Derrick Rose hates fame, but still hopes to be an NBA champion
Questions and controversy swirl around the oft-injured guard as he enters free agency
Inside the lower Manhattan apartment of the notoriously taciturn Derrick Rose, there is a moment when he tells you exactly who he is. “I’m a true introvert,” says the 28-year-old point guard for the New York Knicks.
“I picked the profession I’m in, so there’s no way I could whine about it,” he says. “And I’m blessed enough to be in this position.”
“I hate fame. It’s just not who I am.”
This summer, Rose becomes a free agent for the first time in his career. And it’s a moment to reckon with this fame and some of his complicated and troubling personal and professional topography. As a college freshman, Rose led his team to the NCAA finals but their wins were later vacated over allegations of wrongdoing, including that he cheated on the SAT. Jumping to the NBA, he was the league’s youngest MVP, seemingly destined to return his hometown Chicago Bulls to their former glory. But Rose spent entire seasons recovering from injuries that eclipsed his preternatural power and athleticism and caused many fans to lose heart. Season after season, he generates controversy–from premature quotes about free agency to accusations of rape.
Sitting across the dining room table, he asks you to consider that he’s simply not wired to change his game. Not wired to be more politic with the media, sell himself to fans or better explain the decisions behind the controversies that have followed him. That it is not in his DNA to meet people and give interviews that distill his essence to basketball writers and fans who, at bottom, believe that being complicated is an indulgence reserved for champions.
And in the saga of Derrick Rose, that’s one thing he still hopes to be.
“Winning takes care of everything,” he says.
Rose graduated from the violence-plagued Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side to the rarefied air of professional sports stardom and imagined that he could always let his game speak for itself.
But both on the court, and in the game of life, he’s sent mixed messages.
On April 2, the Knicks announced he had torn the meniscus in his left knee and three days later he underwent surgery. It was his fourth knee operation in five years. Now he faces free agency coming off rehab and there’s a real question of how he’s going to land.
When you ask him about the past several years, Rose is contemplative about the ground he’s covered, the move from Chicago to New York, and what it has taught him about himself.
“I feel like you need a break sometimes just to find out who you are. And I think my family and my friends, they understand that. I’m 28 years old. I hurt myself when I was 23. Twenty-three, that’s quite young to accomplish what I accomplished.”
He said he’s been figuring himself out and figuring out the world at the same time — as a man, a ballplayer, as a father.
When he was first injured in Chicago, he said, he shut everybody out. “I feel I was wrong,” Rose said. “I’m human. You try to go through these problems yourself,” but you need people to talk to, “even to vent to get things off your chest.” And not just friends and family. “And it took me actually going through it, and experiencing it to recognize what I was doing wrong.”
In The Return, a 2013 documentary Adidas produced to chronicle his initial comeback, Rose said that when he tore his ACL, “the whole time I’m in the MRI machine, I’m just praying, crying and stuff, hoping that it wasn’t tore. Think of your most downest day and times that by a hundred. That ain’t enough to describe how I felt at that time.”
“You drive yourself crazy trying to hold all that in,” he now says. “And there’s nothing wrong with talking to a professional.”
Rose was a shy kid, close to his mother, Brenda, an aide for the Chicago Board of Education, and three older brothers, Reggie, Dwayne and Allan, who kept their keenest eyes on young Derrick and helped groom him for basketball stardom. After winning back-to-back state championships at Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy, he led the Memphis Tigers to the NCAA championship game in 2008.
The NCAA ruled a few years later that someone else had taken the SAT college entrance exam for Rose, and that his brother Reggie, himself a promising athlete, had flown to away games with him on the team plane. Memphis season ticket holders threatened to file suit and Coach John Calipari and Rose agreed to pay $100,000 to reimburse them. But by then Rose had already reached escape velocity.
He was the first player chosen in the 2008 NBA draft by his hometown Bulls. He was Rookie of the Year the next year, an All-Star the next three years. And in 2011, he became the youngest MVP ever.
His Horatio Alger story (a $100 million contract extension expires in June and a contract with Adidas earned him at least another $185 million), affable manner and transcendent athleticism earned him adoration around the city and the nation, and made him a legend on the South Side. He was the superstar hope for a franchise that hadn’t been a consistent winner since the glory days of Air Jordan. By 2012, Bulls fans thought they were destined for a seventh title.
The team entered the first round of the 2012 NBA playoffs, (after a lockout season that didn’t start until Christmas) with the best regular season record in the league. With 1:22 left in Game 1 against the 76ers, Rose tore his ACL. The Bulls were leading by 12 at the time — why was he even out there? — and the injury traumatized Chicago. Rose called it fate and turned immediately to his recovery.
“I always say if it’s painful, see how long you can go through it, because a normal person will stop right when they feel pain,” Rose said in The Return. The team could see him lifting weights and shooting, demonstrating “that just because I’m not on the court with them, I’m still working my butt off just so I can get back on the court as quick as possible … I put everything, I mean everything that I have into me coming back,” Rose said. “I will die on that court.”
The city was Team DRose through his rehabilitation. But reports surfaced toward the end of the season that, despite still being out, he’d been cleared to play by team doctors. Doubts started to creep in about Rose’s commitment to bringing home a championship. (The Bulls lost 4-1 to Miami in the second round of the 2013 playoffs.) Eleven games into the 2013-2014 season, with much to prove, Rose tore the medial meniscus in his right knee, and was again out for the season. More injuries, including a third knee surgery in February 2015 and a fractured orbital bone, plagued him and the city soured on its young superstar and lost patience with his unfulfilled promise.
That impatience showed up in media reports.
Earlier, Rose’s sometimes halting conversation had been regarded as authentic and unpretentious. But by 2014, the notion that Rose was an unsophisticated speaker had become an entrenched knock against him. And the criticism was suffused with racial coding.
After Rose mused publicly about his desire to avoid being prematurely infirm after his basketball career ends — including wanting to be able to walk at his son’s graduation — an article in the Chicago Tribune proclaimed, “Derrick Rose broke the Stupid-O-Meter with this one”:
“I’m loath to tell Rose to shut up because then we’d all be denied new Stupid-O-Meter readings the way we’re being denied Rose’s participation on the court because of the anticipated Herculean demands of standing for Pomp and Circumstance in about 16 years.
“Rose needs a friend. Does Rose have a friend? Rose needs a friend. Because a friend would tell him how dumb he sounds and looks. I don’t know if that’s his brother or agent putting that garbage in his head, but it’s one of the most embarrassing things a player can say.
At a pregame warm-up a month later, Rose wore an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt — the last words spoken by Eric Garner, whose choking death by a New York police officer sparked nationwide unrest. Dan Bernstein, a prominent Chicago radio host, sent a tweet questioning whether Rose even understood his protest, and suggested he lacked the gray matter to explain himself:
The following year, Rose acknowledged he had been thinking about free agency and a potential big payday, even though there were two years left on his contract. By speculating aloud, he was exercising control over his body and his career. He was acting with his own free agency as a player and a man.
But the critics grew louder and Rose lacked the dominant physicality, or even consistently healthy play to hush them. By the time he was traded to the Knicks in June 2016, he’d missed 201 games (while playing only 127) in the previous four seasons. Hope had turned to disappointment, disappointment had turned to doubt, and doubt had turned into anger. He’d become a worry to watch, and for some grating to listen to.
Rose often regards his press coverage as one-dimensional. It’s not just that the media doesn’t understand him, he said, but “are they trying to understand? Are they trying to cut through, or is the story already written and they just need a couple of bites to fill their story?”
This is where his introverted nature can work against him. “I really just want to be to myself. What’s wrong with that, you know what I mean?” he said. “That’s when I feel at my best, or I feel recharged.”
Rose says he’s heard people say, straight up, he can’t talk. “They say he’s not media-savvy. They say ‘He’s dumb,’ ” Rose says, and his switch to the third person feels immediately self-protective — a way to avoid owning the perceptions of people who feel hateful. It used to make him mad, but not anymore, he says. “I know who I am. They just don’t know who I am.”
Last October, before he played a regular season game in a Knicks uniform, Rose faced a civil trial over allegations of rape. A Los Angeles woman with whom Rose had a years-long, nonexclusive relationship, accused Rose and two of his childhood friends, Ryan Allen and Randall Hampton, of drugging and raping her two years earlier. She was seeking $21.3 million in damages.
The woman claimed that someone drugged her drink during an evening of partying at Rose’s Beverly Hills, California, rental, making her unable to resist. Hours later, the three men showed up at her apartment, where they allegedly took turns raping her.
Lawyers for Rose argued that her name should be made public when the trial began, and the judge agreed, outraging victims’ advocates.The three men acknowledged having sex with the woman and the trial turned on the he said/she said of consent in graphic detail. The woman said she was not awake and could not consent. Because the woman did not make her allegations until two years after the alleged drugging and rape, there was no physical proof.
She said she kept quiet after the incident because she was traumatized, embarrassed and didn’t want her family to find out. She didn’t initially tell police, who investigated after the suit was filed but haven’t brought criminal charges. She waited more than two years to file suit because “I didn’t know if they were gonna believe me,” she said in court. “I didn’t wanna be the reason anyone would go to jail, or for any retaliation.”
Rose caused a stir by initially suggesting in testimony that he didn’t understand what constitutes consent. Soon afterwards, he amended that to say he did understand. Rose claimed that the woman had orchestrated and consented to the events of the evening. Text messages from her that supported Rose’s defense were produced at the trial. Rose and his friends were found not liable.
Reached by phone at his San Francisco office, the woman’s attorney, Waukeen McCoy, said the defense “slut shamed” her. “A lot of women who are raped are fearful that no one is going to believe them. She took a stand because she believed she was doing the right thing,” he said and she hoped it would “help other women stand up for their rights.” An appeal is pending.
Rose says now that he sees the rape trial, and the enormous negative publicity from it as an issue of him standing up for himself. “I’m a fighter,” he says during the New York interview. “I don’t show it, but I’m a fighter.”
He says there are things that didn’t come out in the trial. That he respects women. That “Of course I know what consent means. I knew I had consent with every girl I’ve been with.” He said he knows he never should have put himself in that situation in the first place. That the incident taught him he needed to slow his life down. He knows that won’t be good enough for some people, but that’s what he’s got.
The ugliness of the trial was disturbing proof of deficiency for Rose’s detractors. But his supporters, especially on the embattled South Side, still ride with Rose. Still hold fast to him as a symbol of possibility and perseverance.
Those who drive through his former Englewood neighborhood discover that abandoned lots, boarded-up houses and handwritten signs urging an end to violence co-exist with regular folks engaged in the weekday foot traffic of working-class life. A few feet from Rose’s old house, Santana Galmore is outside working on a car. He hands you a flier for his home cleaning service (licensed and bonded) and said, “It’s a lot of people still rooting for him. Especially around here where he grew up at. That ain’t ever gonna go nowhere because he still comes back here, even when he ain’t playing. Some people are just bandwagon, but he’s still got a lot of fans in Chicago.”
In October 2016, when Michael Carter-Williams was traded from Milwaukee to Chicago and chose No. 1, Rose’s old number, for his jersey, an uproar from Rose fans compelled him to pick another number after just a few hours. In February, another new Bulls player was forced to give up Rose’s old number, and apologize, after a fierce backlash. Chicago basketball watchers were divided. In a post titled “Letting Go of Derrick Rose,” blogger Tim Baffoe wrote:
“A jersey number seems like not the best hill to die on here. It represents a chapter of Rose that’s dead and buried for those whose standards for statues are a bit greater, a chapter that ended on less-than-ideal terms and that involved certain failures. To make his old jersey number — one that he doesn’t even wear in New York — untouchable puts on a pedestal a career that doesn’t meet such an honor usually reserved for better players and better men.”
Rose has become a Rorschach test. He stands at the intersection of fan expectations, family inspiration, economic privation, and personal drive. He’s a complicated guy with a complicated history and people’s opinions about about him are passionate and complicated.
He rose to the top of his game with the single-mindedness that anyone who reaches the top of any field has to have. But that exclusive focus leaves gaps in other parts of a life. Combine those gaps with childhood poverty and Rose’s story pushes the boundaries of what fans want to see, especially from a black athlete.
NBA.com writer Sam Smith has covered the Chicago Bulls for three decades and wrote the best-selling book The Jordan Rules about the team’s first championship season. He believes the former All-Star has, at times, gotten a bad rap. “It’s really a black league judged by white people,” he said, and “a lot of the media shortcuts it.”
Unlike politics, where the education and life experiences of politicians and the people who cover them are often similar, “the experience with the NBA is different,” he said. A lot of players come from difficult backgrounds and a lot of people in the media, and in the broader society say, “Well, this is what I would do in this circumstance, why don’t they do it?” It’s much easier “to operate from sort of a cynical, cheap-shot perspective, rather than taking into account the circumstances of somebody’s life, and what gets them to where they are.”
Rose doesn’t explain himself the way the media wants to hear it, Smith said, and he’s punished for that. “He grew up in poverty out in the streets, you know 7, 8, 9 years old begging for money for food … he was deprived of a lot,” including an education that emphasized self-expression.
Rose acknowledges he grew up with scars. “Either it brings you down or you’re going to use it as motivation to pick you up,” he said. “And I always used it as motivation.”
When Rose was mocked for saying he wanted to be able to walk when his son graduates, Smith said, “He’s just trying to say the same thing everybody else says, that every other player has ever said about ‘I want to have a full and healthy life.’ ”
Smith posits the idea that the anger against Rose is partly rooted in entitlement. His greatest sin was not being able to heal after the injuries. Few will say it but “people were mad at him for getting hurt, because it affected them. Affected the media’s ability to cover a better team. Affected the fans’ ability to be rooting for a better team, to have a winner,” said Smith. “They didn’t get to throw a victory party, or make friends around the country jealous or raise their No. 1 finger. And some of them just thought, ‘Well, you know what? Screw him,’ ” said Smith.
Two of the people closest to Rose see the harsh fan and media judgment, and how Rose’s refusal to “play the game,” makes everything harder.
Inside the Kryo Health Spa, which specializes in cryotherapy and antigravity treadmills in south suburban Chicago, owner Andre Hamlin talks about the player and man he knows. Hamlin, a surrogate uncle to Rose when he was growing up, coached him in high school and headed his security when Rose played for the Bulls. He said Rose has always been loath to tell people what’s going on with him.
Part of it is his shyness and a focus on basketball over schooling that left him with an aversion to public speaking. Hamlin, who grew up in the same neighborhood and went on to earn a degree in criminal justice, said he, too, would have struggled to talk to reporters, or any other professional, as a young man. And the other part? “A lot of answers he gives the way he gives because he knows they’re doing it on purpose. It’s like [the media] is attacking him, so now I’m fixing to give you this facade,” Hamlin said.
People don’t know that Rose has paid for the funerals of nearly a dozen victims of the violence that plagues Englewood. That he’ll visit with a friend’s grandmother, leave money, and not mention it to anyone. That he worked out obsessively after his knee injuries and never fell into self pity.
Hamlin said that like many boys growing up in Englewood, he learned to hold his cards, and emotions, close. But after Rose tore his right meniscus in 2013, “I couldn’t stop crying because I was just so hurt for him. I knew the work he had put in, and I knew what he was trying to do,” Hamlin said. “He wanted that championship so bad for this city, that’s why I hate that they turned on him.”
Tim Flowers, one of Rose’s closest friends and a former high school teammate, runs Rose’s non-profit AAU basketball organization, Team Rose. He sits near the front door at Hamlin’s spa and leans in when he talks about how circumscribed their circumstances were growing up. How their neighborhood, known as Smallworld, stretched four blocks from 69th Street to the 73rd Street viaduct. If Rose had $2, they’d stop at the corner store “and he’d either go in the store, buy something and ask me if I wanted some, or he’d give me one,” Flowers said. After Rose was named MVP, a reporting crew came to Englewood to interview him at the neighborhood carryout. They had to hit the floor when people started shooting.
Hamlin and Flowers both said that Rose has made some unforced errors.
“Derrick is going to be Derrick,” said Hamlin. “He won’t bite his tongue.” In some ways, he’s being contrary, but it also affects his fans, Hamlin pointed out. Talking about free agency in the way he did bothered the media, “but it also bothered that hardworking dude that you’re making $20 million and this is the s— you’re talking.”
Flowers believes in his friend but said, “I’ll go in the barbershop and people will say ‘Man, what’s DRose on?’ ”
“Prime example, the whole rape situation,” Flowers said. Before the civil trial last fall, Rose responded to a question about potentially missing part of training camp by telling reporters he did “penitentiary workouts.” Rose was never at risk for penitentiary time.
Hamlin, who watched him as a fifth-grader go against teenagers and never back down and never cry said, “I just want him to be on top again,” a top 10 player “at least one more time,” because he’s worked so hard. He fears that no matter what Rose does, there are always going to be those who will refuse to give him a fair shake, “people who be so against him.”
Flowers hopes Rose can let the public in just a little more, so they can get to know the man he knows. “I’m not saying he should put his whole life out there,” Flowers said. “But I just wish sometimes he would just show ‘I’m a human being.’ … Sometimes he’ll act out a certain way just to show people ‘I don’t care what you think,’ but you let other people narrate your story, and they make you the person they want you to be.”
When Rose came into the league, he was able to go from zero to 60, and then from 60 to zero in a way that people had never seen. He had a highlight reel of dunks because of the force with which he could throw the ball down and the speed at which he could elevate. In a way that’s hard to get past the heartbreak of, the physics of all that speed, power, and lifted-by-God rise, fell apart. The characteristics of his game that made him a singular phenom, that changed his world, also took his knees out from under him.
“My man was injured on the job,” Flowers said, and he suffered because of it. “My man ain’t killed nobody. He ain’t hit nobody in no car.” He didn’t ask to get hurt, and he’s always tried his best to come back. Flowers hopes he gets some love for that kind of heart.
“Because after all that he’s been through, he could’ve given up.”
In his living room, a light, airy space with a view of the Hudson River, Rose allows himself to be still, and talk about the ways family factors into his calculations about the future.
He calls his 4-year-old son P.J. his motivation. Rose and P.J.’s mother, who still lives in the Chicago area, are no longer together, but remain friends and cooperative co-parents. When he played in Chicago, Rose would sometimes take P.J. with him on road trips.
“If I were to stop playing right now, I think me and my family would be good for life, but I just want him to have all the opportunities I didn’t have growing up as a kid. I want to be in his life like my dad wasn’t in my life.” Rose said he never had a chance to meet his father. “My dad was never around,” he said. “I think he’s probably passed away. I don’t know.” Like his mother and brothers, nieces and nephews he’s helped send to college, like close friends and fictive kin whose lives Rose has changed, his son’s life will be far different from his own growing up.
“I want to make sure I’m being at his soccer practices, being able to pick him up at day care, or kindergarten, or preschool,” Rose says. And “when I said I want to be able to walk at his graduation and all that, it’s true,” he says, recalling the 2014 controversy over his remarks in Chicago. You see a lot of “these old players and their body aches, and they have to take some type of meds or pain killers and that’s something I don’t want to look forward to. I want to be healthy.”
It sounds better than it did when he said it into a bank of microphones. Having thrown his body around the basketball court for years, he wants to save some of it for the people who will love him no matter his field goal percentage.
Rose promised his mother that he’d get his college degree. As a youngster, he says, “I was in that survivor mode. You’re not thinking about school like that when you’re having to survive every day, or figure out how you’re going to eat every day, or figuring out why your uncle is stealing your s— every day.” Rose believed that he was wasting his time in class “because at the time, I had a chance to go to the league.”
“I felt like I had to put school aside and really focus on hooping so that I could take care of my family.” After basketball, he says, he’ll focus on school. He’ll be able to hire tutors if need be.
But that’s after basketball.
When Rose was traded to the Knicks, which he ambitiously called one of the NBA’s “super teams” last summer, the hope was New York would be a fresh start. And in some ways it was. But Chicago still finds him.
In early January, Rose didn’t show up for a home game against the New Orleans Pelicans and failed to tell anyone on the Knicks. He later said he had to fly to Chicago to be with his mother and deal with an urgent family issue that he declined to detail. He apologized to Knicks officials and his teammates, all of whom he said understood his guiding ethos “family first … family before everything.”
Still he understood how best to change the subject. In his first game after the disappearance, in Philadelphia, he scored 25 points.
“I believe I perform well when there’s pressure,” Rose said. “I perform well in the biggest moments, that’s just how I believe I am.”
Perhaps, but he’s always right at the line.
After missing more than 200 games over the course of his career, Rose says he’s been playing catch-up. He’s learning a new system, though his “IQ is still of a guy where this is my ninth year playing. So I feel like I’m a better player. I just need the opportunity.
“When I step on the floor, you still have to game-plan for me, and I’m still a threat while I’m on the floor. So with any team that’s looking at me, or who’s ever taken into consideration that I may come to their team, I think they will see that.”
This season, he averaged 18 points, 4.4 assists and 3.8 rebounds. Until the meniscus tear, he’d been free of significant injury and had shown flashes of his old highlight-reel dominance.
But the Knicks failed to make the playoffs, struggling both on the court with their triangle offense, and in the front office. Team president Phil Jackson was criticized for being too involved in coaching decisions and for his problematic relationship with star Carmelo Anthony. In February, owner James Dolan had former Knicks player Charles Oakley, who had been critical of the franchise, ejected from a game.
Sitting in his living room, Rose considers his basketball future.
“I would love to stay here,” Rose said of New York. “I love my teammates, I love the coaches, I love the front office. But this will be the first time that I will hit free agency, so I want to take advantage of everything and just see what the free agency system is all about.”
For him, the goals aren’t about increasing his stats, or hunting for a max salary. “I don’t care about the system … I want to be at peace with myself,” Rose says. By peace, he means “spiritually, emotionally and mentally. You know when you have them three things clicking, I feel like that’s when I play my best basketball.”
The other primary driver: “I want to win.”
When he pulls off a trademark rush to the hoop, he hears people call that “vintage Derrick Rose.” He thinks that term should be retired. He says he’s made peace with his injuries.
“A lot of people can’t, you know what I mean?” People see a play, Rose says, and they’ll cry, “Oh, that’s the old Derrick. No. This is how I’m playing now.
“I can still really hoop.”
ESPN reporter Ian Begley and Undefeated researcher Martenzie Johnson contributed to this report.