Dime #69’s Cover Story: Derrick Rose & Why He Will Be Back Better Than Ever

Four years into his NBA career, Derrick Rose has earned millions of dollars, gained global popularity, and become the leader of a championship-contending team. So what continues to push Chicago’s prodigal son to work like an underdog? Following a major injury that threatens his future, now it’s the challenge of rebuilding his game to an MVP level.

Here is the cover story from Dime #69 on the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…

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The play’s the thing,
wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

Shakespeare wrote those lines for Hamlet, and in the context of his story, for an entirely darker purpose than their application in this story. Hamlet was trying to solve his father’s murder—we’re just talking about basketball.

The King, in this case, could be LeBron James. He was the one bestowed the royal nickname in high school, the one now cast as the bad guy leading the Miami Heat toward becoming the NBA’s villainous version of baseball’s Yankees.

Or the King could be Kobe Bryant, the highest-ranking active player on almost every expert’s list of the game’s all-time greats, the veteran professor at 33 still schooling his ambitious successors on the court.

Or it could be Kevin Durant, owner of three NBA scoring titles and a full decade younger than Kobe, the lion without a mane putting in his early bid for King of the pride – vying to be the face of the league’s next generation.

The King could even be Michael Jordan. More than just a man in basketball culture, MJ is the ghost who – like the spirit of Hamlet’s father – represents the near-unattainable ideal for this story’s hero.

That hero would be Derrick Rose, 23-year-old point guard of the Chicago Bulls.

In the follow-up to last year’s MVP campaign, Rose averaged 21.8 points and a career-high 7.9 assists over this year’s lockout-shortened, 66-game regular season. He led the Bulls to the best record in the league (50-16, tied with San Antonio) and the No. 1 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference for the second straight year.

The team success is crucial in perspective, because it puts Rose in a position that neither Kobe nor Jordan nor dozens of other Basketball Hall of Famers could claim – unquestioned leader of a serious championship contender by his fourth pro season.

Rose’s popularity has also never been greater. In February, more than 1.5 million fans voted for him to start in the NBA All-Star Game, the third-highest total behind Dwight Howard and Kobe. In April, the NBA Store released its list of top-selling jerseys, on which Rose ranked No. 1 ahead of New York sensation Jeremy Lin, Kobe, LeBron and New York’s Carmelo Anthony. At the end of the regular season, the Bulls ranked No. 1 in the league in overall attendance, drawing an average of 22,000-plus at home and almost 18,000 on the road.

That Rose has reached such heights as a player is no brain teaser. He has always been among the best at his level, dating back to his high school days at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago, to his one-year stint at the University of Memphis – where he led the Tigers to the NCAA national championship game – to his NBA career that began by being picked No. 1 in the draft by the Bulls, included a Rookie of the Year award in 2009, and has so far been headlined by becoming the youngest MVP in league history two years later.

How he came to be a cultural icon and bona fide celebrity is more complicated.

Playing in a major market certainly helps, but Chicago hype still doesn’t match New York or L.A. hype. A healthy collection of endorsement deals helps, but Rose still doesn’t even speak in some of his commercials. He is in the public eye, no doubt, but he is not the most visible athlete. His face doesn’t pop up in tabloids and on red carpets. His name doesn’t pop up in the headlines of national sports columnists every week, his game being picked apart for every failure and immortalized for every success.

The key to Derrick Rose’s abnormal fame could be in his refreshingly normal façade. There is no way to quantify it, but I believe Rose resonates with fans because he is the most authentic basketball superstar we’ve seen since Allen Iverson.

All of that popularity and praise, however, will not buy Rose the thing he wants most out of his profession. His motivation remains to bring an NBA championship back to Chicago.

The story of Rose’s rise to power and prestige, in many ways, parallels that of Hamlet: motivated by legacy and pride and just a bit of bloodlust, aiming to catch the King – whoever he is – and assume the throne many in his domain (Chi-town) view as a birthright since his predecessor (Jordan) last wore the crown.

And to pull it off without falling apart in the process.

The play’s the thing.

The play, in this case, is not scripted theater – though it never lacks for theatrics. On the stage that is the National Basketball Association, “the play” is the simple act of playing the game – of succeeding at its highest level. No acting and singing, no shucking and jiving. No agency-created personas and tough-guy posturing. The endorsements, the interviews, the attention, the fame that comes with the fortune … all distractions that Rose has learned to compartmentalize, but would honestly prefer to shelve on the backburner, if not eliminate altogether.

“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t take anything for granted,” Rose said in a recent GQ feature story. “But it seems like the better I play, the more attention I get. And I can’t get away from it. You play great, you get attention. But I hate attention. It is weird. I’m in a bind. The more you win, the more they come.”

Contrary to the GQ cover shoot, Derrick Rose is not GQ. Catch him away from the court and he’s usually dressed as if he’s on his way to the court: nothing trendier than a track suit, nothing bolder than a t-shirt and jeans. The Chicago in him rarely appears in public without a fresh line-up and crisp waves canvassing the top of his head, but otherwise Rose won’t crack anyone’s list of the NBA’s fashion mavens. If Dwyane Wade‘s aesthetic says Fashion Week after-party, Rose’s preferred look is Labor Day barbecue.

In a crowd he keeps his head up, as all good point guards are taught. But his gaze often goes beyond that which is right in front of him, as if he’s constantly calculating angles and brainstorming new ways to get his 6-3, 190-pound body into his preferred spots on the court for his preferred shots.

Alone—or as close to alone as he can get these days—Rose can be caught pantomiming dribble moves and lofting imaginary jumpers. Like any grown man with an obsession, basketball comes first, second and at least tied for third.

Rose doesn’t maintain a Twitter account. He doesn’t use Instagram and YouTube to make his life an open book. He is a player, not a performance artist.

Playing in Chicago appeals to him not because it is the third-largest media market in the U.S., but because it’s home. There are annoyances that come with being recognized everywhere in the city, but there are also advantages to being so close to his support network. That includes a tight-knight family, and friends Derrick has known since the concrete court at Murray Park on West 73rd Street was his version of the hardwood floor at the United Center.

In that sense, Chicago allows Rose the comfort to be himself: Completely, utterly, almost unhealthily focused on becoming the best basketball player alive.

The palace that he has constructed for himself in the meantime grows increasingly opulent, even while its owner appears unmotivated with home improvements.

Earlier this year, Rose signed a five-year, $95 million contract extension with the Bulls. Soon after, he re-upped with sneaker and apparel company adidas for a reported $260 million over 14 years. He’s set. And not even his sometimes dry interviews and a smile that often seems forced can keep him away from the forefront of the NBA’s promotional efforts.

The lesson is simple on its surface: Work hard, win games, and you won’t be denied any of the riches afforded to those who do focus on the “extra” that comes with being a sports superstar.

Its downside, however, rings just as clear: You’re going to be a celebrity – whether you like it or not.

Leave it to unpredictability of life and sports that this would be the most tumultuous year of Derrick Rose’s career.

Coming off the MVP, the trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, and the $355 million in confirmation that the Bulls and adidas want to build their respective empires around him, Year Four was a struggle for Rose that ended in disaster.

Injuries to his back, groin, ankle, foot and toe caused him to miss 40 percent of the regular season (27 games). Then, in Game 1 of Chicago’s first-round playoff series against Philadelphia, when everything was supposed to be back to normal and Rose was supposed to be rested and healthy enough to lead the Bulls on a title run, he drove the lane late in the fourth quarter and landed awkwardly on his left knee, buckling in mid-air before crumbling to the floor. Torn ACL. His year was done. The Bulls lost to the 76ers in six games.

Rose had surgery on the knee May 12, and according to the Chicago Tribune, faces a recovery period of eight to 10 months.

“He’s not sitting out the entire (2012-13) year,” Derrick’s brother Reggie Rose told the newspaper. “We’re just going to bring him back slowly. The biggest thing to do is not put a time limit on it, just when he feels comfortable. When he comes back, he has to learn how to trust his body.”

Will he be the same player? Rose’s game is solo fast breaks, mid-range jumpers, bayonet slashes to the rim followed by soft one-hand floaters and violent dunks, with passes thrown more precisely than Jay Cutler. So much of what sets Rose apart is his explosiveness, his speed, his ability to stop on a dime and either elevate and change direction while defenders are still sliding on their heels. Should he lose even a piece of that split-second advantage due to a surgically-repaired knee, will Rose be the same player?

Fame is corrosive and useless. It gets you the good table … it gets you good seating, things like that. But the essence of fame, I think, is corrosive to the human soul. I think it sets up a barrier between you and yourself. Fame, money, power, sex … it steps you. It keeps you from investigating the fundamental things in life, the basics.

Frank Langella said those lines in an April 2012 interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose. The veteran film and stage actor is no stranger to Hamlet, but is most famous for his portrayals of Dracula and Richard Nixon – one a suave recluse, one a brilliant loner.

Could both descriptions fit Derrick Rose?

We know Rose’s game face. Serious and almost sullen, it belies happiness only when the game is won. Yet for all the magazine profiles and TV features dedicated to him, we don’t know much of what happens behind the eyes, underneath the skin underneath the tattoos, and in that space between his spine and his sternum.

It’s possible that Rose’s true self emerges on the basketball court, where he is at his aggressive yet patient, unselfish yet driven best. But that might be too convenient. Too easy of a leap to make for a public that wants to know its sports idols like family.

Rose could let us in, but he’s got work to do. Rehab will be the toughest challenge of his career.

So what happens next?

Even before the injury, to say that Derrick Rose is a finished product as a basketball player would be premature. And at 23, it would also be too early to say he’s a finished product as a man. He still has lot of growing to do, and he must do it while facing more responsibility and more predators than most his age. Nobody in the NBA is as big in their hometown, while also carrying a sneaker brand and a franchise and a city and a family.

One reason why D-Rose is so liked is because others are so hated. He is in many ways considered the anti-LeBron, which endears him to the segment of society that wants its stars humble and quiet and loyal, without a bit of pretense.

Rose wants little part of it now, the whole Hollywood thing. But there was a time when LeBron was like that too. So was Jay-Z. Money and fame, as Langella alluded, changes everything. Everyone. Every day.

Will there come a time when he stops answering to Derrick, or Pooh (neighborhood nickname), and in his mind will only hear the “Day-rick Roooooooose” that public-address announcers scream after he’s made another highlight? Will he begin to see his name as ©Derrick Rose, Inc., seeing every spare second as a dollar to be made? Will he begin believing Bulls TV analyst Stacy King’s oft-repeated claims that he is too big, too strong, too fast and too good … so much that he stops working too hard?

Shakespeare wrote of death by poison. Hamlet’s father, in particular, was killed by poison being poured into his ear.

Derrick Rose has a different form of poison being poured in his ear. All celebrities do, as well as all great athletes. Rose resides in both categories. How long can he resist the poison’s effect?

And if he can’t, what then of our hero?

What are you expecting out of Rose next season and beyond?

Follow Austin on Twitter at @AustinBurton206.

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