Earlier this summer, I went to Chicago for our Dime #50 cover shoot with Derrick Rose. Going in, we’d decided not to waste anyone’s time doing a generic studio shoot with Derrick wearing a Bulls uniform that could’ve been done anywhere, by anyone. Authenticity was the objective. So we went back to the roots: two blocks from Derrick’s childhood home in the South Side, at the park where he became the player you see today. Here is the shoot and story that transpired…
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This is full circle.
Early Monday morning in the Englewood section of the South Side of Chicago, and Murray Park is alive. There’s the dude who just got out a week ago, Obama tattoo on his right bicep and cell-block muscles on every other visible inch of him. There’s the busty chick with two different hairstyles on her head and a pair of Nefertiti-like eyes tatted on her breasts. There’s the tall dude with four gold chains and waves that would put any R&B singer to shame. A couple of older female cops mill around, but they don’t seem too worried about anyone here. Little boys wearing basketball shorts and wide-eyed stares come through. And lots of teenage girls, armed with camera phones, trying to get a snapshot of the young man who isn’t much older than them, the man everybody is here to see: Derrick Rose.
The 20-year-old star of the Chicago Bulls is the prince of these streets. Born and raised a couple of blocks away from the park over on 75th Street, this is the court where Derrick threw up his first jumper and honed the crossover that would later drop NBA point guards on their asses. This grass field is where he began his comically brief baseball career, hurling fastballs and robbing base hits. This sidewalk on the West side of the fence is where he used to race his friends, sprinting up and down the block, sometimes with no shoes on, showing off the speed that would later carry him past Chris Paul and Deron Williams on the game’s most hallowed courts. In the summer of 2008, more than 200 people gathered at the park to barbeque, play ball, and listen to the radio as the Bulls chose Derrick with the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
“Whoever got a warrant, get out of the picture!” yells Derrick’s older brother, Reggie Rose. He’s joking. But not really.
Word spreads quickly that “Pooh” is back in the ’hood, starring in his first solo magazine cover shoot as a pro. Although it’s well before noon on a workday, this impromptu block party is about 60 strong. Maybe an hour ago, it was more like seven.
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This is The Circle.
You can’t tell Derrick Rose’s story without talking about his support system, because Derrick probably wouldn’t be here without them. It sounds tired, but it’s true. Without his older brothers Dwayne, Reggie and Allan; without his mother Brenda; without his close friends and assorted neighborhood watchdogs that kept the prodigal son out of trouble, there would be no seven-figure salary straight out of college, no adidas deal, no impressive town house close to the Bulls practice facility in Deerfield, Ill., no 16.8 points and 6.3 assists per game as a starter from Day One, no breakout 2009 postseason where he nearly took down the defending champion Boston Celtics in seven games.
“I give his family the credit,” says Randall Hampton, who’s been tight with Derrick since sixth grade and played in the same high school backcourt with him at Simeon Career Academy. Pooh and Ran hang out almost every day, playing video games or working out at the Berto Center where the Bulls practice. “His family keeps him sheltered, keeps him on the right path. They keep him well grounded. He’s always been humble. No matter how much notoriety he gets or anything like that, he stays humble. I don’t think he’s ever gonna change, no matter how much fame he gets.”
The older brothers were taught the game by an Uncle Reggie (they called him “Uncle Shaq”) who passed away last year. The older brothers all played high school ball at Hubbard H.S.; Reggie was even good enough to get a scholarship offer from Cincinnati, but admits he got in his own way off the court.
“Coming up in a neighborhood like this, you gotta make the right decisions,” Reggie says. “At that time in my life, you know, I really wasn’t thinking about sports and education. That’s why one of the main reasons when I saw Derrick had a chance, I was like, ‘Hold on, let’s get him on the right track.’”
There are others who helped shape this journey. Those outside the inner circle who Derrick may never have even met, but whose own Chicago basketball stories of unfulfilled promise and tragedy were a prologue to his own: Arthur Agee and William Gates, the stars of Hoop Dreams; Benji Wilson, the best high school player in America in 1984 who was shot to death before his senior year; Ronnie Fields, a meaner Vince Carter before Vince blew up, derailed by bad choices and bad luck. (During his senior year, Fields was driving a rental car that would have sounded the alarm at the NCAA when he got into a near-fatal accident in which he broke his neck. He never made it back to full form, never played college ball, and bounced around the globe playing in American minor leagues and overseas pro leagues.) These stories were passed down to Derrick, each of them providing a lesson to be learned.
“It’s always a struggle before you get anything good. You’re gonna always have to go through stuff to get where you want to be,” Derrick says. “Ben, with his story, you just can’t do nothing but learn from it; be at the right place at the right time. Ronnie, he got misdirected a little bit; that’s where you gotta make sure everybody you have around you is doing right.”
So why did you make it and they didn’t?
“I really don’t know. God knows,” Derrick says. “They were all great high school players and they all worked hard. And some people had a good support system and still got messed over. I’m just lucky enough to be here. The only person that knows why is God.”
Derrick knows the stories, but it was all before his time. Hoop Dreams came out when he was six years old. Fields’ had his accident when Derrick was seven. Benji was killed four years before Derrick was born. It was up to the circle to drop the knowledge and cautionary tales on the kid when he was old enough to understand.
“I told Derrick, ‘Just give us a chance to show you the right way.’ And he did. He listened to the family,” Reggie says. “To see Ronnie go through what he did, and then I went through certain things on these streets…it hits home. So we wanted to help Derrick before that could even happen, before he can be another Ronnie Fields. We was like, ‘We’re gonna build this shield around him and give him an opportunity.’
“It’s not really like protecting him, because he knows everybody out here,” Reggie says. “We never feared for him to go anywhere in our city. Protecting him is more like, you got street agents and dope boys, but then you also go corporate America that can come in and slick-talk you. So you always need someone at that table that understands different languages and different contracts, stuff like that. When we go into those situations, we always want to prepare ourselves. We came together as a band of brothers to do this.”
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United Center, Chicago, October 2008. In the Bulls preseason opener, seconds before tip-off, Derrick Rose has an out-of-body experience. The fastest player in the NBA is frozen. About to play his first game in front of this crowd, his crowd, that’s when it all fell into place. Where he’d come from, where he was, where he could go. How long it really took to travel those 13 miles between Murray Park and the United Center. That was the one day it all made sense.
“We were playing Dallas. Right when the tip-off was fixing to happen, I looked over at Jason Kidd, like, I never thought that I’d be playing against him,” Derrick says. “I was shocked I was even on the floor.”
Reggie was watching with the rest of the family from a suite in the arena.
“When they called his name and he went out there, I just couldn’t stop myself. A tear came down,” Reggie says. “ Like, ‘Wow, that’s my little brother out there playing.’ Going back to when he was in seventh grade and really started to show his potential, it was a seven-year journey to get him there. The whole family, we were just so proud of him.”
This was where he always wanted to be. Derrick grew up watching Michael Jordan and the Bulls win championships, then watched his favorite team fall apart when MJ left. He saw one homegrown savior, Eddy Curry, fail to live up to expectations. He wanted to bring the Bulls back to the glory days; the only problem was that as good as he was coming out of the University of Memphis as a freshman, he could only end up on the Bulls if they were bad enough (and lucky enough) to land the No. 1 pick. In other words, for Derrick Rose to have a chance to save the Bulls, they would need some serious saving.
He would have to get used to losing, too, and losing isn’t something Derrick ever gets used to. That baseball career? It ended when Derrick’s eight-year-old Little League team lost four of their first five games. Although a talented pitcher and a natural athlete on the diamond, he just couldn’t deal with the losing. In his entire high school and college career, he maybe lost 15 games. He would cry after losing AAU games, the ones where no one else remembers the score and most players use as individual showcases for college scouts.
“It’s a game. I don’t look at any game like it’s just a pickup game or anything like that. It’s a game, and I’m always trying to win,” Derrick says. “All I wanna do is win. That’s the only thing, that and getting better, no matter how you do it. How many points you get, assists, whatever … that’s not important. There was a spell this year where we lost like five or six games in a row, and that didn’t feel good at all. I had to talk to a couple people — my brothers, my mom. I’m glad they were there for me, ’cause it’s hard when you lose games. It gets to you. So people that’s losing like 20, 30-something games in a month or two, I can’t do that.”
On a team that underachieved during the ’07-08 season after a promising playoff run the previous year, Derrick and new coach Vinny Del Negro led Chicago to an even-.500 record in the regular season and a No. 7 seed in the East. In his third pro game, Derrick scored 26 points against longtime AAU/high school/college rival O.J. Mayo and the Memphis Grizzlies. Later that month, he put up 25 and nine assists against the Lakers on the road, then another 25 and nine at Utah. By then, it was clear he belonged on this stage. Soon, he was being called arguably the most athletic point guard the NBA had ever seen, a regular on highlight reels and a near-unanimous Rookie of the Year.
“He was put in a tough position to lead a team as a rookie, and I think he showed a lot poise, a lot of maturity, a lot of skill and a lot of potential,” says Bulls forward Tyrus Thomas. “He’s one of those guys who’s going to be special. His game is unique. A lot of strength, quickness, explosiveness, and just poise. I don’t really know who I can compare him to right now. He’s gonna make a name for himself.”
Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said, “He definitely came in as one of the better young guards in this League. He’s a strong, athletic guard that can get to the rim and he’s really tough to guard given the fact of his God-given ability, his athleticism, his strength and things like that. He’s also become a great point guard for a team and been able to help lead a veteran team, not a real young team, to a pretty solid season.”
Rose, quiet by nature and sometimes painfully shy and humble, admits it was weird being expected to lead a group that included 25- and 30-year-olds when he was just 20, and that it’s still a work in progress for him.
“I know I gotta be more vocal and talk more. I gotta work on that,” Derrick says. Another knock on him coming out of college was that he wasn’t assertive enough on the court; that for all his talent, he wasn’t selfish enough.
“I learned that you can’t take anything light in the NBA. You gotta be in kill-mode every game,” Derrick says. “Everybody here is tough. Everybody is here for a reason. Some nights it’ll be somebody that’s stronger than you, then you might go up against somebody that’s not as strong, but they’re quicker or they’re more experienced. It’s hard to play in the NBA. You gotta get your mindset right, but if you do that you’ll be alright.”
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This is what they didn’t see coming: 36 points, 11 assists.
In his first NBA playoff game, Rose lit up the Celtics on their home floor, the most explosive postseason debut the League had seen since LeBron in 2006 (32 pts, 11 rebs, 11 asts) and Chris Paul in 2008 (35 pts, 10 asts, 4 stls). With the Bulls having made only a handful of national TV appearances during the regular season, it was almost a reintroduction of Rose to a general public that hadn’t seen him since he was playing in the Final Four at Memphis. Rose had a stellar series against Boston, sparking a rivalry with counterpart Rajon Rondo that’s going to be the Eastern Conference version of Paul vs. Williams, and making game-winning plays in a classic triple-overtime Game Six.
And just like his monotone post-game interviews during that series, where he seemed almost bored by the whole thing, today he still doesn’t talk it up too much. Asked to reminisce on the series, he talks more about mistakes he made and turnovers he wishes he could do-over. On the day of this photo shoot, the Lakers and Magic are in the middle of the NBA Finals; Derrick says he hasn’t watched the playoffs since his team was knocked out.
“We’re not in it, so it’s like, what’s the point? It’s too hard to watch,” Derrick says.
“He beats himself up,” Reggie says. “He can win the game, but he’s thinking about the layup he missed, or the pass somebody stole, or when he saw the ball on the floor and didn’t get to it. Even in AAU, I had to be like, ‘Derrick, forget about it.’ It’s hard for him to let go. He just wants to be perfect.”
The Bulls dropped Game Seven of that series in Boston. Before that, he dominated the Game Six (28 pts, 8 rebs, 7 asts) that would be their final game in Chicago — the lasting memory his home fans have of the first chapter in the story where Derrick Rose saves their franchise. With the United Center in pandemonium around him after the final buzzer sounded, close to a championship-level celebration for a city that knows how to celebrate championships, it was his first taste of what he’s been gunning for since he first discovered his game at Murray Park.
“Nah, I’m not even near what [Jordan’s Bulls] did or what they accomplished,” Derrick says. “Hopefully one day we can build up to that. Now we just gotta get farther in the playoffs, but one day I think we’ll be a championship team. If that happens? That’s gonna be lovely.”
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Derrick Rose has gotten three tattoos since he was drafted. On his stomach, still unfinished, is a pair of hands resting on extended angel wings, cradling a baby—an addendum to the “God’s Child” he has inked across his back. On his right hand he has “Brenda” set inside a blooming rose. On his left, “Sweet Home Chicago,” with a basketball serving as a kind of sunrise against the downtown skyline.
Mere circumstance has allowed Derrick to be one of the few NBA stars — LeBron in Cleveland, Chauncey Billups in Denver, Josh Smith in Atlanta, Baron Davis in L.A. — to truly rep his roots every day of his professional life. Still, he feels a disconnect from here he truly came from, as this new life of privilege essentially forces him to leave Englewood behind more than he’s ever done before. Derrick is so close to where he became “Pooh,” and yet he’s so far from it now.
“I think the hardest thing for him this year was not being able to see his friends as much,” says his boy Randall. “I know he misses his friends around the neighborhood. He comes around as often as he can, though.”
“My life has changed a lot,” Derrick says. “You see now, there’s a lot of people out here, you got police out here. People show me a lot of love—I’m happy I’m from here and that I get to play here. But I can’t really, like, go out to the mall anymore. I can’t go eat by myself. It’s different.”
After the final frame has been snapped, Pooh and the original crew he arrived with makes their way out of the park and back to the three SUVs and BMW lined up on 73rd Street. As he leaves, almost everyone who’d been there to watch — and he knows just about all of them — follows behind. Slowly making his way to the Beamer, he poses for photos with grown-ups and kids, signs autographs, doles out hugs and pounds.
What is this like? Being on this block, at this park, getting this kind of love?
“Oh man, I’m just chilling,” Derrick says, grinning. “It’s unbelievable, really. I never thought I’d be here. I’m lovin’ it, though. It’s a big responsibility playing for Chicago, and there’s gonna be some hard times, but hopefully the good times overshadow the hard times.”
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For more photos, check out Dime #50 online