In the middle of the 2017-18 season, Derrick Rose was in the Cleveland State gym practicing with his friend, Art. He was 29 years old, two years removed from his last season in Chicago. He had been traded to the New York Knicks, played sparingly with LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers and been inactive for one game with the Utah Jazz after they traded for and released him.
His MVP season in 2010-11 seemed like a distant memory. Then, he was a kid from Englewood who took John Calipari’s University of Memphis team to the Final Four and was drafted No. 1 overall by his hometown Chicago Bulls. But an ACL tear the next year caused him to miss the second half of the season and all of 2012-13 and only play in ten total games the next season.
While recurring injuries stymied his ability to stay on the court, a 2016 rape case — in which he was ultimately found not liable — hurt his reputation with many basketball fans off it. Had it not been for Tom Thibodeau’s faith in him, Rose may have been headed to China to play basketball.
“He’s the only coach that believed in me,” said Rose back in January, when Thibodeau was relieved of his duties as coach and president of the Minnesota Timberwolves. “I had a kid at that time, my baby girl. And no teams wasn’t looking for me at all. I was basically out the league.”
Rose was last named an All-Star in 2011-12. He played only 25 games for the Cavaliers last year. He was a year away from 30.
“I have a lot of confidence in myself,” Rose continued. “Thibs was just the coach that believed in me. I mean, he jump-started my career again and for that, I’ll always be thankful. But everybody that thinks that it’s gonna stop, kill yourself. It’s just not.”
There’s a rawness to Rose that seems to endear him to his most avid fans. There’s times where he’s cautious with his words knowing that even now, eight years removed from his MVP season, he remains in the spotlight. But often he speaks with a stream of consciousness most players reserve for off-the-record or private conversations, and has apologized for using slang that could be misinterpreted.
“Thibs took a chance on me when a couple of organizations had shitted on me,” he said. “So I had no control but to believe in him and we trust in each other. We’re perfectionists. People don’t understand us. It’s hard understanding people like us, we put our whole life into this craft.”
Rose has a new documentary which he says is for his fans. He wants to tell his life story, similar to what players have done through The Player’s Tribune, and may clarify what he means when he says he is misunderstood.
“I wanted to narrate my own story,” said Rose at a recent practice. “Guys had documentaries done about their lives in the past, and I felt like I wanted to narrate and narrate my own story and put out a narrative that I actually went through that was truthful.”
Rose’s rape case is often miscast as part of his redemption story, but his humble demeanor and almost universal approval from former teammates creates cognitive dissonance for those who want to cast him as a negative influence.
Speaking strictly from a basketball sense, he is still a difference-maker on the court who possesses elite end-to-end speed, involves his teammates with accurate passing despite his frantic playstyle and has added 3-point shooting to his game. When healthy, he is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
He believes that he played well this year because he didn’t have to rehab in the offseason, and called his elbow injury minor. He had surgery to remove bone chips, an injury which likely occurred because he was working on his shot, and says he’ll be shooting again in two or three weeks.
“I kinda knew that leading into the year,” he said. “I’ve always felt something in my elbow, I didn’t think it was too serious, and I thought that I could keep playing through it. But it just got worse and I thought to myself, I might as well get it cleaned up leading to the summer and leading to free agency, I’ll be alright.”
The team will look different next year, and with that, the “TimberBulls” era may have be coming to a close. In some ways Thibodeau was right — Taj Gibson provided a strong defensive presence and was a leader in the locker room, and Luol Deng played well at the end of the year — but both are 33 and were injured at the end of the season.
Rose says he likes Ryan Saunders and has a good relationship with Karl-Anthony Towns, but will explore his options in the offseason. “I’m gonna hear every team out,” he said while wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers jacket, “just to see what’s on my table.”
He’s a global superstar who often wears an orange beanie with “Chicago Native” written across it, so he may be seeking an opportunity in a bigger market — including a return to Chicago. But he says that he’s enjoyed his time here, and says he will consider re-signing with the Wolves.
“I was very comfortable here. I think that’s why I played the way I played,” he said. “I’ve been in uncomfortable situations. I’m not gonna state it, but I’ve been there, and I felt terrible. So coming here, and being able to have my opportunity to play, and for KAT, Wiggs and for all the players to allow me to play the way that I play, it just shows the character that they have and I guess how they like playing with me.”
Rose will be entering his age 31 season next year. He’s not the player he was in his early 20’s, but he has something to offer a team who knows how to use him off the bench. He hasn’t been an All-Star since he was 23, but led the ballots at times this season. He scored 50 points on Halloween, but played in only 51 games.
He says he’ll hang up his shoes the day he cannot “change the game,” but after his stint in Minnesota, he appears to have a couple good years left in him.