CHICAGO, Ill. — For the first time in more than two years, the prospect of Derrick Rose on one leg didn’t seem so bad.
At the conclusion of Team USA’s scrimmage on Thursday, Rose snuck off to a faraway basket and got to work — leaners, floaters and fadeaways; two legs, one leg. A growing swath of reporters encircled the three-point arc as the point guard, long known for his freakish feats and vicious dunks more than his craft, hoisted a dizzying medley of midrange shots.
And as shot after shot fell through the net, it was clear. The Rose who will take the floor against Brazil on Saturday — playing at the United Center for the first time since November — is a different one, a weathered one. Older and wiser than the player who lay despondent on the Chicago baseline in 2012, stronger and more skilled than the one who came up gimpy in Portland nearly nine months ago.
As the cameras and microphones infringed on his post-workout personal space, leaving little room to breathe, gone was the shy, soft-spoken superstar of years past. Rose spoke at length, dodged no questions and even cracked a smile or two. In the city where he once cut his teeth, made his name and became the face of a proud, then-struggling franchise, he looked truly at home.
“Watching a lot of film with Thibs, watching a lot basketball with the playoffs, all last season being on the bench, I think I could become an assistant coach somewhere,” Rose joked. Hearing him talk nowadays, you kind of believe it. He never had to watch much film before his legs first went, getting by on “natural feel” for the game, battling on the courts that sheltered him from the oft-unforgiving Chicago streets. And there he stood, citing acupuncture, massages and sleep as some of his off-court pastimes like a grizzled veteran (still no word on whether he’s given up the Skittles yet).
“My game is developing into a controlled one,” Rose said. “I’m using my speed whenever I need to, and I’m playing a more relaxed game now. I think that you’ll see a mature basketball player out there whenever I play.”
His words were simply the confirmation, his play had already told the truth. The burst was there, the change of pace. He drained a corner three, his team won the scrimmage. As Rose made sure to remind the media, he had zero turnovers. However, he did provide arguably the day’s biggest letdown, finding the back iron on a breakaway tomahawk dunk that would surely have triggered another viral tempest of enthusiasm across the internet.
“I think anytime you feel strong, you play strong,” said Kyle Korver, Rose’s Bulls teammate from 2010-2012, a firsthand witness to both Rose's MVP year and ACL tear. “It’s a mental thing, [thinking] ‘I feel big and strong in this lane, no one’s gonna get my shot.’ You take your time a little more, you shoot it with a little more confidence, and I sense that in Derrick. He just feels like he’s in beast mode out there.”
“He’s figured it out a little bit,” said Robert Smith, Rose’s high school coach at Simeon Career Academy, the man who understands his game as well as anyone. “Just watching some of the games, he hasn’t been going in as reckless as he was before, giving up his body like that. He’s been a little more under control for those types of things, which is great for his career.”
It might seem crazy now, but not long ago there was doubt about Rose’s willingness to compete for his country. After seeing Paul George go down in Las Vegas, one couldn’t help but wonder how Rose would proceed after two surgeries of his own. Now he’s the starting point guard and a leader of a young team with relatively little international experience.
“There was a buzz right away [at practice],” USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a teleconference last week. “He was basically saying, ‘Look, I’m not just back. I’m back at a level that’s elite.’ Being with the other elite guards helps you. We could not be happier about that particular situation.”
Nothing has ever come easy for Derrick Rose. Nothing but the game, at least. Perhaps just not in the way his prodigious talent promised—whether a torn ACL, torn meniscus, or a stripped Final Four banner, his has been a career filled with caveats. Just think: this is the guy who in the final game of his storied high school career, leading Simeon to a second straight state championship, came in averaging more than 25 points per game but scored just two (full disclosure: he still had 7 rebounds and 8 assists).
In true Chicago fashion, it’s never been glory that’s kept him coming back time and again. Playing in his embattled hometown, Rose simply means more. He’s an embodiment of the grind-it-out mentality, living proof that superstars can come from anywhere, that basketball can take you places. Whether or not he stays healthy the rest of his career, one aspect of his legacy will never change: Derrick Rose provides the unassailable justification for millions of hoop dreams.
And after two difficult years, with his formal return to the United Center as a member of Team USA imminent, he's gained no shortage of perspective.
“I appreciate it even more,” Rose said. “Even just being in this city, being here the entire summer. Seeing how crazy the city is right now, with all the deaths and everything, it helps me appreciate life a little bit better, knowing there’s kids out there who don’t give a hell about their life, acting like it’s a video game. But it makes my appreciation for the game even higher, and when I step on the floor it’s going to feel like a performance every time.”
Saturday night against Brazil, a performance is what they'll expect, even in a friendly match. When asked his immediate thoughts on playing in front of the home crowd, he might as well have stopped early, kept his answer simple like the old days. The first word that came out of his mouth would have been more than enough.