Rose lets his play do the talking

CHICAGO – Derrick Rose(notes) had, no doubt, spent night after night growing up on the South Side dreaming of this very moment – David Stern flown in, the MVP trophy brought out, the hometown United Center crowd rising to its feet. Yet standing there with his childhood vision in fast forward, Rose, at just 22 the youngest MVP in league history, wore a look that said he’d like to be just about anywhere else.

Rose is a show, not tell, kind of guy, as in he’d rather show the world he’s the best player than have the world show him they noticed by giving him an award, an open microphone and 20,000 fans hanging on his every word. His locker is full of player of the month awards and other trophies, cast about because, it seems, he’s forgotten to bring them home.

Minutes after his just-get-through-it MVP ceremony, he was out on his pained ankle, battling an off night to help the Chicago Bulls gut out a critical 86-73 victory, to even their series with Atlanta at one game apiece. Game 3 is Friday in Georgia.

Hawks guard Jamal Crawford (right) fouls Derrick Rose during the fourth quarter of Game 2.
(AP)

He wasn’t at his best – missing 17 of 27 shots, committing eight turnovers. He still had 25 points, 10 assists and six rebounds. And he was fine with it because this was a slug-it-out effort on a night the Bulls just needed to win.

Afterward, he was asked if he struggled because “It [was] hard to get over the MVP ceremony and into game mode?”

“No,” Rose said, “it was easy.”

It was the award ceremony that was hard. Hadn’t they noticed? He could be a senior in college right now. Instead he’s the best player in the NBA. So the game is easy. Hearing stats like how he is only the 29th player to be named MVP, now that is hard. Next thing you know, someone might compare him to Michael Jordan again.

At a press conference Tuesday to officially name him MVP, he’d spent the time fidgeting and searching for words until he caught his mother Brenda’s eye and began describing how hard she worked while raising him. “I love you,” he said, tears in his eyes.

And, yes, that’s when Derrick Rose was most comfortable – when he was crying.

“He’s like Beta-Max, they don’t make them anymore,” said Rod Strickland, the former star NBA point guard who was an assistant coach at Memphis during Rose’s one year in college. “He’s a different dude. He’s a very humble kid. He’s not looking for the spotlight but it’s on him and he’s handling it well. But he’s not looking for it.”

This season and this award and perhaps this playoff run are introducing Derrick Rose to the world. All across the Bulls organization, though, none of it is a surprise. Great player, great teammate, they keep saying. Everyone will talk up D-Rose. If Rose struggled to smile as Stern handed him the trophy, the Bulls bench beamed enough for him.

“He carries himself in a way that makes you want to cheer for him even more,” forward Kyle Korver(notes) said. “It is soooo rare in professional sports these days to have a superstar carry himself that way. And that’s just a testament to his mom, his brothers, his family. He’s really got his head on straight.”

Those that know him say Rose used to be more introverted, that in some respects he’s come out of his shell. Strickland recalls this ultra-talented guard arriving at Memphis and barely opening his mouth. “Super quiet,” Strickland said. He wasn’t disengaged, he just didn’t say much. They haven’t made many point guards smoother than Rod Strickland, and Derrick Rose understood that. So Rose would seek Strickland out and then Strick would talk – about what the NBA was like, about post-up moves, about the last game, about whatever. And Rose would listen.

When he arrived as a rookie to his hometown team, the No. 1 overall pick and a franchise savior, he took a locker in the corner and hardly said a word.

“You should’ve seen him three years ago,” Luol Deng(notes) said. “Quiet.”

All he did was put his head down and play. He got better. And then better again. The summer – when games are made – became a challenge. Be rookie of the year, be an all-star, be the MVP. Are you kidding? No, he wasn’t. Check. Check. Check. He just never stopped challenging himself. Korver talks about team film sessions of games where Rose might score 30 points in a victory, only to have him begin cursing himself in front of everyone over one turnover.

This is exactly what people want out of their sports stars. It’s part of the idolization of Rose in Chicago and slowly across the country. The Bulls won a league-best 62 games this season because they played hard just about every night, a testament to coach Tom Thibodeau and, of course, Derrick Rose.

The challenge of these playoffs, the challenge for Rose, is that everyone plays hard now. These aren’t Jordan’s Bulls. They can’t cruise on talent. And so when Atlanta stunned them in Game 1, Rose was particularly hard on his own performance, questioning everything that went wrong.

It made the MVP parade that much tougher.

He was supposed to celebrate when he just wanted to compete. He was supposed to talk about how he was the best, when he just wanted to fix what was wrong with the Bulls. He was supposed to discuss his own dominance, when he couldn’t stop thinking about the playoffs potentially slipping away.

So late Wednesday night, after an ugly stat line, he was smiling and at ease. He stopped and visited with Strickland and John Calipari, his former college coach now at Kentucky. He posed for pictures. He ran into Kirk Hinrich(notes) and chatted for awhile.

On his MVP night he put up a non-MVP line and couldn’t have been happier. The Bulls had won. Besides, the trophy ceremony, the speech, the press conference, it was all over. Now it was on to Atlanta, a series in the balance, a playoff run still going.

It’s about basketball now, and for the NBA’s most unwilling star, that’s exactly how he wanted it.

The game, yes, the game is the easy part.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, May 5, 2011