CHICAGO — A lukewarm reception in Chicago was the best Derrick Rose could hope for after exhausting, bit by bit, so much of the goodwill he earned at his MVP best. A player can only say so many strange, subtexted things before his words work against him. A person can only tell on himself so much in a courtroom before his reputation turns. A franchise centerpiece can only insist on his stardom for so long when injury and decline put the team he plays for in an uncomfortable position. Rose will always be from Chicago, yet he wasn’t announced as such when he returned Friday night to the United Center floor and wasn’t treated as such by those fans in attendance who chose to boo him.
“I knew it was gonna be some boos, but I’m from here,” Rose said. “I’m used to it. I’ve been getting that since I was in sixth grade, going on the West Side playing, with me being on the South Side.”
This relationship between city and son cannot help but be complicated. An acrobatic reverse layup from Rose, who now runs point for the Knicks, drew some reflexive applause. One can still pick out Rose jerseys in the crowd at any given Bulls game, even when the man himself is hundreds of miles away.
“I played eight years here,” Rose said. “I figured out how to play the NBA game here.” There will always be those Bulls fans who became Rose fans and cling to a time when those interests aligned.
On this particular night, there were ghosts everywhere. Rose nailed a pull-up jumper and turned to the crowd—taunting, beckoning. Jimmy Butler and new Knick Joakim Noah, who reportedly grated on one another in Chicago last season, jawed every time they came into contact. The two hugged on their way off the floor. Noah’s frenzied clapping, previously reserved to jeer Bulls opponents, was this time directed at Chicago mainstay Taj Gibson, among others.
“Even though we're competing against each other and talking s--- and all that, at the end of the day, they’re still my brothers,” Noah said.
Rose helped to ward off the Bulls in the fourth quarter by lofting an and-one layup over the outstretched arms of Butler and Gibson, two players he had only known as teammates. To follow up, he threw a cross-court rocket—one of his 11 assists on the night—to set up a Carmelo Anthony three on the weak side. By the time Rose and Noah exited the game with the 117–104 win in hand, the fans in attendance stood for discordant ovation. Noah literally skipped off the floor. Rose was as emotive as Rose gets.
From the final buzzer to their journey through the funnel, Rose and Noah stopped to exchange pleasantries with all manner of Chicago regulars—players, reporters, ushers. “You come into this building and there are so many people I’m used to seeing on a daily basis,” Noah said. “It’s crazy. I was here for a decade. It all seems like it was just yesterday.”
Noah reminisced about playing hard for a Chicago team that came so close. Rose tried to compartmentalize this game in particular, impossible as that task might be. “I just try to stay sane by coming in and saying: It’s the next game,” Rose said. His energy on the floor and admitted nerves confirmed it was anything but.
Games like these come heavy with baggage. Thanks to the total of his basketball history—the accolades, the expectations, the injuries and the fallout—Rose seemed to carry it. All considered, he fared well. This was one of the best, most patient games of Rose’s season. He put his head down to drive hard at the rim but reared back to read the floor. In situations when one might expect Rose to press for his own offense, he stepped back and played his part. The ball moved from side to side and eventually found its place. New York’s leaky defense plugged holes as it went and weathered a fantastic 35-point performance from Dwyane Wade, himself a hometown hero returned.
The Bulls are eager to move on. Rose and Noah, in their own way, denied it. This entire night was steeped in the past, down to the affectionate video tribute that Noah wouldn’t let himself or Rose much enjoy. There was too much at stake. This was Rose and Noah, back in the building where they rose and fell. And to complete the callback to their better days in Chicago: they won.
“It felt really good,” Noah said. I’m not going to lie. It felt great.”