Derrick Rose doesn't conform to your expectations of an athlete, and that's OK.

By Tim Baffoe
September 30, 2015

As requisite high school canon, I happen to be teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to ninth graders this week. Star-crossed lovers and whatnot. Once we get past the rape joke in the play’s very first conversation, level out the context of older bros pining over a 14-year-old girl, and stem the giggles over the word “ho” (not used as a pejorative), I’m able to start pressing the question of whether the events that unfold are more fate or free will. Bad luck or bad timing.

The longer I teach, the more I see the strange coincidences between life and art. If we want to find classic tragedy in the modern sports world, we need look no further than Derrick Rose, and not solely in the way his body has betrayed him. He’s a mishmash of Romeo, Macbeth, Hamlet, and others — all of whom reckon with choosing and being chosen beyond their control in some way, depending on which point of Rose’s basketball timeline you want to look.

Is it more “bad luck” or “bad timing” that will sum up Rose’s NBA career as it currently stands? Is he … was he … will he be a product of free will, or crossed stars?

The case with Rose’s body is obviously a luck thing. Year after year. After year. After ohmygodnotagainareyouserious year. The latest example is the broken orbital bone he suffered Tuesday from a rogue elbow during the Chicago Bulls’ first practice of the 2015–16 season. The first practice after the end of Tom Thibodeau’s annual ausbildungslager, to be tragically ironic.

While he may still be back for the season opener, this doesn't shake the injury-prone label that has hung on Rose since the first of three major knee injuries began a sad stretch where he played in just 100 of his team’s last 312 regular-season games. Logic dictates that catching an elbow to the face isn’t indicative of one’s body, but the jaws of media and sports fans are no less dropped as they look at one another and ask what unfortunate thing can befall Rose next.

Those jaws also are doing plenty of yapping over Rose’s most recent media situation. While the timing of the injury from a basketball sense couldn’t be more inopportune, with new Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg’s offense being installed (also without other starter Mike Dunleavy, who underwent back surgery last Friday), it’s also another case of Rose fueling torches that have gradually gathered against him the past four years. Just the day before his facial injury, which will require surgery, Rose spoke inelegantly at his team’s media day. 

There was this response to a question regarding the pending civil suit against him alleging he and other men sexually assaulted a woman in 2013:

“It’s not true,” he said. “I can’t let one incident that’s not true affect the way that I live, and I’m not going to let it. I love my life actually, so I can’t complain about anything. I’ve just got to take this, use it as fuel, and the season is around the corner.”

Rose also vowed that he will be “proven innocent,” even though guilt and innocence really aren’t the issue in a civil suit. Either way, using rape accusations as bulletin board material or a figurative sign one slaps walking out of the locker room misses the cultural gravity here, no matter how innocent he thinks he is, no matter how parodic the case turns, and no matter if the allegations against him haven’t garnered the same level of discussion as the potential criminal case against his downtown Trump Tower neighbor, Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane. 

Rose’s responses then took an unexpected and unprompted turn when he was asked if he had moved on from the allegations (emphasis mine).

“I’ve been moved on,” Rose said. “This whole summer I had tunnel vision. My mindset was just making sure that I was working out every day and spending as much time as possible with my son. And focusing on those two things. Making sure my family is financially stable, as far as seeing all the money that they’re passing out in this league. Just telling the truth. Just knowing that my day will be coming up soon. And it’s not for me. It’s for [his son] P.J. and his future, so that’s what I’m thinking about now.”

That’s where it appeared to most that the hometown kid’s head was no longer basketball-centric, including many who were still giving Rose the benefit of the doubt after he said last year during injury rehab that he was concerned with “having graduations to go to, having meetings to go to, I don’t want to be in my meetings all sore or be at my son’s graduation all sore just because of something I did in the past.”

Derrick Rose has had some ups and downs on the floor for the Bulls, when he's even on the floor.

The knee-jerk reaction here, no pun intended, is to decry this line of thinking. Or at least Rose’s having verbalized it. Fans and pundits hate a “fragile” athlete making big money in the first place, so to be very self-aware of his own financial situation? To even mention money? He’s perceived to be abusing his position of privilege, treating his job as just that, rather than being a humble, disposable piece of entertainment for the masses and a profit-driver for his bosses. Daring all that may become a rational man, while who dares more is none.

“How different is he than the dot-com entrepreneur, Wall Street trader or real estate mogul eager to take his profit as soon as allowed and shift attention to the next big potential windfall rather than continue to nurture what he’s already established?” asks Phil Rosenthal, one of the few in Chicago and national media to not reflexively chide Rose. Derision isn’t necessarily how we should respond to a modern, star-crossed star who is open about his money and his health over his team and his on-court performance. Particularly in this case.

Since it was made known that he had someone else take his ACT exam for him in order to get in to the University of Memphis years ago, there has been a running joke that Rose is dumb. With an understanding of Gardner’s multiple intelligences aside, this criticism has long been lazy and unfair. Now Rose suggests an understanding of the NBA’s financial future (the windfall from its new TV deals project a salary cap in 2017, Rose’s free agent year, of well over $100 million), and he’s a fool for it?

Mind you that Rose can’t hit a new jackpot in two years without being healthy and playing really well — which would mean that he, the Bulls, and fans of great basketball all win — so being bothered by his words is odd. 'Misunderstood Derrick Rose,' though, seems now as common as Injured Derrick Rose or Object of Ridicule Derrick Rose. “Am I a coward,” the confounded Hamlet asks himself. “Who calls me ‘villain’?” Those who are angry about another example of Rose breaking from the drone warrior mode that is demanded of athletes. In other words, know your role, son.

Rose doesn’t fit that role. He might not speak in front of a microphone as well as the 2% of us that do, and his honesty might not jibe with our hypocritical desire for Crash Davis tutorial clichés, but he’s a lot more schooled on basketball and beyond than is palatable for some. 

Recall a year ago when he took heat for warming up in an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt, and the reflex was to demand that he ‘stick to sports, bro.’ Then, this week, he was uncomfortably sentient when addressing the supposed feud involving him and Bulls wing Jimmy Butler. In an interview Monday with NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner, Rose said, “I just think that it’s a big picture. We’re two blacks — African-African guys that’s on the team — and we’re just trying to find a way to get going. I think if it was the other way around, it wouldn’t be that way, but it’s just my honest opinion about it, and I just feel like me and Jimmy never had a feud.”

To misunderstand Rose would be to easily dismiss “the race card” here. But one needs to look only to the recent analysis of the Bryce Harper-Jonathan Papelbon dugout fight — and the debate centering more on player code and unwritten rules than the fact that an assault took place in public — to see that perceived shade thrown between some players of certain persuasions isn’t always examined levelly. Ditto Dunleavy’s contention that the Bulls’ timetable for his return from injury — 8-10 weeks — isn’t something he’s signed off on. Yet when Rose disagrees with team injury timetables, his commitment and leadership are hyperscrutinized.

“I don’t care what the guy talks about as long as he’s helping us win games,” said Butler this week of Rose, taking air out of the argument. “Whatever he’s focused on, let him be focused, but I think his objective is to win a championship. I’m pretty sure he talked about that, as well — and how he wants to help this team win. Everything else, he is who he is. He can talk about unicorns and rainbows for all I care. Just help us win some basketball games.”

That, despite talk of future contracts and his son’s well-being, is Rose’s primary goal. Any sane person knows that without necessarily wanting to admit it for the sake of juicy narrative. To watch Rose at the end of last season was to see the return of the assassin we knew before the breakdowns of both body and communication, the misunderstandings, the hubris, and the tragic. Before all of the bad luck and bad timing.

Basketball chose Rose, no doubt. If his stars did not cross in such a way, then he’s just Poohdini from Englewood, and odds are Pooh is in a state far worse than being debated about on talk shows.

“I really don’t have to convince them,” Rose said in that NBA.com interview. “It’s me leading by example by being on the court. It’s starts with me being on the court, and I know how hard I’ve worked to get back on the court and how hard I’ve worked on my game. It’s not about proving people wrong or just trying to go out there and make people love me.”

That’s good, since tragic heroes aren’t meant to be loved. Instead, they are pitied. Their words are idiotically scrutinized with sound and fury, often signifying nothing. They’re hypocritically called a villain, a coward. Damned for their free will, they’re dismissed for all they do to become a man. And when they shuffle off our entertainment coil, we belch them. Such is the star-crossed athlete like Derrick Rose, whose career imitates the stage.

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