Did you ever see Michael Jordan with a one-dollar bill in his hand?
Not me. I can’t even imagine it.
Decked out in custom-made suits and diamond earrings big as Brussels sprouts, His Airness always gave the impression that he would sooner bikini-wax Dennis Rodman than mess around with chump change.
Yet there was Derrick Rose the other day, in the Bulls locker room, fishing through the pockets of his faded jeans to get a tip for the clubhouse attendant. And what did he do? He pulled out a crumpled lump of ones. Not a wad. Not a stack. A sad, crumpled little lump. He dug through the lump until he found some twenties, and he gave the clubhouse guy a nice tip. But that’s not the point.
There were people in the room, Derrick! There were cameras! An NBA star of the highest order has an image to maintain. Certain standards apply. You don’t wear a fake Rolex. You don’t eat 7-Eleven hot dogs. And you don’t touch dollar bills.
It’s all in the players’ handbook. Really, Derrick, you should read it.
On second thought, maybe hold off on that for a while. Let us enjoy this moment.
Barring injury, as the sportscasters say, this will be remembered as the year that D-Rose—22 years old and still a shy and humble kid—blossomed into a full-fledged superstar. For Walter Payton, it happened in 1977, when he rushed for 275 yards in one game, breaking the single-game record. For Jordan, it was 1984, his rookie season, when he averaged 28 points a game and his jealous All-Star Game teammates refused to pass him the ball. For Sammy Sosa, the year was 1998, when he hit 66 home runs and steroids were scarcely mentioned.
Rose is right there, on the brink, straddling the line between kid and adult, between innocence and self-awareness, between big and colossal. Which makes this a special time to see him.
The Bulls don’t look like champions yet, but this is the best team they’ve had in years, and they’ve finally got the right coach in Tom Thibodeau. If they do go all the way, this season or another, make no mistake—Rose will be the one leading them. When that happens, he will own this town like no one else.
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.”
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.
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.