LAS VEGAS – The game that had embraced Derrick Rose, rescued him and his family from Chicago’s dangerous Englewood area on the South Side, taken him from Murray Park to unfathomable wealth and elevated him to a level of superstardom that at times made him uncomfortable, was suddenly causing him to push back and retreat.
An extended separation, the result of a devastating left knee injury, changed Rose in an unexpected way and tarnished the love that created the youngest most valuable player in NBA history. When he finally felt physically ready to return after an 18-month layoff last season, Rose found his desire to reclaim his dominance and silence doubters all at once, had turned his passion into a stodgy profession.
“I think that was just a dark side for me, a dark period of time,” Rose said, reflecting on his failed first comeback. “I felt like it was damn near like a job instead of just going out there and having fun. I wasn’t smiling, I wasn’t enjoying the game. I was trying not to mess up.”
Rose is smiling again this week at Team USA training camp at UNLV Mendenhall Center, where he has reminded players, coaches and all other observers of the electrifying player he was before injuries limited him to just 10 games over the past two seasons.
The Chicago Bulls all-star guard is breaking down defenders and getting to the rim to make fall away floaters and throwing down explosive, blink-of-the-eye reflex dunks off two feet. When reporters were allowed to watch practice on Wednesday, Rose quickly attracted all attention when he blocked shots on consecutive possessions, including pinning a Stephen Curry layup attempt at the rim.
Afterward, a relaxed Rose shared some laughs with Washington Wizards guard John Wall and John Calipari, their former college coach who helped both go No. 1 overall in the NBA draft. The conversation eventually turned serious, when Rose told Calipari something that has been readily apparent as he attempts to secure a spot on the FIBA World Cup team: “I’m on a mission.”
The mission is in the embryonic stages but Rose admitted he might not have ever reached this place — re-discovering joy and making it to the side of the light — if it weren’t for that right meniscus tear on Nov. 22 that again robbed him of the game. Instead of anger and devastation, Rose developed a greater appreciation and an understanding that he needed to embrace all that the game could provide, the miseries and the victories.
“It changed with the second injury,” Rose, 25, said. “I knew that I couldn’t be mad or be in that place for a whole year again. So I really attacked my rehab and it really was fun this time. The first time it was hell. This time it was hell, too. But I was able to enjoy it a little bit more, seeing that improvement.”
Rose was withdrawn after he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in April 2012 and spent most his time rehabilitating alone while also bonding with his young son, P.J. As Rose sat out the entire 2012-13 season, he endured criticism for taking too long with his recovery and shook his head at the baseless rumors about his imminent return. He wisely, for the sake of his basketball future, never succumbed to the pressure to come back before he was ready.
“I knew in my mind that if I wasn’t right, I wasn’t playing,” said Rose, who made everyone within the organization aware of his situation. “They left it up to me, so I appreciate that.”
The Bulls’ struggles in Rose’s absence, however, made him the subject of ridicule in some circles of a community that once exalted him as a hometown legend. His toughness and desire to play were questioned. He was dubbed a diva and even worse. But Rose never retaliated with his words. The problems began when Rose tried to turn the game into his weapon when it had always been his peace.
The game eventually broke him before his body broke down again.
During his second rehabilitation, Rose still found strength while watching little P.J. develop a steely personality — “He’s everything, my No. 1 fan,” Rose said of his son. But instead of being insular, Rose leaned more on others to help him cope. He spent more time around the team, attended practices, sat in on meetings and watched games from the bench instead of a private suite.
“It kind of made me feel like a basketball player again,” Rose said. “At the same time, I knew I wasn’t playing. But it kind of eased my mind, being around my teammates and really talking basketball to them … The first year was hard. This year, it’s like, whatever.”
Rose practiced with the Bulls’ summer league team in preparation for Team USA but wasn’t sure how well his success would translate against elite-level talent. Those concerns were dismissed after the first practice when Rose he realized that he, “could play with these guys.” Confidence restored, Rose is back in a familiar role as one of the best players on the floor.
“Who knew? Derrick has played great, not good. He hasn’t held anything back,” United States Men’s Coach Mike Krzyzewski said, adding that the difference was, “for us not to put a cap on him. ‘Let’s go. Let’s see. Let it out.’ And he’s done that. Even on the defensive end.”
Though Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook had to withdraw, the team is still stocked with point guard talent in Rose, Wall, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard. Rose still speaks humbly about hoping to make the 12-man roster but his play and comments from Krzyzewski and USA Basketball managing director and chairman Jerry Colangelo have left the impression that the team will have a second MVP on the roster, along with Kevin Durant and that Rose will enter the competition, which begins Aug. 30 in Spain, as the starter.
“The first three days here, he has shown that he hasn’t missed much in terms of a beat,” Colangelo said. “That’s very, very exciting for all of us. We didn’t know what to expect. So you’re surprised in a positive way, like, ‘Wow.’ He’s really pretty close to who he was and that bodes well for the Bulls, the NBA, and certainly for us, right now, with USA Basketball.”
Rose is different in more ways than just the baby Afro sprouting from his head, and with Friday’s scrimmage at the Thomas & Mack Center will have a chance to show how close he is to resembling the player who won rookie of the year, made two all-star appearances, claimed the MVP award, led the Bulls to the Eastern Conference finals and changed the salary structure for maximum extensions in the collective bargaining agreement all by age 22.
“You look at his first three years in the league, it was pretty amazing,” said Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau, who is an assistant on Krzyzewski’s staff. “I think sometimes, people forget who he is. Then he had the misfortune of the injury, then he got re-injured. That was a setback, but he never changed. He always had the belief that, ‘I’m going to come back and I’m going to great again.’ And I believe he will be.
“I love the way he’s playing right now. Because he’s showing a lot of patience, he’s making good decisions, he’s finding the rhythm of the game. I think when he plays like that, the game is easy for everybody,” Thibodeau said. “I think last year he may have been a little bit too anxious. He wanted to come back and do it all in one day. I think this has been … a much better approach. That’s who Derrick is. I think he learns from every situation. The adversity I think has made him a lot stronger mentally.”
During a lengthy sit-down after practice, Rose joked about the sacrifices he had to make get his body prepared for the challenges ahead, including passing on some “delicious” Giordano’s pizza (a famous Chicago restaurant in which he is an investor) to eat more salads. With the help of Bulls director of sports performance Jen Swanson, Rose was able to sculpt his body to take some pressure off of his beleaguered knees. He weighs 209 pounds, with about five percent body fat and hasn’t experienced any setbacks in camp.
The job is back to being his joy.
“I feel great, man. I don’t have any aches, let me knock on wood,” Rose said, before leaning down to tap on the hardwood. “I feel great, for real. I’m really taking care of my body. I really feel like a pro. I usually say whatever the game needs, that’s what I’m going to put into the game. I learned that by actually playing through my mistakes with the first injury. Just seeing that I was forcing everything. It wasn’t just the way I was playing, I wasn’t enjoying the game like I was before the injury. Now it feels like I appreciate it a little bit more, just enjoy being on the court and playing the game I love playing.”