CHICAGO – Derrick Rose smiled the other day — see, it is a new season — while talking about his toddler son, “P.J.,” and the 1-year-old’s budding love of the game. Little man already is working on his handle, Rose said, though he’s prone to double-dribbling.
But the whole time and space continuum still is a challenge for “P.J.,” it sounds like.
“He’s still confused when he sees me on TV,” Rose said. “Or sees a poster of me anywhere, it confuses him. I can’t wait till the day he knows I’m actually playing.”
Ahem. The same could be said for a whole bunch of fans of the Chicago Bulls who have been plenty confused themselves trying to figure out whether and when Rose would be playing.
For at least half of the past 18 months, Rose’s will-he-or-won’t-he endless rehabilitation from left knee surgery has sparked some of the fiercest Chicago barroom debates since Steve Bartman and Moises Alou tried to catch the same foul ball.
Was discretion truly the better part of valor, as in Rose’s decision — cobbled together missed game by missed game, from around the All-Star break last February until the Bulls’ season ran out — not to participate at all in 2012-13? Or had he somehow let his team, fans, city, sport and, ultimately, himself down by not adhering to a more conventional timetable? Should he have returned after about 10 months to face the rust and take some inevitable lumps with the idea that even a sub-par Rose could have helped the overachieving-but-undermanned Bulls?
Rose will be out there Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, TNT), officially ending his layoff (after four preseason United Center appearances) when the Bulls face the New York Knicks in their home opener. Soon, he or someone from the family will get “P.J.” to understand the difference between Daddy at home and Daddy on TV running up and down a basketball court.
It might take a little longer for greater Chicagoland and the nation’s Bulls fans to do so.
“When he comes out Thursday, it’s going to be real inspirational,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said this week. “I know he’s meant a lot to the city of Chicago, being from there. People love him. I felt it even when he didn’t play last year. Because he’s a hometown kid. It’s rare you get a No. 1 overall pick superstar playing for the hometown team.”
Playing being the operative word though.
Windy City’s Mt. Rushmore
As the biggest of the “Rust Belt” cities, with a crazy quilt of sports success and heartbreak — Bulls in the 1990s, Blackhawks nowadays vs. Cubs in the 20th and 21st centuries — Chicago has love-hate relationships with many of its athletes. But those on the top tier remain indisputably loved, and Rose already was climbing rungs in the Top 10 when he fell to the floor and grabbed his left knee, his ACL torn by the torque of his own explosive power in Game 1 against Philadelphia on April 28, 2012.
“If Derrick can stay healthy, he’ll end up on the Mt. Rushmore of Chicago sports,” said Chuck Swirsky, the radio play-by-play voice of the Bulls who began his Chicago sportscasting career more than three decades ago. “His skill level is off the charts. But will he stay healthy? No one can answer that.”
The Rushmore metaphor, strictly speaking, goes only four deep. But we’ll work with a slightly longer list. It begins with Michael Jordan, of course, then includes other beloved sports stars such as Walter Payton, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Dick Butkus and Mike Ditka (more as coach than player).
Of the bunch, though, only Butkus – the ferocious linebacker who went to Chicago Vocational School and the University of Illinois before being picked by the Bears No. 3 in the 1965 NFL draft (along with No. 4, running back Gayle Sayers) – was a native son. Jordan was from North Carolina. Payton, Mississippi. Banks grew up in Dallas and Santo in Seattle. Ditka came out of Pittsburgh football country, and Hull (Point Anne, Ontario) and Mikita (Czechoslovakia) might as well have been from Mars.
Rose grew up nine miles south of Chicago Stadium and later United Center, born a few years before Jordan and Scottie Pippen began winning championships. The Englewood neighborhood where his mother Brenda raised four boys — and those boys raised each subsequent boy, with Derrick (Pooh) Martell Rose as the youngest — is one of the poorest and most dangerous on Chicago’s South Side.
And on this list, that matters.
“Absolutely,” Swirsky said. “The speaking engagements I go to … always, they say, ‘He’s one of us.’ That’s one of the phrases that comes off the tongues of men, women and kids. They’re saying, he’s part of the fabric of Chicagoland. You can take a kid from [suburban] Glen Ellyn who idolizes the same athlete as somebody from Englewood. With all due respect to [Blackhawks Jonathan] Toews and [Patrick] Kane and the others, he is the No. 1 guy in this market.”
A hometown success story
Asiaha Butler, a founder and president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, isn’t a sports fans but her husband is, and so are their neighbors. Which means they’re Rose fans.
“Englewood is one of those places where you only hear about the worst news,” Butler said. “So any good news is inspiring. We work with some schools in the area and I know there are kids who are elated that he’s back.”
The Bulls knew all about Rose’s roots when they made him the No. 1 pick in the 2008 Draft, taking him in spite of his connections more than because of them. Plenty of sports franchises had witnessed the trouble that can come when hometown hero tries to grow up professionally while his old life tugs at his current one.
“There was always this philosophy that you don’t want to take a guy and have him play in his hometown because of the outside influences,” Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said. “But in Derrick’s case, he had such a strong core of family and friends, that was never an issue.
“Chicago is a blue-collar town for the most part, always has been. Derrick, even with his athleticism, he still embraces that mentality of hard work and pride in where he’s from. Every time he talks about playing, he generally references Chicago. He takes pride in it, so it’s very easy for it all to work.”
Ed Pinckney, an assistant on coach Tom Thibodeau‘s staff, shakes his head thinking about himself, had he begun his 12-year NBA career in his native New York.
“In my hometown, my head would be swollen,” said Pinckney, who starred at Villanova in Philadelphia. “I don’t know how they deal with it on a daily basis. How do you manage your time, making people feel good, not slight people and still maintain a level of humbleness about you? I would feel, like, claustrophobic. I just know, the people around me, when they talk about Derrick, they talk in glowing terms.”
Reach the levels of notoriety Rose has in this (or any other) sports-crazed city and everyone wants a piece of you. Grant DePorter, president and manager of the five Harry Caray‘s sports restaurants, considers Rose “the closest thing Chicago’s had to Michael Jordan since Michael Jordan.” He has seen the similarities on nights the Bulls are on TV and the TVs in Harry Caray’s are on.
“When he’s playing, the place is packed. Everybody wants to watch Derrick Rose,” DePorter said. “And once he got injured, you really saw a difference in the fans’ enthusiasm. Enthusiasm equals revenue because people are going to eat and drink and celebrate, and they thought he was the second coming of Jordan. Him being from Chicago only helped.”
The Rose kids grew up playing basketball at Murray Park, a playground that had grown shaggy and rundown before the Bulls point guard pumped in some money a couple years back. They had their sports heroes, same as the young ballers now.
“It’s weird walking down the street,” said Reggie Rose, the most visible of Rose’s brothers and 14 years his senior. “When I was younger, I’d see kids wearing M.J. jerseys running around. Now I see kids running down the street with the No. 1 and ‘Rose’ on the backs of their jerseys. That’s really big to me.”
Reggie Rose spoke about the structure in their household growing up, with those surrogate dads in a single-parent home. “We still treat him as the little brother, even though he’s making a lot of money,” Reggie said. “There’s still structure and respect within the family, and we don’t let anybody try to do any divide-and-conquer, any cracks in it. We kind of just keep it moving. We’re a simple-minded family.”
Little brother Derrick treats his Chicago-ness like a warm embrace wrapped around a responsibility. He has the team’s P.A. announcer introduce him as “From Chicago…” rather than that one-year pit stop at the University of Memphis. He scarcely can imagine playing anywhere else.
“For me it’s a positive,” Rose said. “Every time I take the ball, the crowd is really into it. I take it all in, just knowing that — of course I know that everybody in the crowd is not cheering for me, but that’s the way I think about it when I’m on the court.”
That love of Chicago’s own might explain why some of the feelings of betrayal ran so deep when Rose did not come back for the Bulls last spring, and why they linger for some to this day. The player claims the criticism never has stung him.
“Not at all,” Rose said. “Because I look at it through their eyes, where if I had a favorite player and I was a fan, I would want him on the court too. I could see where they was coming from.”
‘Tiresome process’ for MVP
Dan Bernstein has been on the wall for the anger, frustration and gnashing of teeth over Rose’s prolonged rehab and delayed comeback. As a co-host of the afternoon drive show on Chicago’s WSCR AM-670, he has presided over, fueled and sampled it in all its permutations.
“There is no question that Derrick has used up some of his capital throughout this tiresome process,” Bernstein said. “Fans of his are confused and disappointed. There will always be anger on the fringes, but I don’t think that anger represents the larger portion of his real fans, who are more disappointed.
“The good news is, once the games start and even with some difficulties in this final stage of his rehabilitation to be expected, I think he can rebuild that capital very quickly.”
Confusion and downright crankiness crept in sometime in March, by which time Rose had been cleared by Bulls doctors to participate in 5-on-5 practices. He was 10 months along in his recovery process, right in the middle of the range laid out by his surgeon, Dr. Brian Cole. Other NBA players had returned to action on a similar schedule, such as Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio and New York’s Iman Shumpert. And then there was Adrian Peterson of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, hurrying back in nine months and rushing for more than 2,000 yards.
When Rose showed up only as a warm-up attraction, shooting countless jumpers in the hour or two before Bulls games, right through the Eastern Conference semifinals between his Bulls and Miami, frustration and grumbling from the fans followed. That sneaker campaign by adidas featuring Rose — “The Return” — wound up feeling like a big tease to ticket buyers and home viewers fighting and losing against impatience. Fans started to question his courage. Others wondered if, hey, maybe he’s more selfish than they thought.
“I think it was some combination of all of that,” Bernstein said. “Sports fans now have information at their disposal to understand, this is not an experimental procedure. Even though it’s serious, it has become routine surgery. Fans can read what the doctors said. They can see what other players have done and are doing.
“So it was his return timetable raising eyebrows because people who do what he does for a living just don’t do that, unless there was something else going on. And we never really found out what that was.”
Even this month, after Rose’s sweltering summer workouts in Los Angeles and his arrival on time to training camp, questions lingered. When the Bulls chose to hold him out of the Oct. 12 game in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — a big-deal Global Game exhibition — the reaction of some folks was swift and unforgiving. Among the reader comments in the Chicago Tribune:
- “If I were D. Rose, I would sit out this year too, just to be sure.”
- “Good thing he has a long-term contract with a lot of guaranteed money. He will never need to look a fan in the eye again.:
- “Expect this to happen a lot. Especially for big games and the playoffs.”
- “I really hate this guy!! Knee seems good enough to make all the stupid commercials he is currently rolling out!! Suck it up!”
So what was going on that took so long? Bernstein guessed that it was a disconnect on the final stage of rehab, where the standard process of playing through some rust and challenging games didn’t mesh with Rose’s sense of how much he trusted his repaired joint and coping with having to play as something less than “Derrick Rose, 2011 MVP” for a spell.
Rose has spoken of “feeling safe” this fall, a threshold that he cannot pinpoint but knows he has crossed.
“I can’t remember [when]. But for me, I feel normal right now,” he said. “I’m not worried about anything. I don’t have any aches. I’m not having any nagging injuries or anything. I’m really taking care of my body and preparing myself for this long season.”
Watching Rose swarmed by Miami’s double-teams and traps Tuesday night, certainly, made one wonder how he would have fared against that five months ago. At least by waiting, Rose could level the field a little, his layoff just a little longer than the typical layoff all NBA players have each offseason.
It would have helped, too, if the Bulls and Rose had handled better the whole messaging of his absence. Management never just declared his 2012-13 season over. The coaches kept treating him as a day-to-day option. And Rose’s presence on the court before each game down the stretch was more of a tease than a source of encouragement.
Bill Wennington, Swirsky’s partner and a former Bulls center, contrasted Rose’s layoff with what the L.A. Clippers did when Blake Griffin, the No. 1 pick in 2009, suffered a fractured kneecap in the final preseason game that fall. After treatment and rest weren’t enough, Griffin headed to surgery and the Clippers by mid-January declared his rookie season over before it ever began.
“In my opinion, Derrick made the right decision,” Wennington said. “But was it handled properly? Probably not. It left a lot of questions and expectations that didn’t happen. People who say ‘Derrick should have played,’ if they listen to the whole story and understand it’s his career and how others coming back from surgery can get reinjured or it takes a whole year anyway, they start to get it.
“Derrick’s game is so different, both the explosion he has going from 0-to-60 and then the elevation that he powers to the rim, and the landing and the absorbing the body weight. … I think people have seen already that he looks pretty good. He’s showing no ill signs from being out, and as long as that continues, his reputation and legend will grow here in Chicago.”
Throughout the league, it’s taking only brief glimpses of Rose’s restored quickness and aggressiveness to convince players and coaches that waiting was the better choice. Denver coach Brian Shaw had cautioned him about that last season, mentioning Penny Hardaway as one of several ex-NBA stars who might have rushed back too soon.
But, you don’t want to swap a feel-good moment for a career of future highlights. That’s the worst-case scenario the Rose family considered, in convening about their NBA star’s predicament.
“At that time, us as a family and his agent, B.J. Armstrong, we all had to sit down and look at his best interest,” Reggie Rose said. “We were like, ‘Why go in for just one year when he has more than 10 years of basketball left in him?’ For us, it was let him sit one year and play 10 instead of try to play one and don’t play 10.”
Winning, health cure all
As Bulls camp opened, Thibodeau, appreciative and fiercely protective of Rose, flippantly dismissed grumpy fans and media critics as people who “don’t know what they’re talking about.” A month later, he had softened just a bit.
“I think the real fans supported him the entire time,” the Bulls coach said. “The ones who didn’t were misguided. He had to make a tough decision.”
Teammates, for all public consumption and even in private, seem to have had Rose’s back throughout.
“We’re a family,” veteran center Nazr Mohammed said. “We all supported his decision. If he was my brother, I would have told him, ‘Do the wise thing and come back when you’re ready.’ We’re all seeing the benefits of it right now.”
That nightly tease fans saw last season? That actually helped him with the other players. He wasn’t out in L.A. doing his rehab while they were grinding through the season. He was practicing with them at the Berto Center and was sweating hard beside them before each game.
“One of our hardest workers,” Mohammed called him. “He prepared as if he was trying to play the next game, and we all knew it. Every single day. He was trying his best. He just didn’t get there.”
If only the communication had been better, Bulls to media, Rose to fans and so on.
“Derrick always, at every level, has let his game speak for him,” Bernstein said. “He’s not good at speaking. He’s not a politician, he’s not a public relations expert and he hasn’t surrounded himself with people who seem to care about messaging. There hasn’t been that kind of considered outreach or ‘spin.’ Some might find that refreshing, but his game speaks for him and when his game is on hiatus, it allows for all kinds of open spaces to be filled in around him and projected upon him.
“Once his game returns, that’s his way of communicating with his fans. If that looks right and is right, I think it takes care of everything.”
Rose said the other day that he never encountered any face-to-face griping and only hears support around town. “I rarely go places,” he said. “But if there was any criticism or anything like that, I didn’t hear it. Not while I was in a place. Of course you hear about it [from] people writing about it or people reporting about it.”
TNT broadcaster Steve Kerr was vocal that way and had a network forum on which he said Rose needed to at least try to play last spring. But any lingering resentment now, from not having done so? Not a long-term problem, Kerr said.
“Derrick built up a lot of trust with the Chicago fan base before last year,” Kerr said. “He’s always carried himself so well. He’s a modest guy, soft-spoken and plays so hard. Even though there was frustration last year and a lot of people called him out on-air, including me, I think all that goes out the window. I think the fans will be so excited to see him back.”
In a what-have-you-done-for-me-today world, Rose and the Bulls have an opportunity — the stinky performance against the Heat Tuesday not withstanding — to put everything about 2012-13 in the all-gone machine.
“If he stays healthy and they win, the fans won’t even second-guess his decision to miss all of last season,” TNT’s Reggie Miller said. “All players are the CEO of their own companies. Derrick had to do what is right for him. … If he stays relatively healthy and they win, the fans will let it go.”
Most will, probably.
Said Bernstein: “I don’t think anybody has said, ‘I’m done with this guy.’ I think everybody is tired of the story. It hasn’t been fun. Derrick Rose was so much fun for everybody. And then it became such a downer for so long. The good news is there’s every reason to believe that a repaired knee can mean a repaired game and a repaired image and repaired feelings.”
Rose, though cooperative, doesn’t really engage in the whole controversy about last season or his inner thoughts during the layoff. He is a basketball player who is, fortunately, playing basketball again.
Of his critics, he said: “That’s the last thing I can think about. I know that I’m back on the court and I know that I’m playing with a bunch of guys that have my back, so my confidence is super high right now. I’ve just got to continue to play the way that I play and be aggressive throughout the whole game.”
And that – this – is a big deal, right?
“I’m pumped,” Rose said. “I’m a guy who don’t show that much emotion. I don’t know if you want me to yell or anything.”