unlikely landing with the Bulls, to the comet flash across the NBA horizon to the crash of the serious knee injuries, the community and media ambivalence, the optimism turned to fatalism. Rose in many respects has endured a trial by fire unlike any top athlete who has played in Chicago, as much or more than most anywhere. He went from precocious local hero to wizened outsider, a child who promised such hope to a man who presided over such disappointment.
Rose is gone from Chicago now, making his home in New York, actually talking about it being his summer base instead of Los Angeles, comfortable in his bustling city anonymity, no longer a last hope as much as a recovering piece. But that Rose has endured and survived is because of Chicago, because of the heat in the kiln of adversity that hardened and strengthened him for his journey. He returns to Chicago wearing a Knicks uniform, but made up in the armor that is Chicago.
“I always had that underdog mentality,” says Rose. “No matter where I was at in my career, no matter what I achieved, no matter the accolades and all that, that’s good. But I always had the underdog mentality and going from all those great seasons through the injuries, dealing with the BS from some of the media, it can kind of isolate you a little where it forces you for your circle to get even tighter. I felt my friends and family have gotten closer than we ever have been. Now with my friends we’ll talk about things we never would talk about. Before the injuries we weren’t able to. They knew I was down and I was mad, but I was holding it in. They could see it and sense it, but I wasn’t talking to them about it. I wasn’t communicating to them or anyone about it. I think at the time it hurt our friendship because I feel I’m very independent. I get it from my mom. I always felt I could handle things on my own. They felt I was pushing them aside when I was doing that, but it was far from that. It was me saying, ‘Let me show you I can do this by myself.’”
Because that was life in Chicago, in Englewood, no dad, his mom the dad — “I rarely saw her feminine side,” says Derrick. “There were bills she could not pay and would break down. That’s when I saw, hey, my mom is a woman, I saw her emotions. She had to be the one hard on us. If anything we saw the dad side of her more than the mom side.” Barely able to eat and have decent clothes, a house filled with a dozen or more people at times, some on drugs, Derrick the quiet one shutting it all out, being the man, wanting to show he can survive and survive for his mom.
It’s often what many don’t understand about some of these great athletes. Just because they get paid a lot of money and become famous doesn’t mean the scars of their childhoods are over or forgotten, that the education they received, or didn’t, is somehow changed. You still are a product of your environment as much as your ancestry. Few of us can relate, though many of us condemn.
“It was tough growing up (in South Side Englewood, one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods). It’s why I took school as I did,” says Rose. “I could have done all the work, but at the time we were just trying to survive, me and my mom. My job every day was getting up trying to find ways to hustle; not where I’m selling drugs or anything, but things like shooting dice, shooting jump shots to get a few dollars for my mom. I pumped gas. I was a light skinned kid. My other friends, they all looked rough, so since I was a light skinned kid I’d go up to you and say can I pump your gas. I did that, I shot jump shots for money. Anything to try to take the load off my mom. She’d get a check for $700 or some weeks didn’t even get paid, one time a whole month. She’d get $600 or $700 and after paying the bills would have $100 to spend and for two weeks. And having a kid. How are you supposed to do that?
It’s why we all saw that tender moment in 2011 when Rose signed his contract extension with the Bulls: “I think we can finally say this now, ‘Mom, we finally made it.’
“She’d try to give me money,” recalled Rose. “And I was, ‘No, I’ll get for you.’ To make sure she had something. It was hard. Even with school. I could have done the work, but I had a chance to go to the league out of high school. But then they cut that my sophomore year, so I was trying to hurry up to get to college. They stopped it (to so called one and done) before KD. So I knew I’d have to go a year. Lived in a house with 13 people, sometimes crack heads. You’re seeing stuff you are not supposed to see.
“That’s why when people say things I can handle it,” says Rose. “I’m more hurt for my family because they know who I am and they are the ones in the public. They have to go shopping. I don’t have to do that. I have someone to do that for me, so they have to hear; they’re the ones who have to experience (the barbs). So they’re the ones worrying when I’m cool. They’re getting hurt more hearing, watching everything. I’m a dad now. I have responsibilities. I have someone watching everything I do, so I want to show him. You are going to go through stuff, you will hear things, people will do things, (but I’ll tell him), ‘You can’t let it sidetrack you from the destination where you want to get to, your goals.’ I’m setting standards for me and for my family. I don’t have a degree, but when I get done with this I am going to get my degree. My first semester credit is gone. I’m starting all over again, but that’s something I promised my mom so I can hang it over my son’s head so he can do the same thing with his kids or whoever. I want him to have those standards.”
Rose says it’s all because of Chicago and what it made him. There were the tremendous highs with the Bulls, the playoff rise, the MVP, being on the way to what he believed was that championship he promised himself he’d help bring to his boyhood team. And then the injuries, the desolation, the slings and arrows amidst his outrageous misfortune, and then the trade last June. Even with a disappointing and mostly dispirited season, Rose said he was surprised. Saddened more.
“Not winning a championship is really the only thing that stands out,” he says. “Being traded. I never thought I’d be traded. I was very surprised even with everything that happened. B.J. (Armstrong) called and he told me it’s a chance. I was emotional. I didn’t tell my mom. People were calling, coach Cal, my brothers, friends, seeing how I was doing. At first I was emotional. It was sad, devastating at first. But after awhile I thought about how strong my faith is. I knew it’s nothing He would put on my plate I can’t handle, so I took it as a blessing.
“Even though you heard talks, I was thinking no matter what happens at least I have one more year with the Bulls,” said Rose, now with that slice of beard, that mass of experience. “It was damn, but it motivated me and made me go harder in my workouts. It was sad because I also thought about my son. How would I see him? I thought about him, the fans, the city, the Bulls. I had so many visions of winning a championship there.
“The city meant everything,” said Rose. “They’re the reason I played the way I played. I wanted to show them that every year I worked on my game. In the offseason, I worked on things to see if people saw what I worked on, adding a jump shot, a bank shot, see if the fans can see; ‘Can you see I’m working hard?’ They saw me ever since I was in sixth grade, a guy who had natural raw talent, figured out how to score on a consistent basis, improved his jump shot, watched my turnovers and still working on that, being more efficient with the amount of dribbles before a shot, little things like that. The city pushes you and forces you to work on your game. I don’t care who you are. If you are in Chicago and play for a professional sports team and if you have greatness in you the city is going to pull it out of you one way or the other; they’re going to force you to work on your game or if you have a tiny bit of greatness they are going to get it out of you in Chicago because it’s the culture. I’d look at tapes of Walter Payton and you could tell he had that itch. Once you come there you get that itch of every day work on becoming great, the culture and history there; the fans have a lot to do with that because of the support. I hope the people in New York can see.”
It’s The Injury, though, the devastating ACL late in the first game of the playoffs in 2012 that changed everything, for Rose, for the Bulls. Both have basically been trying to recover since.
“Having the injury so young and not even being in my prime, just in my (fourth) year and going through the injuries I wanted to rush everything,” Rose recalls. “I wanted revenge. I wanted to prove everybody wrong. The reality was I needed time to myself to think about things, to decompress, and that’s what I felt like I did this summer. I’m still working on my rhythm from (the knee injuries). Your whole life you are used to this one/two rhythm, how you shoot, how you move and then you go from that to learning how to walk again, how to accelerate again. Then you learn that and you have another knee injury and you have to learn that one/two again, your rhythm again, then you have another knee injury. So it’s the whole time working my butt off to get that same rhythm back and trying to be efficient and get better.
“The ACL, that was my first big injury. All I was thinking of was I never had surgery. I was down,” admits Rose. “I felt like I didn’t want to do the rehab. I saw players doing the rehab from being around the gym, working out seeing what they had to go through, and I always said to myself I never want to be in that position, learning how to walk, learning how to bend your leg over again, the process of walking again. I never wanted to go through that. But then I was in that position, so that’s when I was down the most.”
Then came the fits and starts, the explanations and not, the optimism turned to despair and then denunciation. Eventually it was just too much fatigue for everyone.
“I never took it personal,” insists Rose. “I always knew it was part of the sport, part of the business. I felt like they made me a better man being there and going through everything I went through. Although it was out of my control and I did it on the court--it wasn’t like I was doing something off the court crazy--I did it while I was working. It wasn’t any hard feelings, isn’t and never will be. Did I have days I felt sad? Yeah. But I never blamed anyone for it. I always put it on myself.
“I remember my rookie year, everything, I remember everything with the team, the franchise,” say Rose. “It will all be a part of the player I want to become one day. When you look back at my history, my resume, it’s going to be ‘Oh, I see why he achieved what he achieved.’ Look at the beginning at what he had to go through; he had to be a strong individual to get there. I think it’s going to be a part of my story. I’m thinking about when I’m younger I used to always have visions of getting drafted, winning awards. They don’t play out the way I actually wanted to play out, but the end result is basically the same. I still see myself winning championships, but I just don’t know when.
“The question should be, ‘Can I hoop?’ It shouldn’t be ‘Oh, he can’t do this going left.’ Can I hoop? I have to facilitate the game and pick and choose my spots now, especially playing with the great talents I have on my team. I feel like I’m in college again, the nervousness I get, learning a new offense, learning new players, trying to figure out our identity like I had to go through in college.
“Me scoring 30 points or trying to force myself to score 30 points on this team would be easily noticed. It would be like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” Rose said. “’You coming down and shooting some of the shots I shot with a team like this? It would be, ‘What are you doing?’ That’s why I’m being so patient, feeling myself out and toward the end and when the chemistry gets better I’ll find a way to get my shots in and play my game.”
Rose knows he’s not home anymore, though he’s happy he can go there. New York is different, though comfortable.
“I love the city,” he says, now living downtown from Madison Square Garden “I love the freedom I have. I’m 6-3, I put a hat on and I can go anywhere. The love here is different. It’s ‘Hey D. Rose, what’s up. Good luck in the game.’ And they keep moving. No one’s stopping. It’s like, ‘Go on about your day, I still got to do what I got to do. I see you though.’”
“In Chicago I felt like I was immature sometimes,” Rose admits. “But in this process and coming here I was learning who I wanted to be as a man, what principles I’d live by, my priorities. I organize things different and I want to have everything off my plate so I can focus now solely on just basketball.”
We see you, D. Rose. Thanks for the memories. Enjoy and have a great life.