(page 2 of 3)
Unlike most of the city’s biggest celebrity athletes, past and present, Rose is a true Chicagoan. He grew up in Englewood, one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, raised by his mother, his grandmother, and his three older brothers. On his left shoulder he sports a tattoo to remind him of his childhood nickname, Poohdini, a derivative of Pooh, as in Winnie the. He has the Chicago skyline inked on the back of his left hand. Did LeBron James ever love Cleveland enough to enshrine it on his body?
Before Rose was old enough to dunk, his family recognized his gift for handling a bouncy orange ball and began planning accordingly. His brothers formed an informal security team to protect him—from greedy agents as well as from the more ordinary threats faced by young men in Englewood.
Rose tells me he developed a sixth sense for danger.
“Just living in the neighborhood, you can tell when there’s trouble. When it’s coming, you can feel it,” he says.
And what would he do when he sensed that danger?
“Run. Run home.”
He has lived outside Chicago for less than one full year of his life, when he enrolled in 2007 at the University of Memphis. Later, the school’s basketball team forfeited its 38-win season when an NCAA investigation concluded that Rose had evidently been ineligible to play. Without naming names, the report said that a player fitting Rose’s description allegedly had another person take his SAT exam.
He received more unwanted attention when a photo surfaced showing him flashing gang signs. Rose swears he took the SAT, and he has apologized for the photo. Since then, he has steered clear of trouble.
If Chicago fans have been unusually forgiving of these missteps, it’s probably because Rose is so young and so single-mindedly focused on basketball. I’ve heard people say that he never should have been forced to take the SAT in the first place. If the NBA had allowed it, he would have gone directly from high school to the pros, where he obviously belonged.
But rules are rules, so Rose went to college. For one year. After that, the Bulls selected him with the number one pick in the 2008 draft. He’s earning about $5.5 million this year, and he’ll make much more than that soon. He needed an undergraduate degree like I need a crossover dribble.
* * *
Today he leads a sheltered life. He seldom leaves the house without one of his burly armed bodyguards. He still drops by the playgrounds in Englewood—he says he hates the idea that someone might complain that he doesn’t come around anymore—but he does so less often now. Instead, he rents a suite at the United Center for friends and family.
“I really can’t go anywhere in Chicago, especially by myself,” he says. “I stay in a little bit more. The city’s going crazy [over the Bulls] right now, and it deserves it.” He’s not yet resorting to disguises, though. “No,” he says, “if I’m out, I wear a hood and a hat, and I walk with my head down.”
Yet he retains an innocence that, for the NBA, seems as out of place as roller skates. Among his goals this year? Stop cursing on the court, he says. His mother complains that people watching on TV can read his lips.
His teammates respect his shyness in no small part because he’s such a beast on the court. “Quiet dude, real quiet dude,” says Carlos Boozer, a nine-year veteran of the league. “He’s as humble a superstar as I’ve ever seen.”
Humble, yes, and yet he has shown signs recently of shaking some of that humility. He shocked a lot of fans earlier this year when he boldly pronounced that he wanted to be named the league’s most valuable player this season. He even went so far as to say he thought he deserved it based on his performance.
“I think I put a lot of work in,” he tells me. “I think my game has improved. I think everybody else should be able to see that.”
Already he’s been selected as a starter for the Eastern Conference All-Stars, the Bulls’ first since you-know-who in 1998. He’s averaging about 25 points, eight assists, and four and a half rebounds per game. He’s made good on his vow to improve his three-point shooting. He’s playing much tougher defense, too.
But the biggest change is this: He’s becoming more physical. He’s getting to the line more often, putting opponents in foul trouble, piling up easy points, and giving his teammates a chance to reset the defense. His incredible speed has always been his greatest asset, but in his first two seasons, he tended to dish the ball off or shoot it. Now he’s plowing ahead, trying to draw contact.
How did he figure it out?
“Watching film, just seeing what I was doing wrong,” he says. “What I was doing wrong was picking up the ball too early.”
Since graduating from high school, Rose has been working out with Rob McClanaghan, a private trainer in Southern California. Rose has always worked hard, the trainer says, but this past off-season he saw something new in his client.
“He got a taste of how good he could be [in the 2009–10 season],” McClanaghan says, “but he wanted to get better. He wants to be the best. It’s as simple as that.”
Rose and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder worked out together with McClanaghan at a high-school gym in Santa Monica throughout most of the off-season. They practiced two or three hours a day, six days a week. Even on Sundays, McClanaghan says, he would often get a call asking him to unlock the gym.
To teach Rose to make more contact in the lane, McClanaghan would stand under the basket with heavy pads and knock him around as he drove in for lay-ups. Now, says the trainer, “he’s one of the best finishers in the league—if not the best.”
* * *