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An interesting homecoming in store for Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah

Former Bulls' pillars return to Chicago for first time as New York Knicks

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO – Already, Derrick Rose’s connection with and appeal to the locals has been usurped in the introduction of the starting lineup. When P.A. announcer Tommy Edwards belts out the “From CHICAGO!…” line, it’s longtime Miami star Dwyane Wade who comes bouncing in the spotlight onto the United Center court. Wade is from Robbins, Ill., about 10 miles south from the nastier neighborhood where Rose grew up.

For a minute last month, it looked as if the Bulls were about to hand over Rose’s No. 1 jersey to a new guy, until Michael Carter-Williams realized what a breach of protocol (too soon or otherwise) that would be and instead tugged on No. 7.

The Bulls themselves are off to a 3-1 start, the flip side of the New York Knicks’ record, which means that Rose won’t be returning Friday night (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) to the scene of his greatest moments and biggest disappointments as any sort of conquering hero. The Knicks have been bad, searching and grasping, and while both Rose and fellow former Bull Joakim Noah haven’t been the reasons, they haven’t been the answers either. Not yet.

Competitive or not, the game figures to have an odd feel, with Rose in another team’s uniform darting into the heart of Chicago’s defense or Noah ripping a rebound away from good friend Taj Gibson. They’ll stop short on their walk into the arena and turn left into the visitors’ dressing room, and the night will get more curious from there.

The Bulls have planned video tributes for both players – first-round picks in consecutive years (Noah 2007, Rose 2008) and two of the best and most popular performers in franchise history. The response from the sold-out crowd almost certainly will tilt positive, and it’s possible one or both might get a standing ovation from a city that’s feeling pretty good about its sports this week.

“Nah, that would be a dream,” Rose told Knicks reporters this week. “I know I’m going to get some boos here and there. It’s all part of the game and sport. It’s not going to affect the way I play and how bad I want to win the game.”

Said Noah, who signed with New York in part because of Rose’s trade there: “I’m trying to stay focused on the moment. I know it’s going to be emotional. I have a lot of battles in a place I call my second home. … It is a place where we both spent a lot of time really fighting for that city and really fighting for wearing that jersey. It’s going to be strange going up against teammates I battled with for a long time.”

Noah is the one who is home now, back in New York where he grew up within walking distance of Madison Square Garden. The son of tennis star (turned pop star) Yannick Noah, the life-loving, experience-craving center always has enjoyed the pulse of the Big Apple. His reception Friday game should rival and might top that received by Rose – he had his injuries and setbacks with the Bulls, too, but nothing approaching the highs and lows that defined his point-guard buddy.

Noah never was inscrutable in his passion for the game or his connection with Bulls fans. If anything, he ran too hot, his emotions bubbling up, his seal claps and wide smiles revealing everything and proving to folks in the seats that he disliked the opponent as much as they did.

Rose, on the other hand, played with a poker face, broken only by the occasional wince or smile. His game sizzled, of course, when he was healthy enough for it to do his talking. And it spoke loudly, making him the NBA’s youngest ever MVP in 2011 and Chicago’s most important player since Michael Jordan’s second retirement.

When Rose wasn’t healthy, though, which was often, he receded physically and figuratively from the Bulls’ scene. He missed 212 games in four years, including all of 2012-13 and all but 10 games the next season. And while he learned to handle mentally the frustration and endless rehabs, his placid demeanor through it all annoyed some folks, as if they cared more about the team than Rose did.

Bulls management had built not just a contender but a future around Rose, fitting pieces, hiring coach Tom Thibodeau and embracing that hometown element that, frankly, is a pretty rare thing. Think about it: the NBA’s greatest players typically have gone to work wherever they were drafted or traded. When they have gotten the freedom of free agency, they most frequently have signed where they fit best, where they were needed most or where the checks were the biggest.

Magic Johnson didn’t win or chase any rings in Michigan. Larry Bird beat up on, rather than played for, Indiana’s NBA entry. Isiah Thomas would have loved to become a Hall of Famer in Chicago but instead built his legacy in Detroit.

Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving and so many others crafted their Hall of Fame reputations far from where they grew up. The two guys who probably were most successful in their hometowns (or home markets) were Wilt Chamberlain and LeBron James. Chamberlain had two stints in Philadelphia, leading the 76ers in the second to the 1966-67 championship and a then-record 68-13 record. James grew up in Akron, close enough to Cleveland, and still is adding to his renovation of the defending champion Cavaliers.

Dwight Howard only went home this summer, and he’s in deep career now, his star a little dimmed. Kevin Durant never seemed to get close to matching Washington’s interest in him when he hit the open market in July and, in fact, moved farther west. It’s not an easy thing, it seems, playing and thriving in one’s home town, which is what makes Rose’s first eight NBA seasons a relative exception and however many he has left an interesting contrast.

“The city meant everything,” Rose told veteran scribe Sam Smith of Bulls.com after a Knicks practice this week. “They’re the reason I played the way I played. I wanted to show them that every year I worked on my game. … 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.”

Chauncey Billups, now an in-studio analyst for ESPN’s NBA Countdown show that will wrap around Friday’s game telecast, knows the pressure of playing in one’s hometown. He had two stints in his native Denver, the second one going much better than the first. Billups’ game wasn’t developed enough, nor his personality strong enough, to withstand the distractions of eager family, friends and fans at first.

But Rose never succumbed.

“I wasn’t really surprised,” said Billups, who needed eight seasons to ramp up into a five-time NBA All-Star. “He was such a good player and it was really set up for him to do well when he came in. They just gave him the ball and let him do his thing, and he was ready. I mean, this guy was the MVP of the league and had one of the best seasons that a point guard ever, ever had. Not just numbers but enjoyment, excitement.

“He had the benefit also, when you talk about the outside pressures, of having some older brothers who kind of carried that load while he just focused on the court.”

The pitfalls normally associated with a young guy trying to make it where he grew up didn’t torpedo Rose. He was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2009 and kept ascending from there, until his blew out his left knee in the 2012 playoff opener. Even then, through lost seasons, additional injuries and some absences that looked to be more selective than required, Chicago fans continued to embrace Rose – until it dragged on for just too long.

Reactions to his awkward comments prior to last season about 2017 free agency and the tawdry allegations in Rose’s recent court fight against a sexual assault lawsuit only confirmed what many Bulls fans sensed. The love affair had run its course.

“You had hope that you were on the cusp of something great that was sustainable,” Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson told the Chicago Tribune. “We had good young players. Derrick was MVP of the league, a top-five player. We had no reason to think he wasn’t going to be that way a long time. In this business, you need stars to have sustainable success.

“And we always felt bad for him and his injuries.”

Rose’s injuries undercut Chicago’s ambitions, closing a championship window that never fully opened. Trading him to the Knicks was a white flag all around, with the Bulls and the player ready to try anew, but apart.

The cheers Rose and Noah hear Friday will be nostalgic and appreciative. Nice but not the kind they heard while actually playing for the Bulls, when they and all those folks were in it together.

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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