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How Derrick Rose evolved from youngest MVP to bench veteran

The former No. 1 pick and Kia MVP had his prime cut short by injuries. Now he returns to Chicago for back-to-back games as a completely different player.

CHICAGO — The NBA’s 2022-23 schedule has Derrick Rose playing consecutive games at United Center in Chicago for the first time since, well, since he was with the Bulls so many years ago.

The guy who had been the team’s pick at No. 1 in 2008, the hometown hope, the youngest Most Valuable Player in NBA history and the face and future of their franchise was 22 when he won that award. He was 27 when he last suited up for the Bulls.

Now he’s 34, five stops removed, a backup guard with the New York Knicks and a living, breathing reflection on the passage of time. Rose’s career hasn’t gone the way he, Chicago fans or anyone else imagined based on his precocious, explosive start. But it’s still going, which might be the most remarkable thing of all.

“Derrick at 34, it’s incredible,” Golden State’s Klay Thompson said Tuesday night in Milwaukee, icing his knees and feeling more connected to Rose these days than he did a few years ago. “It motivates me to keep working.”

Like Rose, Thompson was forced to stare into basketball’s abyss by devastating injuries: first a torn anterior cruciate ligament, then a ruptured Achilles tendon. Those cost him two full seasons. He’s back now but different, in ways that only athletes who have gone through this particular ringer can know.

“Man, that’s so hard to go through as an athlete,” Thompson said. “You lose a little pop. You’re so used to playing a certain way. So used to jumping a certain height. It’s the hardest part of the game, honestly. You’ve got to adjust, and he’s adjusted incredibly well.”

Had anyone suggested in 2011 that Rose would spend the prime of his career bouncing from team to team, mostly backing up a series of non-All-Star teammates in a search for minutes, victories and fulfillment, it would have been hard to believe.

Had anyone known then about the breakdowns and setbacks he’d face, though, the mere idea of Rose still plugging along 15 years after being drafted would have seemed doubly unbelievable.

“When you talk about expectations and people’s criticism and things he’s had to deal with on such a big scale,” Rose’s longtime teammate, Joakim Noah, said this week, “for him to be at peace in his mind and navigate that so gracefully, that just shows the character that he has.

“Not just as a player for sticking with it but who he is as a person and what he stands for. He’s somebody that I was able to train and work out with for 10 years, and just to see his growth, I couldn’t be more proud as a big brother.”

Reflect on Rose’s star-crossed career long enough and you might hear a variation on an old Dr. Seuss line:

Cry that it happened or smile that it’s not over?

‘Highlights that live for eternity’

Longevity, in Rose’s case, is relative. He is old enough to have been done by now even without the knee and leg injuries that sent him to surgery and rehab on an almost annual basis for four or five years.

He is one of only 13 players still active from the Class of 2008, and if you look at the Drafts preceding that one, you’ll find only 11 veterans still grinding.

Rose ranks sixth in points, fourth in assists, 13th in minutes and 16th in games played among those with whom he was drafted. He and Russell Westbrook are the only two Kia MVP winners from that group, with Kevin Love, Brook Lopez, Eric Gordon, Goran Dragic and Danilo Gallinari lining up in some order after that for peak value and career impact.

The heartbreaking thing with Rose, of course, is that his trajectory was pitched so much higher. He had a meteoric start — Kia Rookie of the Year, three All-Star appearances, the MVP season, all marked by his lightning speed and vertical bursts above the rim — in his first four years. Then he was picked off like a clay pigeon, splintering as he fell from the sky.

“Man, Derrick’s going to have highlights that live for eternity,” Thompson said. “You don’t see point guards doing what he did. The closest one is Ja [Morant] and he doesn’t feel as powerful as Derrick.”

Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra met Rose before that 2008 Draft, grabbing lunch and watching him work out. He immediately liked the quiet, humble kid with inner intensity.

“Then those first few years, he was just amazing,” Spoelstra told recently. “That MVP year, we faced them in the playoffs and literally our whole game plan was somehow trying to figure out how to slow him down. Like, the entire game plan.

“It required everything. Showing him a bunch of different looks and then putting LeBron [James] on him in the last six minutes of each game.”

It all changed on April 28, 2012. Late in the Game 1 matinee between Chicago and Philadelphia in the first round, with 70 seconds left and the Bulls in front by 12, Rose drove and planted for a layup. His left knee blew out, the ACL tearing without contact.

76ers coach Doug Collins was the first person to rush onto the floor to wave for medical help. The mood in the building changed instantly to something worried, somber, dire.

“I was very sad when it happened,” Collins said this week. “I think we all loved the way he played, the sense of style. The only other guy I can think of who played that way was Westbrook. They played with such force, if you were coaching on the sideline when they came roaring up the floor, you could almost feel that energy that was being created.”

Collins thinks Chicago could have won a couple of championships if Rose never had gotten hurt, never mind James and his crew in Miami. The Bulls had Rose, Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, Carlos Boozer and a Coach of the Year winner in Tom Thibodeau, and topped the NBA in regular-season victories in 2010-11 and 2011-12.

“It is a big ‘What if?’ and something we always think about,” Noah said. “It was a tough go when Derrick got injured. He was somebody who brought a lot of hope, not just to our team but to our whole city. Because we really thought we were winning a championship.”

The long road back

Derrick Rose was never the same after a devastating knee injury during the first round of the 2012 playoffs.

Everybody sees Clark Kent go into the phone booth and burst out as Superman. Nobody ever cares when Superman goes back in to put on the eyeglasses and that boring gray suit.

That’s the reverse transformation required when great athletes get badly hurt and slip into months or years of rehabilitation, having to master basic motor skills in hopes that they someday might approach their former selves.

The NBA landscape is littered with them. Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, Bernard King, David Thompson, Grant Hill, Shaun Livington, Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Kemba Walker, Collins, Thompson and many more.

Some make it back, and others never do. Most try. That highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive …

“You have a lot of sleepless nights,” Thompson said. “And a lot of ‘Why me?’ ‘Why me, universe, I worked my tail off to get here.’ It molds you into a better person, though, I can guarantee that. If everything was just gravy all the time, we’d be spoiled.”

Thompson heard criticism that he wasn’t the same, coming even from Golden State fans for whom he had helped deliver five Finals trips and three championships from 2015-19. He lashed back in frustration, all part of the process.

“I know Derrick can relate to just the adjusting mentally,” he said. “That’s the hardest part when you come back from injuries, accepting yourself as you are and giving it everything you’ve got.”

Collins had been the No. 1 pick overall by Philadelphia in 1974, a sharpshooter who went to four straight All-Star Games from 1976-79. Knee and foot injuries ganged up on him, though, snuffing his playing career at age 29. The Sixers won the 1983 NBA title after he was gone and it all haunts him a little to this day.

“My career got cut short,” Collins said. “There are many days I lie in bed and think, ‘I wish I could have played longer.’ It was hard. It’s a tough adjustment when you’re 30 years old, you’re in the prime of your career and you know your team is going to win a championship. But you can’t do it anymore. That’s hard, man. It took me a while to adjust to that.”

Collins maneuvered into broadcasting, then coaching with the Bulls, Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, then back into a long, stellar career as an NBA analyst that earned him Hall of Fame recognition. He’s in his 50th year of NBA involvement, currently serving as a senior advisor to the Bulls.

Hill probably is the poster guy for basketball greatness forever altered by injuries. He was a six-time All-Star with the Pistons and Orlando Magic, widely touted as a successor to Michael Jordan as the NBA’s anchor guy, until ankle and foot injuries undercut all that. He missed the entire 2003-04 season and made only cameo appearances in four other seasons. He got to one more All-Star game, then kept playing for eight more seasons for the Magic, the Phoenix Suns and the LA Clippers in a lower-wattage role.

“Whenever you retire it’s hard, even when you walk away on your own terms,” Hill said. “I was 40. I had another year on my contract. My body was probably expired by that point. But there was no question mentally, I just didn’t want to go through it again.

“To have something almost taken from you at the apex of your career — or in Rose’s case, maybe before he even got to that sweet spot — I can’t even … Most players, you gradually get older over 10, 15, 20 years and your body starts to change and you adapt. What you can and can’t do. It’s normal.

“For Derrick, he had to make that adjustment right away.”

‘It’s a love of the game’

Derrick Rose is averaging a career-low 13.6 minutes per game this season.

Rose has played 287 games since leaving the Bulls in a 2016 trade to New York, compared to his 406 (spread across eight seasons) for Chicago. He has suited up for the Knicks, the Cavaliers, the Timberwolves, the Pistons and the Knicks again, with a two-day, non-playing stop in Utah thanks to transaction machinations.

His role this season is his smallest yet: 13.6 minutes per game, averaging 6.4 points and 2.0 assists while taking 6.4 shots per game. He has to yield and divvy up minutes at point guard with Jalen Brunson, Immanuel Quickley and Miles McBride.

That informal demotion from starter to reserve, from the top of the pecking order to somewhere way down the list, is a challenge of its own.

“Not everyone who has been an elite player can accept not being an elite player,” Hill said. “I think of Allen Iverson. He was a guy who, once he no longer was at that level, I don’t think he could make the changes. It says a lot about who Derrick is to still go out there and not be the star.”

So here Rose is these days, playing perhaps like the guy he would have become anyway, injuries or not. It’s the playing, the participation that seems to matter most for him and others. To either go out on their own terms or to buy time so as to make peace with the end when it comes.

“It’s a love of the game,” said Kemba Walker, trying to find a niche in Dallas after being a star in Charlotte and Boston. “I was fortunate to be with D-Rose last season in New York, and I saw the time and effort he put into his body. I saw how much he loves the game, how much he hates to miss games. He’s an amazing dude.

“He can’t, obviously because of injuries, be that same guy. With myself, it’s the same situation. But this is a game we’ve been playing since we were little kids. He doesn’t feel it’s time to give it up. He wants to be out there. And Derrick Rose can contribute in many, many ways.”

Hall of Fame worthy?

The Bulls and Rose needed to part ways when they did in 2016. Their timelines had gotten out of sync, the expectations outstripping the reality, fans and media getting edgy as the point guard labored to get and stay back.

But it seems clear that, one way or another, Rose will end his career with the team. Either playing his final season or games with the Bulls or at minimum signing one of those one-day contracts before retiring with the organization.

That leaves just one big question as far as Rose’s playing career:

Will he make it into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame?

This matters largely due to the NBA’s fortunate tradition of having every one of its MVP winners wind up in the Springfield, Mass., shrine. All who have won it — and likely those still active or not yet eligible — have gotten in. That leaves Rose either continuing the trend or sticking out as the lone exception.

“He very well could be the first MVP to not be in the Hall of Fame,” said Hill, whose body of work — including his four seasons of success at Duke before his pre-injury NBA production — swung open the door for him in 2018.

“I hope I’m wrong. Trust me, I played against Derrick and I know what he was capable of, at the level he was at when he was right. He was certainly Hall of Fame worthy, but the question is, was it long enough?”

Longtime NBA writer Sam Smith based in Chicago thinks Rose is a shoo-in.

“He got an MVP so, at one time, he was the greatest player in the world,” Smith said. “But beyond that, it’s not the ‘NBA Hall of Fame.’”

Rose led his Chicago high school team, Simeon, to two Illinois state champions. In his lone college season, he took Memphis to the NCAA championship game. And since the Hall likes international credits, Rose played on two gold-medal teams for Team USA in the FIBA World Championships.

“I don’t see how he’s not a Hall of Famer,” Smith said.

Oh, there’s one more thing that could boost Rose’s candidacy immensely: His narrative. The identity of Hall voters from year to year is a closely held list, but one thing most people have in common is an appreciation for a good story. Rose’s, with its ups and downs and resiliency, has been a doozy.

“Derrick was the youngest MVP ever and he has a very inspiring story,” his friend Noah said, “and I think that’s what the Hall of Fame is all about. To show the next generation the people who really put their imprint on the game. He’s done that.

“People are always talking about stats, but this story is about more than statistics. This is a story about big inspiration and the hope that he had for the city, and being from the inner city, and being able to play for your hometown and represent that, there was nobody who did that better than him.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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