Walking off the court seconds before handing the Bulls their first home loss of the season, the extrovert grabbed the introvert, prodding and poking, tapping him on the head, trying to elicit emotion or some form of release.
Instead, as the cheers came from the fans remaining in the United Center who waited for the moment Derrick Rose was pulled from the game with his “big brother” Joakim Noah, Rose allowed himself a smile.
The Return—in a different form.
Speaking to the same attendants he passed every day, shaking every hand, acknowledging everyone who acknowledged him, Rose’s homecoming felt as it was supposed to—like the kid who went away to college and came back home for Thanksgiving.
The response from the United Center crowd was mostly positive, although Noah’s reaction was overwhelmingly so. Rose heard the boos when he touched the ball, although it was a bit weird considering Noah was the one who departed via free agency and Rose was traded by the Bulls’ volition.
“I’m different. I always felt I was different. When I played that revenge game or tried to pay someone back, that’s when I failed,” Rose said. “My type of game is playing the way I naturally play, and that’s to win. I’m just trying to win the game.”
Yet, Rose—like fellow Chicagoans Isiah Thomas and Dwyane Wade—was jeered by the hometown faithful, treated like someone who betrayed them when his biggest basketball sin was his body betraying him.
And like Thomas and Wade, though, Rose turned those negative feelings into controlled fuel as opposed to reckless abandon, producing some breathtaking sequences that had to leave even the biggest detractors speechless. His halfcourt catch and dart to the basket before the half where he split Wade and Rajon Rondo before meeting Jimmy Butler at the rim, contorting his body for a twisting but surprisingly easy layup to keep the Knicks afloat before halftime looked like the Rose of old, not an old Rose.
Producing his best game as a Knick with 15 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds, he looked more comfortable in his own skin than he probably has felt in ages—so much so, that if the boos would’ve bothered him before, they became little more than background noise Friday.
“I’m used to it. I’ve been getting booed since I was in the sixth grade,” Rose said. “Being a south sider and playing (rivals) Patrick Beverley or Sherron Collins on the west side.”
He tried his best to keep his emotions in check, and he was likely successful in suppressing that while letting his skills shine through. Almost getting caught in the emotion of the Bulls’ tribute video to he and Noah—well done and classy, it should be said—reminded so many of a simpler time.
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When Noah was the kid with the goofy suit and bowtie on draft night, when Rose was the clean-cut kid who did everything he was asked by anyone who asked it and could do things on the floor no one could dream of requesting.
“It was a lot of love in the building today,” Noah said. “It feels good because even though we didn’t win a championship here, I know how hard and how bad Derrick wanted to win one (a title) and how bad I wanted to win one here. There’s no regrets because we gave it all we had for this city.”
“When I think about it, there’s things that were tough because we were really close. I look and I see Taj and I see Jimmy, and I competed with these guys for a long time. Even though we’re competing and talking s**t, they’re still my brothers.”
A break here, or a break there, the Bulls could’ve had a celebration in Grant Park like the Chicago Cubs did after 108 years of futility, bad luck and bad breaks. On the day Rose was awarded the MVP trophy before Game 2 of the Bulls’ second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, the Cubs were a 14-16 bunch, completing a three-game set with the Los Angeles Dodgers with a 5-1 win but in the big picture, headed nowhere with a 71-91 finish.
Months later, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein, the break that went in their favor, and the rest became history—while Rose was still chasing some of his own.
For the Bulls, it likely came down to one break—when Rose tore his ACL in Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs, an event that won’t haunt Bulls fans as much as it will Rose, who’s not chasing that athletic marvel as much as he is a simple return to greatness no one is completely sure he can achieve.
“This is a new chapter,” Rose said. “I’m trying to become great, still chasing something and I have a great group to chase it with.”
From that point of the injury, he had starts and stops, fits and fistfuls of confusing thoughts and words as he struggled to deal with the unknown, a strategy that admittedly made him less of a fan favorite and more of a mystery.
Details about his private life came out in an embarrassing civil suit where he was accused of rape, and although he was cleared of the charges, the stain will likely follow for some time—causing even more confusion.
“Not a villain but people didn’t understand me. I didn’t let them,” Rose said. “We were losing. I held everything in. I didn’t voice my opinion the way I wanted to and the way I expressed it was being quiet. I’m an introvert. So I’m just quiet and thinking about things.”
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There was no blueprint for him to follow, as he was groomed to be a basketball player and the instincts he developed courtesy of Chicago’s South Side were ones of survival, not public diplomacy.
He retreated further into himself as time went on, leading to more confusion. And when he publicly stumbled over his words and sentiments, he became harder to defend—even if there was never malicious intent.
“You know, sometimes with fans, they want to see results right away,” Rose said. “Especially when you play with a franchise like this, six championships. They want results, they want playoffs they want rings. I understand that. That’s how they felt. That’s how I felt. It wasn’t no patience on both sides.”
And thus a divorce was necessary, perhaps it should’ve occurred last season when it was obvious the mix of players were no longer compatible, the air too poisoned with confusion and ambiguity on all sides, where plenty of mistakes have been made.
Noah, always being Rose’s biggest advocate and most vocal defender, likely conveyed his teammate’s true feelings about how bad they both wanted the win when he said, “I’m not gonna lie, this one felt really good.”
And we don’t have to lie, either. Just because one is cheered, it doesn’t make him a hero. And because someone is booed, doesn’t make him a villain.