All these years later and he still hears the chants when he’s standing at the free-throw line at the United Center.
If he closed his eyes and transported himself back to the beginning, to those first steps he took as the precocious hometown kid from the South Side who made good, it could make the hair on your arms stand up.
Derrick Rose lived that fantasy.
The fantasy every youngster in this fierce, basketball-mad city dared to dream at one time or another, to represent Chicago in a Bulls uniform and do it at the highest level.
The youngest Kia MVP in league history, before Stephen Curry and James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic, there was young Derrick Rose.
“He’s a living, flesh-and-blood embodiment of all our dreams,” Hall of Famer and Chicago hoops icon Isiah Thomas said of Rose. “Because every kid in the city grew up dreaming of playing for the Chicago Bulls and hearing our name called running out of that tunnel. That’s every kid’s dream. And Derrick Rose is the one … basically, he was the chosen one to live that dream.
“And not only did he live it, he became MVP of the league,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t get any higher than that. It just doesn’t. That’s why you not only have to see him and protect him, you have to make sure he gets the right knowledge around him, because you know he could be the voice out of Chicago that speaks to the world.”
A basketball prodigy born and raised in the city, Rose will receive a hero’s welcome during All-Star 2020 in his hometown. But it’s not the storybook ending Chicagoans wished it would be, with Rose representing the Bulls during the league’s showcase weekend. He’s not returning as an All-Star, though he’s certainly performed well enough this season in Detroit to have warranted serious consideration.
He originally was tapped to be on center stage All-Star Saturday night as a competitor in the Taco Bell Skills Competition he won as a rookie in 2009. Instead, he had to withdraw because of an adductor strain.
Still, he will feel that Chicago love. The kind Thomas said you only get back home, when it feels like an entire city can shelter its own from the cold, harsh realities they might face outside of that cocoon.
But even in the weeks leading up to the All-Star announcements, when there was a buzz and still a chance he might complete a comeback story for the ages and be named an All-Star, Rose didn’t get lost in the moment.
“Nah, I never did it for that, I never in my life played to be in that game,” Rose said. “If people decide to put me in there, that’s cool. But if not, I’m going to keep playing the way that I’m playing.”
A generational bridge for Chicago
Chicago’s rich basketball roots run deep. It’s a generational love affair with the game, a passion that has to be experienced to wrap your head around why it means so much to so many.
It goes beyond the city limits, too, spreading in every direction throughout the “Chicagoland” area, which has produced some of the greatest and most impactful players in NBA history. From Joliet’s George Mikan, the league’s first superstar in the 1940s and 50s; to Thomas, a West Sider who is generally regarded as the best player ever from the city; all the way to Dwyane Wade, a surefire future Hall of Famer; and now Los Angeles Lakers superstar Anthony Davis, who carries the torch for Chicago as one of the league’s five best current players. The list is long and legendary, filled with prep and college stars who reached various levels of fame and achievement in the NBA.
But Rose is the only one to have done it in a Bulls uniform and the only one to earn the distinction of Kia Most Valuable Player, when he captured the honor in 2011 at just 22 years old.
“There’s a historical love that is always acknowledged and appreciated by players who come out of Chicago because of what we saw our mothers, fathers and grandmothers have to go through,” Thomas said. “Their struggle, their everyday struggle, was in our face. In our house. No food, no heat, no lights. But we always seen them maintain and keep their dignity.
“And that goes into our sport, in the way you compete, the way you never give up, the way you accept all the challenges and the way you don’t cry about it,” Thomas said. “So when you come to a basketball game and it’s time to compete and you rise up to the highest level, in our sport, you’re a mythical figure. And for us, what Derrick Rose represents and what he still represents is that you can overcome the struggle. Not only can you overcome it, even when you get knocked down, you can still get up and walk. That’s what Derrick Rose is for all of us.”
At his zenith, Rose captivated fans and his NBA peers from the city, past, present and future. And that still resonates today.
“He was like a once in a lifetime athlete, even to this day,” said Hawks forward Jabari Parker, who like Rose, starred and won state championships at Chicago’s famed Simeon Career Academy. “But for me growing up, it was like he was doing things other NBA guys couldn’t do. His athleticism was at its peak when he was in high school to be honest with you. Obviously in the NBA [before the ACL surgery] he was super athletic. But I remember going to Simeon and watching him practice and he was doing 360 dunks between the legs. I saw it with my own eyes. That’s crazy, at 6-3, to be able to that. He was just on another level.”
Parker, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 Draft, said he went to Simeon instead of his neighborhood high school because of Rose, who is seven years older.
His father Robert “Sonny” Parker, a Chicago legend himself at Farragut Career Academy and the 17th pick in the 1976 NBA Draft, had always schooled his son on the city’s brilliant basketball history. Like Jabari Parker would later, Rose wore No. 25 at Simeon in honor of Ben “Benji” Wilson, the budding star who led Simeon to the 1984 state title before he was murdered by a gang member in his senior year.
But Rose was a link to a glorious past, an outstanding present and promising future.
“When we’re coming up in Chicago, that’s our culture, basketball,” Jabari Parker said. “Simeon was definitely a powerhouse program in the city. But for a while the Red West [division] was the place to be, with Westinghouse, Crane and Marshall. The Red South wasn’t really a thing until Derrick resurrected the Red South and the program at Simeon, because up to that point we hadn’t been a [state championship] power since the late 80s and 90s. He was definitely the reason I went there and we were able to preserve the rich legacy of the program.”
The word starts to get out
Rose won a city and state title at Simeon as a junior, when he hurried the game-winner in overtime to deliver Simeon’s first championship since that Wilson-led team won it all in 1984. They repeated as the city and state champions his senior year, becoming the first Chicago Public League school to win back-to-back titles.
“Everybody remembers that,” said Heat rookie Kendrick Nunn, who won four straight state titles alongside Parker at Simeon, and along with Wilson, Bobby Simmons, Rose and Parker are the only players in school history to have their jersey numbers retired. “I remember people talking about how Derrick had put the national spotlight on Simeon, the public league and the city in general. The whole city felt it.”
Rose was generating buzz well beyond Chicagoland by then. The basketball world was certainly aware of him, and that included established pros like Quentin Richardson, who was in the midst of a 13-year NBA career after starring on at state championship team at Whitney Young in 1998 and at DePaul for two seasons before being selected by the LA Clippers with the 18th overall pick in the 2000 NBA Draft.
“The word was out on him in the city when he was in middle school,” Richardson said. “People were talking about him even then, that he was going to be the next one from the city. When I saw him when he was in high school. It was D. Rose and Sherron Collins, who was about to go to Kansas. And it was basically, who you want? D-Rose wasn’t there yet but he was on the way and Sherron was a senior and a McDonald’s All-American. Sherron averaged 30 and was gunning that thing. D. Rose was more of an all-around player, made plays for everybody and just had that next-level instinct. Plus he was taller and had that longer, lean athletic body. You could see he was going to be special even then.”
The word was out on him in the city when he was in middle school. People were talking about him even then, that he was going to be the next one from the city.”
Former NBA player Quentin Richardson
Richardson said Rose’s athleticism, even as a high school player, was jaw-dropping.
“He was just crazy explosive,” Richardson said. “He was so unassuming. He’d come down the court and everything was so fast and sudden, it was crazy. He was playing 100 miles an hour but never changed his expression. He was so humble and unassuming. And still everybody that saw him knew he was the one. They gave him Benji’s number at Simeon. They knew it, he was the one.”
Rockets guard Eric Gordon, Indiana’s Mr Basketball and also a top-five recruit in that high school class of 2007, teamed up with Rose the summer before their senior year and torched the competition from coast to coast on the summer circuit.
He said he knew then that Rose was destined for even greater things at the next level.
“That was a different time,” Gordon said. “It wasn’t like AAU ball today. We had like six or seven guys, at most, on our team. That’s it. And we went around the country taking over every court we touched. It was so much fun.”
An Indianapolis native, Gordon said he couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for Rose coming home after his All-American freshman season at Memphis, to the pressures of being the No.1 overall pick with the hopes and dreams of a city and the hometown team on your shoulders.
“Derrick made the best of it. I mean, he was the MVP,” said Gordon, who remains close with Rose to this day and still works out with him in the offseason. “The injuries … that happens. It’s a part of it. You can’t do anything about it. But look at what he’s come back from to play at a high level now. I can’t say I’m surprised because I know how talented he’s always been and how hard he works. He works like crazy and he just loves the game.”
No love lost
Rose’s work ethic and love for the game is what endeared him to Bulls fans before an ACL injury and knee issues sidetracked him during what should have been the physical prime of his career. It’s what has carried him through his toughest times as a pro, which includes a nasty fallout with the Bulls, who traded him to New York on June 22, 2016.
There was also a very vocal segment of the fan base that turned on Rose when he sat out the entire 2012-13 season recovering from his ACL surgery. He was cleared by the Bulls’ medical staff to return to full contact practice in January but never played in a game. And the Bulls advanced to the conference semifinals without him, losing to eventual champion Miami Heat.
“If the people that criticized him knew him, if they really knew him, they’d have known how much it was tearing him up not to be out there,” Richardson said. “This is a man that has never cheated the game a day in his life, not one. To have it snatched away like that, it had to be the worst thing ever. And that’s also what makes what he’s done since then so sweet. The boy is back to looking the way he did before all of the injuries.”
Pistons coach Dwane Casey certainly thinks so.
He was adamant that Rose deserved to be an All-Star this season, praising him publicly at every turn.
“Derrick Rose is an All-Star. He is getting to where he wants to go with the ball, and he is picking double teams apart,” Casey said. “Guys are being more comfortable now playing against blitzes and traps, and he is playing like an All-Star… I’m going to tell everybody, he should be an All-Star, he is an All-Star.”
To folks in Chicago he will be treated like one when he returns home for the league’s showcase weekend.
K.C. Johnson spent 29 years chronicling the local sports scene for the Chicago Tribune and he was on the Bulls beat for the entirety of Rose’s tenure with the franchise. An Evanston native, Johnson is a lifelong Chicagoan himself, giving him a unique perspective on Rose’s wild ride.
… Every time he comes [to Chicago], no matter if he’s wearing a Timberwolves uniform or a Pistons uniform, he gets the MVP chants he got when he was playing with the Bulls.”
Former Chicago Tribune writer K.C. Johnson
“The thing about it is it was authentic,” said Johnson, now the Bulls Insider for NBC Sports Chicago. “It was a genuine connection because Derrick not only was fantastic on the court, he also carried a lot of the qualities Chicagoans respect off the court: humble, unassuming, hard-working good teammate, didn’t want a lot of attention on himself.”
At his core, he stayed the same before and after the ACL injury that altered the trajectory of his career.
Before the ACL, everything was storybook, fairy tale and almost too good to be true, Johnson said. Afterwards, things got a little messy and complicated.
“It was huge [before the ACL] because he was somebody who embraced the responsibility of playing for his hometown team, rather than running from it,” Johnson said. “A lot of players that burden becomes too heavy. Derrick not only embraced it, he enjoyed it. And he did it in a way where he wasn’t beating his chest and shouting it. He was doing it with his play and with the way he comported himself on and off the court.”
Perhaps that’s why Thomas, Parker, Richardson, Nunn and so many others swell with pride when describing how important Rose is to the culture of Chicago basketball.
“That’s why his redemption to me is so fun to watch, because every time he comes here, no matter if he’s wearing a Timberwolves uniform or a Pistons uniform, he gets the MVP chants he got when he was playing with the Bulls,” Johnson said.
Parker believes Rose is in the midst of authoring yet another intriguing chapter in one of Chicago’s greatest basketball stories.
“My dad has always been the one telling me about our history,” he sad. “I’m talking about all the way back to Cazzie Russell and Jerry Sloan and guys of his era and since then, as well as players before them. We just have a long history to embrace. And all of those guys who come up are going to remember Derrick. They are going to know Derrick. And that’s really special about it, because in a lot of ways he paved the way for everybody from Chicago that’s come after him.”
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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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