The day of the NBA draft this past June, about 200 people showed up in Murray Park, a small outdoor basketball court in Englewood. When the Chicago Bulls selected Derrick Rose with the first pick overall, the crowd erupted and the sound of horns honking could be heard throughout the neighborhood. Rose was an Englewood kid; he had learned to play basketball right where they were grilling hot dogs, spinning noisemakers, and eating gummy bears, the latter a tribute to the youngster’s sweet tooth. Even in winter, Rose and his friends had shoveled ice off the concrete and played with a wet ball.
Almost every inner-city kid who hits it big has a playground where people breathlessly recount his feats, and Murray is where Rose became Chicago’s next basketball prodigy. Spend enough time in Murray Park, though, and you will hear gunshots. From January to August 2008, 28 people were murdered in the neighborhood that surrounds it—a crime wave that garnered citywide attention, particularly because some victims were children caught in gang-related crossfire. (At presstime, the Englewood, South Chicago, and Gresham police districts had the city’s highest murder rates for the year.) “This is a tough community to grow up in, and we’ve got to celebrate someone like Derrick,” says John Paul Jones, a community activist and one of the event’s organizers. “Derrick represents the fact that you can get past the violence and destruction and still make it.”
Rose, 20, was an Englewood legend long before draft night. When he was a child, players twice his age begged his mother, Brenda, to let him play another game. As a 5-foot-11 eighth grader at Beasley Academic Center, Rose dunked and made it known that, unlike most me-first teenagers, he preferred to pass the ball. “Everyone wanted to play with him,” recalls Thomas Richard Green, Beasley’s assistant principal and head basketball coach. Soon enough, fans were jamming into tiny elementary school gyms to see his game. Not long after, the Rose name was appearing in recruiting magazines and prep sports columns.
Chicago has a way of corrupting its young basketball stars, showering them with far too much attention. “It’s right around grammar school where a lot of great athletes get an ego,” says Green. “The playgrounds are filled with old guys like Derrick who started well and got lost. They stopped listening to coaches and teachers and friends. They got kicked out of school. They became nothing more than legends in their own minds.”
But Rose’s mother and three older brothers wouldn’t stand for it. One of the most important family rules, Rose says, was that most people couldn’t contact him directly. Only close friends and family had Rose’s cell numbers, and everyone else—coaches, scouts, sneaker salesmen, older kids, so-called friends, anyone with the power to corrupt the young Rose—had to go through his family. “I’d give them [older brother] Reggie’s cell,” Rose says. “And he would handle it.” With hangers-on and distractions at a minimum, Rose says he was able to be a normal teenager, spending his free time doing nothing more than hanging out at friends’ houses and playing X-Box. “A lot of athletes grow up way too fast,” he says. “My family let me be a kid.” When it came to teenage pranks, parties, or staying out late, Rose “was always thinking ahead,” says Tim Flowers, a friend and teammate since childhood. “He always kept in mind: What would happen if everyone heard about this?”
The neighborhood pulled together, too, to shield its prodigy. While random violence and stray bullets remained an ever-present threat, gang members who typically would have tried to recruit or hassle a boy Rose’s age left him alone. “If you’re an athlete, they tend to give you a free pass,” says Donald Whiteside, an Englewood native who starred at Northern Illinois and played in the NBA. “For anyone else, it can be pretty rough.” Rose says that his family benefited from the protective ring, too. “They looked out for my mother,” he says. “They only do that for certain people, and we were lucky.”
All around him, though, people were dying. When Rose was a fifth grader living on 73rd and Paulina, his next-door neighbor, a teenager, got drunk and killed himself playing Russian roulette. A close neighborhood friend of Rose’s was killed a few weeks before he was supposed to leave for college. Every day in Englewood, Rose says, he saw or heard some element of a crime. “When I was younger, I used to cry about how rough it was,” he recalls. “I just wanted to be old enough to get me and my family out of there.”
During the eighth grade, when it was time for Rose to choose where he wanted to go to high school, the neighborhood’s protective code played a huge part in his decision to enroll at Simeon, about two miles from his home. “I had heard too many stories about people who go too far out of their neighborhood, where people try to test you,” Rose said. “Simeon was in my neighborhood, and I had friends there, so I felt pretty safe.” He led Simeon to two state titles, and the recruiters who’d been knocking for years began pounding. “People told him that he’d never get out of Englewood,” says John Calipari, Rose’s coach at the University of Memphis. “And he became the best player in the country.” In his freshman year, he led the Tigers to the 2008 national title game, where they lost to Kansas. A week later, he announced he was leaving college for the NBA.
As soon as he could, he moved his mother out of the neighborhood and into a house in Homewood, just as the violence began to heat up again. “Three blocks away from my house they shot a boy in the face,” he says. “One of my brothers was nearby while the shooting was going on.” (Some of Rose’s extended family still live in the neighborhood.)
On October 28th, the now six-foot-three point guard will make his professional debut against the Milwaukee Bucks. Englewood will no doubt be tuned in. But that’s as close as Derrick Rose will get for now. Though he’d like to visit family and friends, for the time being, Rose says he can’t go anywhere near. “It’s crazy now,” he says. “Everyone says don’t stop there, not even for ten minutes, until everything has cooled down.” Perhaps most telling, the Bulls declined a request to photograph Rose near his childhood home.