At the 2008 Final Four in San Antonio, Derrick Rose was asked if he would enter the upcoming NBA draft, a reasonable question considering Pat Riley was among the many executives who had come to the Alamadome with the sole purpose of scouting him. Instead of simply sidestepping the question, as scores of talented college basketball players typically do, Rose dove from it. He shook his head convincingly. He explained how his back-up at Memphis, Andre Allen, was more prepared for the pro game. He said: "I think about Baron Davis and Steve Nash and Jason Kidd and I'm not ready for that."
Two months later, the Bulls took him with the No. 1 pick.
At the midpoint of the 2010-11 NBA season, Rose was asked if he would win MVP, another reasonable question considering he was carrying the team without Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer while averaging career-highs in points and assists. Rose, who had declared himself a candidate for the award in training camp, stifled a laugh. "Yeah, right," he said. Rose would not even admit that he was playing well. "I wish," he said.
Two months later, he won MVP.
Athletes in general -- and NBA players in particular -- possess self-confidence that borders on self-delusion. Stars always believe they should have been drafted sooner and paid more, even if they were drafted first and paid the max. Michael Jordan thought he could play at 50. Kobe Bryant thought he could score 100. Both could have snapped a leg and swore it was a sprain. The charm of Derrick Rose, beyond his headlong drives and contortionist finishes, is self-deprecation that borders on self-doubt. He is the supermodel who doesn't think she's pretty. "I'm cockier than he is," Brian Scalabrine once said of his former teammate. "And I don't even play."
At Memphis, teammates called Rose "captain," to encourage him to shoot. In Chicago, coaches tried to lecture him after mistakes, but gave up because he was already berating himself. He credited his MVP season to buddies from Simeon Career Academy (Ill.), who challenge him to one-on-one duels late at night, and beg him to play the same way during games. "They gave me confidence," Rose said.
He may need them again now. Ten months have passed since Rose clutched his left knee on the baseline at the United Center, his ACL and MCL shredded, his eyes hidden under a forearm tattooed with the word "Hope." He has practiced with the Bulls since Christmas. He is participating in five-on-five scrimmages. He is dunking with both hands, albeit off his right leg, as evidenced by the viral video shot before Sunday's game in Oklahoma City. Rose's trainer, Rob McClanaghan, said he is "stronger than ever." His workout partner, Russell Westbrook, said he is "almost close to coming back." One of his teammates told the Chicago Sun-Times, "He's ready."
Even the six-episode documentary that Adidas filmed around Rose's rehab, "The Return," is over. Yet the actual return date remains uncertain, with Rose maintaining that he's far from full strength and leaving open the possibility that he will sit out the entire season. Only Rose can attest to the health of his knee, just as only Dwight Howard can attest to the strength of his back, and there is no sense in disputing either of them. But there's also no question Rose has a history of underestimating himself. Humility is the most endearing quality in a superstar, but it's not all that helpful when the superstar is planting on a reconstructed knee and trying to summon an air of invincibility.
The Bulls look like a team that has been treading water for 10 months, waiting for their life raft, only to get the message it might not come. They still rank sixth in the Eastern Conference, but they've dropped six of their last nine games and four have not been close. Power forward Taj Gibson is out with a sprained left knee and center Joakim Noah is hobbled by plantar fasciitis. The Heat are running off with the Eastern Conference while the Bulls, one of their only conceivable challengers, sink slowly.
Rose may be prone to battles with self-doubt, but if that's indeed what this is, it's important to note he generally wins those struggles in the end. After the '08 national championship game, when Memphis fell to Kansas in overtime partly because Rose could not make his free throws, he sat with Reverend Jesse Jackson in a golf cart and sobbed. "Your scars make your stars," Jackson whispered, and soon enough Rose was a No. 1 pick, a Rookie of the Year, a MVP and a symbol for all that is still genuine and modest about sports. It turned out he was superior to Andre Allen and plenty equipped for Baron Davis.
So when Rose claims he is not ready yet, nobody should call him a liar, but nobody should be taken aback if in two months he's going one-on-three against the Heat. He surprises no one as much as himself.