WASHINGTON – Derrick Rose is far removed from living out his hometown-kid-made-good fantasy, but that doesn’t make his current situation any less bewildering. So many aspects of this stage of Rose’s career require an eye-rubbing double-take – from his role as a complementary player, to him playing on a veteran’s minimum contract, to him trying to help the player he spent so much of his career trying to defeat win another championship, to him rocking dreadlocked hair.
But for Rose, a player who has rarely tried to conform or concern himself with what anyone thinks, it all makes sense. After a humbling, injury-infused fall in Chicago, and dropping another precipitous notch in New York, Rose has entered a different type of rehabilitation, the kind that has nothing to do with his physical health. Rose had to stop playing “revenge basketball” because anger was never becoming for him. And in Cleveland – with the most unlikely partnership with LeBron James, as part of a roster that would’ve destroyed the competition six years ago – Rose has found comfort in a career reboot.
“I’m happy, man. I’m happy,” Rose, 29, told The Vertical about his third team in three years. “Being here, having a chance to show what I still have, to show what I’ve been working on this offseason – not even this offseason. I think I was hooping my ass off last season, too. But the losing overshadows everything. You get overlooked. The only thing I was missing was this stage. Coming here, playing on TV 40-something times a year, I think that takes care of that. I just wanted a chance. That’s it.”
Rose had earned $117 million in salary in his first nine seasons in the league, so he had grown accustomed to a certain level of compensation for playing basketball. But when he hit the free-agent market following a season with the Knicks that was shrouded in controversy — “Some, I did create,” he said, without mentioning the civil rape trial and unexcused absence against New Orleans — Rose was greeted with few takers and some disappointing offers. He signed with Cleveland for nearly one-tenth of his salary from last season despite his most productive campaign since his knees first betrayed him. His salary may have shrunk but his confidence hasn’t. And Rose doesn’t plan to be down for long.
“I don’t really care about the money like that, because I think I saved my money,” Rose told The Vertical. “I was looking forward to being happy with playing basketball again. And I’m from Chicago. We’ve got a little hustling side to us. You pay me this now, but I’m going to make you pay double when I get a chance. That’s the mentality that I have.
“I know I’m the product. I know how good I am,” Rose continued. “It’s kind of like betting on yourself. So, I’ll put everything that’s in my account. I’ll put my life on it. Trust me, I know how hard I work. I’m looking forward to it.”
Rose invested so much physical capital into toppling James, either in getting his surgically repaired knees ready or developing his game, that he almost seems too young to already be in “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mode. James has never had a problem bringing along those he’s already conquered, finding success with Ray Allen for his second ring in Miami. As part of a strange but talented ensemble of familiar names, including Dwyane Wade, Rose won’t share the marquee with James, but their merger still would’ve seemed unfathomable just two years ago.
James has never had a sustained, individual rival in the Eastern Conference, only the occasional nuisance. Paul Pierce came the closest, but they differed so much in age they could never be considered peers. Wade might’ve been a formidable foe but instead started palling around with James and they won two titles together. Carmelo Anthony never had a team worthy of recognition. But Rose had the greatest potential to stand in opposition. Rose and James had so much in common as basketball prodigies. They were each drafted No. 1 overall by teams nearest to their hometowns and assigned the burden of savior – James to end the hex that existed for his entire community; Rose to return the franchise to its glory days. And, for different but obvious reasons, both played under unfair comparisons to Michael Jordan. Their personality differences were much more stark, reflected by the memorable 2012 All-Star Game image of James bopping and dancing during pregame introductions, while Rose stood next to him, looking like he was preparing for a root canal.
When he became the league’s youngest MVP in 2011, snapping James’ string of consecutive trophies, Rose had done the equivalent of going platinum with no features. Rose led the Bulls to the conference finals without another All-Star teammate, with Keith Bogans as his backcourt mate, and garnered respect – even in defeat to the “Hollywood as hell” Miami Heat. He didn’t ask for, want or need any superstar help, as the story was told. When reminded that he never seemed open to recruiting, or was indifferent to the concept of forming a super-team, Rose offered up a correction.
“I actually did,” Rose told The Vertical of making a pitch in 2010 that went beyond a perfunctory text to James, Wade and Chris Bosh, the free agents the Bulls pursued with the most vigor. “I put out a video. I made a video for [LeBron], Chris and D-Wade. I don’t know if they saw it or not. I made a video, and it wasn’t for me to voice what I did. I felt if the organization had my back, they would’ve stopped the media from trying to attack me, thinking I didn’t do it. And it just showed that they didn’t have my back.”
Rose’s knees and inability to adapt to a changing league ruined any chance that he could ever halt James’ reign. But that never stopped him from doggedly trying. That game-winning, bank 3-pointer he hit in the 2015 conference semifinals to give the Bulls a 2-1 series lead remains the only time James has trailed an Eastern Conference playoff opponent since he returned to Cleveland. Two years later, Rose has gone from being a footnote to being on the same side, engaged in a union of strange bedfellows that reflects Rose’s desperation to win.
“To tell you the truth, it never felt weird,” Rose told The Vertical about playing with James. “Even when I decided to come. I left all that in the past, like with my injuries and things like that, I left all that. You can get caught up in that, thinking about what could’ve happened, but I’m a believer in everything happens for a reason. So, me coming here, and them considering taking me, I don’t take it for granted. I can only and solely focus on what’s ahead and that’s getting back right and playing on that stage again and competing for a championship.”
Rose always admired the way James “manipulated the game” to make his teammates “play bigger and better than they were,” and is hoping to benefit from the open looks provided by the presence of a four-time MVP. James’ recruiting pitch was very brief. “Like five minutes,” Rose told The Vertical. But the phone conversation was persuading. “I felt every word that he said. I believed him. And coming here, he’s been holding his word. He’s been letting me play the exact way that I play and just letting me hoop.”
The Cavaliers are an interesting experiment, with so many talented players capable of starting and used to having prominent roles on their teams. Rose signed before Kyrie Irving was traded and might play fewer minutes when/if Isaiah Thomas returns from a hip injury. But Rose has remained positive and carefree, an attitude reflected by the twists that have begun protruding from his head. “That’s freedom, bro,” Rose told The Vertical about what his hair represents. “Being younger, I always wanted dreads, but you worry about your image and you worry about this and that. I don’t care about that anymore. I just want people to appreciate me for the person I am and the way that I hoop. … This summer, I was able to lock in. But I don’t want to sit here and just talk about it, I’d rather just go out there and show it by my play.”
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