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How the Bulls’ Derrick Rose Went from Good to Great

THE TIPPING POINT: This season the soft-spoken Chicago native has blossomed into one of the most dazzling basketball players on the planet. Here’s how he did it

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Rose also learned a few things last summer when he beat out the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo and other top players to become the starting point guard for Team USA, helping lead that team to the international championship. “One of the biggest benefits Derrick received from the international experience was seeing the preparation, cooperation, and devotion that have to be put in to achieve at that level,” says Team USA’s head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, also the men’s basketball coach at Duke. “He’s such a good listener and good kid. I believe he soaked up the whole experience. The more you play at that high level and in such a high-pressure environment, the better you get. That’s what happened to Derrick last summer.”

The thing that impressed Jay Triano, a Team USA assistant coach and the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, wasn’t Rose’s improved shooting or his newfound willingness to go hard at the rim. What impressed Triano was the way Rose beat himself up. “I’ve never seen anybody who was so hard on himself,” Triano says. “He’d watch videotape of a game and get so mad at himself for making mistakes, and you just knew he wasn’t going to let it happen again.”

Which might explain the ulcers. Late in January, Rose was diagnosed with two stomach ulcers. He blamed spicy food, saying he had no reason at all to be stressed—the Bulls were winning, and he was playing well. Whatever the cause, though, he played through pain.

In fact, after the ulcer announcement, he went on a terrific run, matching up against three of the game’s top young point guards: Stephen Curry of the Warriors, Deron Williams of the Jazz, and Chris Paul of the Hornets. Only Curry got the best of him.

* * *

Thibodeau calls Rose a tireless worker, always arriving early and staying late for practice. “I think he’s making continual progress,” the coach says. “He’s never satisfied, always trying to get better in every aspect of the game. He wants to be a complete player.”

Thanks to Rose’s drive for greatness, the Bulls have not suffered a letdown this season, even when their other top stars, Boozer and Joakim Noah, sat out long stretches with serious injuries.

Against the Celtics one night in January, Rose won the game almost single-handedly by lowering a shoulder and throwing himself repeatedly at the NBA’s most immovable object: Shaquille O’Neal. After putting Shaq on the bench with foul trouble, Rose went after his replacement, Jermaine O’Neal. Same result. With their big men out of action, the Celtics collapsed. Rose finished with 36 points, 15 of them from the foul line.

Late in the game, when he went to the line to shoot a pair of foul shots, the United Center spectators began to chant: “MVP! MVP!” A sportswriter told me Rose always misses the first free throw when the crowd chants “MVP!” Sure enough, he clanked it.

Standing at his locker afterward, he predicted that he would be sore from all the banging against those 300-pound bodies. But he didn’t mind. He had been lifting more weights and getting more massages. Anyway, he’s young.

He began to get dressed, putting on faded jeans, an atrocious tan jacket, and a brown scarf better suited to a Bedouin. At one point, a teammate approached to tease him about the scarf.

Rose looked up, seemingly surprised that the scarf had drawn attention. He shrugged and finished dressing. The teammate withdrew in silence, as if he were sorry to have hurt Rose’s feelings.

Moments later, a reporter for a Polish television station cornered Rose to ask about a ball Rose had signed and donated to a charity in Poland. “How does it feel to help the needy?” she asked.

When Michael Jordan got a question like that, he would furrow his brow as if it were the most interesting query he’d ever heard. Then he would answer in elegantly crafted sentences of perfect length for television and radio sound bites. Only upon reviewing his notes or replaying the tape would the reporter realize that Jordan’s remarks had been 100 percent honey-coated bullshit, as dull and empty as a toilet-paper tube.

Rose, on the other hand, still tries to be nice. He sounds like a normal person. He still—get this—refers to himself in the first person.

“Makes me feel good . . . means a lot to me,” he told the Polish reporter. “Thank God I can help.”

She asked if Rose would be willing to repeat a short Polish phrase, Siema, Wielka Orkiestra, basically saying, “What’s up, Grand Orchestra!”

“Oh my God,” Rose said, laughing.

The reporter prompted him: “Siema.

He butchered it.

She repeated.

He butchered it a little less.

Eventually Rose got all three words. The reporter thanked him and turned to leave.

“Hold on,” he said. “Let me say it together.”

All in all, it was not a bad night’s work.

Bulls win. Shaq cut down to size. Clubhouse attendant greased. Polish language conquered.

Now the man says he wants to be the best player in the league.

Why not?

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