Rose slithered around 7-foot walls, blistered defenses expressly designed to stop him, and conjured memories of the Jordan age in Chicago with his fourth-quarter flourishes. He won but also entertained, sparking a point-guard revolution in which the ball-handlers became the headliners. Rose transformed himself, and the Bulls, from upstarts to elites. That's why he won MVP, but only part of the reason I am nominating him for SI's Sportsman of the Year.
Rose's breakthrough in 2011 dates back to the summer of 2010, when LeBron James considered signing with Chicago. Rose was the rare player who declined to court him, in part because Luol Deng was the Bulls small forward, and Rose refused to imply that they needed an upgrade. His rationale, while baffling to fans, was inspiring to teammates. The Bulls became the antidote to the Heat, and Rose to James, a product of the AAU generation who didn't want to be part of a stacked roster.
Many NBA players develop one aspect of their craft every year. Rose built three, growing an outside shot, a commitment to defense and a thirst for contact. Yet still he sat in the back of meeting rooms during film sessions muttering: "My bad ... my fault ... my mistake ... sorry about that ... I'll get better at that." When he missed game-winning free throws against the Clippers, he insisted on being the one to shoot free throws the next day at practice, so he could make them and spare his teammates wind sprints. "There's no one in the league like this," said Bulls center Joakim Noah, referring not to Rose's speed and strength, but his humility and grace.
In an era of self-promotion, Rose does not tweet. He lives in a townhouse with his high-school buddies and drives a pick-up. When I profiled Rose last winter, and congratulated him on his recent success, he looked down at his Adidas and muttered: "Yeah, I wish." A lot of players emerge as stars in the span of one season. Few are unaffected by their ascent, yet when Rose struggled in the first game of the Eastern Conference finals, he apologized to his teammates at halftime.
The Bulls fell in that series to Miami and Rose was smothered by James, his legs shot from seven months of headlong drives. In the end, he could have used James on his side. It is popular in today's NBA, perhaps even necessary, for the best players to surround themselves with equally talented peers. Rose excelled with the lot he was given, and though he didn't win the title, he exhibited the same fearlessness that characterized his one-man fast breaks.