Rose gets to prove he doesn't need LeBron

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The Bulls were 3-0 in the regular season against the Heat
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ATLANTA – LeBron James(notes) had asked to be the center of the greatest recruiting chase in basketball history and six breathless franchises didn’t disappoint last summer.

They made in-person presentations and cooed through the phone. They used general managers and coaches, and friends and friends of friends. They brought in former players and current players, and anyone else they thought might make a difference.

The process left LeBron showered with attention and inundated with calls and texts and desperate pleas. This was exactly what he wanted, to be the center of it all. The list of recruiters was so thorough – even President Obama voiced an opinion (go to Chicago, the commander-in-chief commanded) – that one person stood out by his absence.

Derrick Rose(notes).

The Chicago Bulls wanted LeBron, too. They visited him in Cleveland. They sold everything they had to offer – tradition, Jordan, the big market. They went after Dwyane Wade(notes), offering a return to his hometown. They did everything they possibly could except ask Derrick Rose to become a recruiter, even though he probably would’ve obliged, the good soldier and all.

Rose never saw it as his job to become a salesman, though. He’s a player. He’s a pro. If LeBron James wanted to talk about playing for the Bulls, well, the phone works two ways. Besides, Chicago already had a small forward in Luol Deng(notes), and where’s the loyalty in trying to bring a guy in to replace your teammate?

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Eventually the silence became loud enough that it boomeranged back to Rose. The speculation was that by not calling LeBron, he was telling the King he didn’t want him in Chicago. The whole vapid process had gotten so crossways that Rose felt he had to reach out and explain things.

“I’m just hitting you up to kill all the rumors that I don’t want to play with you,” Rose told Sports Illustrated that he texted to James. “I’d like to play with you. I just want to win.”

James, of course, would take his talents to South Beach, joining Wade and Chris Bosh(notes) to form this tour de force. And Derrick Rose, by all accounts, just shrugged his shoulders and went to work.

He was going for the crown no matter who wanted to ride with him.

Now here they all are again, this time in the Eastern Conference finals, starting Sunday in Chicago. The formidable Heat got past the Celtics on Wednesday in an emotion-packed scene. The Bulls blitzed the Atlanta Hawks here Thursday, 93-73, and walked off the court with little fanfare.

It was two very different scenes representing two very different teams featuring two very different leading men.

“I think my teammates are damn good,” Rose said, defending his supporting crew that may lack a second and third star like Miami, but runs ten deep and featured five different double-digit scorers Thursday in closing out the Hawks.

“Our confidence is high,” Rose said. “But we know we have something special in front of us.”

Everyone knows what the Heat represent – the biggest target, the boldest opportunity, the chance to make history by snuffing out the most hyped free-agent class of all time. This is an all-timer of an opponent and deep down it’s exactly what Chicago sought all season, as it grinded out the best record in the league while the focus was on the soap opera in South Florida.

“To be in this position, against the Miami Heat, this is what we wanted … ” Joakim Noah(notes) admitted. “This is what we wanted for a very long time.”

This isn’t a team motivated by scorn. It isn’t angry at being rejected. The Bulls are empowered by the fact that their superstar never cared, never resorted to begging, never doubted they could win it all anyway.

The Decisions of others was inconsequential to him. You are all going to Miami? Cool. Bring it.

“We’re a very confident group,” Noah said. “We have a lot of talent on this team. We have the best bench in the NBA. We have guys who are about the right things, about affecting winning.”

This is the crew Rose was taking to battle, the group that wanted to be in Chicago. There would be no pep rallies. There would be no differentiating two or three players from the rest. These are the Bulls. All he ever asked for is effort.

“I just want to win,” he texted LeBron a year ago, trying to explain why he hadn’t partaken in the grandest free-agent circus of them all.

Now here they all are again. And winning is going to be the only thing that matters.

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