- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Some may view Derrick Rose's ascension to NBA superstar as following in the footsteps of Michael Jordan, but it's probably more accurate to view Rose as following the path set by another former point guard from Chicago.
Isiah Thomas is the last point guard to be the leading scorer on a team that won the NBA title, and the 6-3 Rose sought out Thomas' advice after the Chicago Bulls were eliminated by the Miami Heat last season.
Thomas likened being a 6-foot-1, 180-pound point guard playing and winning in the NBA to "a salmon swimming upstream and the bears are at the side of the bank." He remembered driving down the lane in his first NBA game as a rookie and getting plucked out of mid-air by then-Milwaukee Bucks 6-11, 250-pound center Bob Lanier.
"The first time I drove through the lane, I went past Quinn Buckner and scored and I was feeling pretty good about myself when Bob Lanier grabbed me out of the air, set me down and said ‘Don't come in here anymore.' My jump shot got pretty good the rest of the night," Thomas told ESPNChicago.com on Wednesday.
But Thomas said he quickly learned that wasn't the path to a title.
"You abandon that thought because you come to the point in your career, and it seems like Derrick did it rather quickly just as I did, when you say, ‘You know what? You may be bigger, faster and stronger than me? But just like you want to win, I want to win too. Either you're going to kick my ass or I'm going to kick yours. So let's fight," he said.
Thomas played through a dislocated toe early in his career and acknowledged, "Derrick is 190 pounds getting hit by guys 240, 250, sometimes bigger and make no mistake, the hits do hurt. You're like Sugar Ray Leonard trying to fight Mike Tyson.
"[My toe] was painful. Anything below the hips for a point guard definitely changes your game and then for small guys, you have to be so fine-tuned that anything of that kind throws off your rhythm in terms of your knees, ankles or feet.
"That that's your advantage. Big guys have height and size as an advantage, so they can get away with a lot of [injuries] we can't. Those injuries are devastating to us because our greatest strength is our speed. But what Derrick has got to transfer from is that now his greatest strength has to become his mind and not necessarily just his physical gifts."
Thomas said he looks at the evolution of the point guard and sees it coming around again.
"When I came into the league, everyone wanted a big point guard like Magic Johnson," he said. "If you looked across the league, there was Magic, Chicago got Reggie Theus, Milwaukee got Paul Pressey, everybody had a 6-8, 6-9 point guard and the small guys like myself were thought to be extinct.
"But I like to say when I came in, everybody wanted a point guard like Magic and when I went out, everyone wanted a point guard like Isiah."
Can the Bulls, however, win an NBA title, as the Pistons did, without an elite big man like Dwight Howard teaming with Rose?
"This is the little man's challenge," Thomas said. "I had to beat Magic and Kareem Abdul Jabbar and if the numbers don't lie, Kareem is the best big man to ever play the game. Then you had to beat [Michael] Jordan and [Scottie] Pippen, and [Larry] Bird, [Kevin] McHale and [Robert] Parrish in the years we won it. I think I was probably the only player who ever won a championship in my era who didn't have a top 50 player on my team.
"So yeah, that's a challenge and [Rose] is swimming upstream. Can he do it? Yeah, he's got to beat LeBron [James], but I had to beat Michael. A lot. Can he beat Kobe? Well, I had to beat Magic. So yeah, you have to do it. Or you can take the easy way out and not accept the challenge. I admire him for taking it. He has to beat Dwight Howard. He and Thibs can be saying ‘We don't have enough,' or ‘I'm too small.' But I'm down with the little guy saying ‘Hey, Charles Barkley, I'm kicking your ass.' "
The encouraging news for Rose is that Thomas says he has "no aches, no pains" at age 50.
"I've got a lot of scars but I've also got the rings," he said. "Had I not won a championship, I would consider my career a total bust, a total failure. I would venture to say if you ask all the point guards in the league that question, Chris Paul probably thinks that way and Derrick thinks that way.
"It's different for small guys. There's no way around it. Either you're going to pay the price, sacrifice and win or you're going to pile up great statistics and you'll never win. And Derrick's choice seems to be he wants to win a championship and I admire him for taking that path because he can have a very long career and play forever, have great numbers and never win. But I have to give Thibodeau a lot of credit for allowing Derrick for taking this courageous path he's choosing to take."
7hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
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