Derrick Rose's legacy will live under LeBron James's long shadow
As the Cavaliers cavorted onstage mostly shirtless and LeBron James took the parade mic to shout out every single one of his teammates (what up, Jordan McRae?), a different book closed for another hometown prodigy.
Derrick Rose, native son, is a Chicago Bull no more. The chatter was so easy to dismiss a few days ago. When was the last time a rumor involving the Knicks and a star player carried actual credence? Derrick Rose was many things to many people in his own city, but the one thing nobody ever imagined he’d be was the guy that got traded for Robin Lopez.
I stared at two screens at once Wednesday. One streamed downward with tweets, confusion and snowballing emotions, some of which were mine. On the other, there was a smug LeBron in sunglasses and a backward cap, cracking jokes about Matthew Dellavedova wrestling bears.
There are undeniable similarities between James and Rose: two kids from two beaten-down parts of two Midwest cities, two No. 1 picks, two Rookies of the Year, two MVPs and two chapters closing on the same day for vastly different reasons. We’re not going to look back at LeBron James and think of Derrick Rose as his great rival 20 years from now. The latter’s fragile knees nixed that over the course of the last five difficult seasons. But through the lens of Rose’s career, the parallel is striking—James is the spectre that hangs over his fragmented peak. Their arcs are in many ways intertwined.
So much of it feels distant and vestigial while diving down Derrick Rose YouTube sinkholes (there are many to explore). There was the seven-game series with Boston in 2009, where he dropped an intoxicating 36 points and 11 assists as a rookie making his playoff debut. In the the two years after that, he ran into James and lost, and a rivalry developed between the conference’s two best teams—first the Cavs and then the Heat.
During LeBron’s free agency, there were rumors of his interest in Chicago, and that Rose wouldn’t bother to recruit him to the Bulls. It all bred serious contempt from Chicago fans toward James, especially in 2011, when the Bulls won the first game of the East finals, then dropped four straight as Miami cruised. That was supposed to be the year—the Bulls won 62 games, their best mark since Michael Jordan, while starting Keith Bogans at the two.
In that span of time, Rose was far and away the most dynamic point guard in the league. The Bulls won the conference again the next season, which was shortened by the lockout. Rose’s ACL gave out in Philly in the first game of the 2012 playoffs, and things never really got better afterward. James and his teams knocked the Bulls out four times in six playoff trips, from 2010–2015, each less painful and more inevitable as Rose struggled and largely failed to stay healthy. His explosion was sapped, his assist numbers dipped, and his scoring became less and less efficient.
In hindsight, last year’s East semifinals against LeBron and the Cavs were Rose’s final chance to alter the script. I covered Game 3 in Chicago, in which Rose exploded off a screen, the game tied at 96 and three seconds left, to hoist a game-winning prayer of a three for a 2–1 series lead. In a sea of career highlights, this instantly became Rose’s most meaningful moment. He mugged for the cameras. He pimped it a little bit. He deserved it.
I was also on hand for the next game, in which LeBron famously waved off David Blatt and drew up his own game-winning jumper to suck the air out of the Bulls for good. They lost the next two games and the series, Game 6 in Chicago marking the end of Tom Thibodeau in Chicago and spawning rumors of disdain between Rose and his much-improved backcourt mate, Jimmy Butler. It felt like the beginning of the end. And repeated denials from both players aside, Butler returned the next season to rankle some feathers and carry himself like a superstar. The Bulls lumbered to a 42–40 mark in Rose’s healthiest season since 2011, with questions about leadership running from the locker room up to the front office.
While watching LeBron hoist the trophy again, it occurred to me that Rose’s own burden of pleasing his hometown fans may actually have been a bit more complicated. James was always fighting against Cleveland’s title drought and the tide of his own, warranted hype. He made jersey-burners blow their paychecks years after the fact, simply by deciding to come back home. His meaning to the city was that great.
Rose was never pegged as the next Jordan, but the shadow of MJ’s success with the franchise cast a high degree of expectations. His injuries lowered the bar for the team’sresults, but not for the individual. And while Rose was stripped of agency as his athletic prime slipped away, he could never seem to get much benefit of the doubt for it.
It certainly hurt that Rose never shared LeBron’s penchant for words and tact with the local press. As his legs gave out repeatedly over the years and public patience ran dry, it became clear that his performance was never catching up to whatever abstract sort of on-court dominance many still craved from him. The Bulls shrewdly shed long-term risk in the Knicks deal, adding loose parts, passing along the burden of Rose’s looming contract negotiations and turning his likely exit into a decisive choice for the future. In the front office’s defense, there was little reason to think a roster that had fallen hard out from the East’s upper class would produce better results, especially with—yep—the Cavs’ rejuvenated, serious window for contention.
In 140 characters or less, Rose’s exit from Chicago was unceremonious and swift. There’s no illusion that champagne and ticker-tape were in the cards, but an abrupt finish to a drawn-out epilogue didn’t feel quite right—his complicated legacy with the Bulls likely never will. And while the Cavaliers partied on and New York beat writers sharpened their fangs, Rose’s time with the Bulls ended much as it began: in the considerable shadow of LeBron James, quietly yet unmistakably.