Rose standing tall among NBA elite

CHICAGO – Reach out to him, Chicago management had pleaded with Derrick Rose(notes). LeBron doesn’t think you want him here. That’s what they told the Bulls’ franchise star in July, a request that was met with dutiful respect from Rose. Sure, he told the Bulls. I’ll shoot him a text. Rose is polite this way, honoring obligations and orders from above.

Nevertheless, it would change nothing. To LeBron James(notes), the message was unmistakable, sources said: I can take you or leave you – and that could never sell the needy King. William Wesley never did get his wish of LBJ chasing Michael Jordan’s ghosts in Chicago. Dwyane Wade(notes) recruited James relentlessly to Miami, and ultimately had to hand the Heat over to the Royal Pain.

Rose didn’t want LeBron taking the ball out of his hands, nor respect out of the room. Eventually, Rose reached out, but only out of a sense of duty. Rose didn’t want James, nor did Rose particularly want Wade to make a Chicago homecoming. During early July, Rose shut himself in the gym and worked on his game. The soap opera bored him.

“If they wanted to come here, they would’ve come here,” Rose told Yahoo! Sports Saturday night.

Rose was betting on his own greatness, a MVP candidacy he believed would come sooner than later. He hasn’t hurtled himself into the race because his sneaker company passed out 22,000 placards pushing his All-Star candidacy on Saturday night, nor because they chant “MVP … MVP” over and over in the United Center. The measure of an MVP would come in the final minutes on a night when it was Wade and Rose, Rose and Wade, two superstars slugging it out with shot upon breathtaking shot.

Wade buried several 3-pointers in the final minutes to hit for 33 points, and Rose finished those twisting, turning layups at the rim. He hit jump shots. He made it to the foul line and never blinked on a perfect eight free throws. Rose finished with 34 points, seven assists and these Bulls on his back. It was a magnificent ending and Saturday night closed with Rose’s arms raised to the rafters, a 99-96 victory that was testament to his emerging greatness.

The noise tumbled down out of the United Center upon Rose, the way it hasn’t for a Bull since Michael Jordan in the late 1990s. Rose has come out of the city’s Southside, a Chicago kid who keeps elevating his game to meet the next challenge, the next step.

Yes, Rose had to win this game. He had to be the one to deliver it. James was sitting with a sore ankle, Chris Bosh(notes) left with his own injured ankle and it didn’t matter that Joakim Noah(notes) is still on the sideline with a broken thumb. In the wake of Miami’s three stars marching into Chicago – the three recruits who got away – the Bulls had gone to great lengths to stand up for Rose with a promotional night. And that probably raised the pressure on him.

“I’m speechless for them to have done that,” Rose said. And then he said, so relieved: “Thank God we won.”

He felt kind of awkward when he showed up for shootaround in the morning and those signs were everywhere. He’s no self-promoter, forever deflecting praise to his coaches, his teammates. He doesn’t speak of himself in the third person, doesn’t make up nicknames. He’s an old soul with a bold, different game at point guard.

Indeed, Rose loves the way the Bulls are building a contender: around defense, around him. When he came into the league, he was a shy kid still learning to speak comfortably in public, still growing into a superstar’s burden. People mistook the teen awkwardness as some kind of missing leadership gene, like a one-and-done point guard from the University of Memphis-Calipari ought to come fully developed to the pros.

Rose has always been his own man, though. Worldwide Wes had been an influence that pushed him to John Calipari, but Rose and his family never allowed him to be funneled into that LeBron-Wes recruiting machinery to CAA. This is a league of young players devoted to James, loyalists in ways that perplex people. Yet, Rose thinks for himself and has such a tremendous grasp of human nature. Privately, he wanted Atlanta free agent Joe Johnson(notes) as his shooting guard, a way to balance the floor with Noah and Carlos Boozer(notes) and Luol Deng(notes). James and Wade would’ve taken the ball and diminished Rose as the Bulls point guard. It never appealed to him.

“He’s a leader because of the way he comes and work here, because of the example he sets,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Rose late Saturday in his office. “Some guys just talk to talk, but that’s not how you lead. When he has something to say, it counts and guys listen.”

Thibodeau thinks about the way Kevin Garnett(notes) led in Boston when he was a Celtics assistant, and believes Rose is on his way to such command of the franchise.

There are no words as important as deeds for a star, and Rose understood the burden on Saturday. “Everyone knew where the ball was going,” he said, and that meant Wade and Rose. Rose and Wade. Back and forth, again and again. Eventually, the noise would tumble down onto Rose like nothing a Bulls player had heard in so, so long here. “That’s why I’m in this league,” Rose said. “I love competing against the best.”

These two teams are going to meet in the springtime, perhaps for a long, nasty playoff series, and Rose promises to be a problem for the Heat. The way he gets to the rim, the way he slices, slithers and contorts his body on these breathless drives is something to behold. Of course, LeBron James will be on the floor too. Everything changes on those nights. James is a force of nature, and deep down Rose was never afraid of him going somewhere else. He was too proud to beg and too pragmatic to think that would’ve made a difference in James’ decision.

Rose wants to be the hometown kid to bring a championship back to Chicago, and he never lost an edge with James, with Wade. He asked nothing of James in the summer of 2010, lost no edge, lost no standing. His game has come, and Rose believes he can trade blows with the best in basketball now. He’s right. These Bulls are built around a superstar point guard. His team, his city, his burden.

“Chicago’s got a good one,” Wade said.

Chicago’s got a great one, and Derrick Rose is desperate to someday show Wade and James: It isn’t just that he didn’t want them. He didn’t need them.