LAS VEGAS -- Derrick Rose is on a mission.
The Chicago Bulls star wants to prove to all of his critics that he can still play basketball at an elite level. He wants to prove to his doubters that his body can withstand the grind of an NBA season after suffering two career-altering knee injuries that wiped out all but 49 games the past three seasons. He wants to prove to the city of Chicago, his hometown, that he can still be the man -- on and off the floor -- that they always wanted him to be.
But as Rose gets set for his second comeback, the most important lesson he wants to teach this season isn't for all his doubters. Rose wants to show his son P.J., who will be 2 in October, that his dad didn't give up when times got tough.
"I know how special I am as a player," Rose said. "I know I take the game serious. Basketball is my life so I can't give up. I have a son that's looking up to me, and when he gets older and realizes what's going on he's going to look back, and hopefully that gives him a little bit of motivation knowing that I had to go through so much. And I hope that pushes him to become a great individual."
That's part of the reason Rose's outlook has changed as he tries to make his way back from a torn meniscus in his right knee. He is playing for more than just winning basketball games this time around.
Rose admitted for the first time on Wednesday after a practice with Team USA that he wasn't having very much fun on the floor last year during his comeback from a torn ACL in his left knee. He played seven preseason games, and through 10 regular-season games he was averaging 15 points and shooting 35 percent from the field.
All the pressure and all the hype took its toll on the soft-spoken 25-year-old from Englewood, a neighborhood in Chicago.
"I felt like, the first time I came back, I felt like it was damn near like a job instead of just going out there and having fun," Rose said. "When I came back last fall I felt like it was a job. I wasn't smiling, I wasn't enjoying the game, I was trying not to mess up, and with me I usually just go out there and play. Me playing at least is something good, but at the time it was just too much going on, and I think that was just a dark side for me. Just a dark period of time."
In hindsight, it's easy to understand why Rose felt that way. After the nonstop speculation regarding his return to the floor -- fueled by a major advertising campaign from his shoe sponsor, Adidas -- Rose never played during the 2012-13 season despite being cleared by team doctors. That decision made fans question Rose for the first time, but it's a choice that he wouldn't change as he looks back on it over a year and a half later.
"I knew in my mind, if I wasn't right I wasn't playing," Rose said. [Bulls director of sports performance] Jen [Swanson] and everybody was on the same page, from the front office all the way down to the strength and conditioning coach, Nick [Papendieck]. Everybody knew that I wasn't ready at that time, and we kind of kept [the information] in. But I kind of let them know every day that I wasn't ready."
Rose heard the criticism and the second-guessing, but he didn't care. Rose knew he had to be "selfish" for one of the first times in his career. The man who always wanted to please everybody had to look out for himself.
"I would hear about it, but I wouldn't pay attention to it," he said of the criticism. "People would come ask me about it. I'm thankful that my teammates didn't ask me about it because they kind of knew that I wasn't ready, or they probably saw that I was able to play but they left it up to me, so I appreciate that."
When Rose did come back to start last season, he struggled to find a rhythm early in the campaign and internalized all the pressure surrounding his comeback. It looked as if he was pressing during games, a fact that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, among others, has acknowledged recently.
When Rose went down with the torn meniscus on Nov. 22 in Portland, just 10 games into his comeback season, it felt like Groundhog Day for everyone involved. He stood in front of a mirror in the visitors' locker room in the Moda Center and couldn't believe what he was seeing while holding himself on crutches. But Rose said things started to change for him soon afterward.
"It changed with the second injury," he said of his mindset. "I knew that I couldn't be mad or be in that place for a whole year again. So I really attacked my rehab and it really was fun this time. The first time it was hell … this time it was hell, too, but I was able to enjoy it a little bit more seeing that improvement."
Rose spent more time around his teammates the second time around. He tried to stay more involved with the Bulls on a day-to-day basis, and he believes that helped him stay upbeat. He also got to spend more time with son P.J., and that kept him balanced throughout the most trying part of his career.
"My son is huge," Rose said. "He's everything, man. I think he's my No. 1 fan. Me being around him almost every other day, it's a blessing. ... I'm just going to use as motivation."
Those closest to Rose can see the subtle differences in his personality as well. Life experiences, especially becoming a parent, change everyone in some way, and Rose is no different. He seems much more comfortable in his surroundings this time and more relaxed about his situation.
"He's matured every year," said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who coached Rose at Memphis. "[All players] do. It's funny, the one thing is, he still doesn't pass on a chance to say, 'I love ya, coach.' But as they get older, they become a little more aware. I think what his family did, which was a great thing, is they let him be a kid. What's happening to a lot of these kids right now, they're having to grow up too fast. His family kept everybody away from him: coaches, everybody. Mom [Brenda] was strong, [his] brothers, and he was able to be who he was, and now he's coming into his own. People forget how young he is. Look at him, he was the MVP [at 22]. What are you talking about? This kid's got 10 years of playing left and probably eight at a high level. But I'm happy for him; he hasn't changed, in my mind. He's still the same guy."
Rose still has the same confidence and fire on the floor. He still believes he is the best player each time he comes into a game. The difference now is that he doesn't appear to be as concerned about the perception around him.
"I think it's who Derrick is," Thibodeau said of Rose's maturity. "I think each year, I'm going into Year No. 5 with him, and each year he's been a lot different. So I think the type of person that he is, he'll continue to grow. I think he learns from each experience. When you look at his first three years in the league, it's pretty amazing. Sometimes people forget how good he actually is. And then he had the misfortune of the injury, and then getting reinjured. So it was a setback, but he never changed. He always had the belief that 'I'm going to come back, and I'm going to be great again,' and I believe he will be."
That's the biggest key for Rose as he starts the long process of changing the perception around him. He didn't doubt himself while most of the world did. He trusted in the process and he believed he would overcome anything that got in his way.
"I don't think I have to prove anything to myself," he said. "I think just coming on the court, I think after the first day I'm fine, to tell you the truth. I know that I can play with these guys. It seems that everyone's been working on their game, and me seeing them shoot and seeing them improve is going to make me go back after I leave here and work even harder."
Nothing will make him work as hard as remembering that he is playing for his son. Rose already accepts the fact that his son will have a lot of expectations placed upon him because of his famous father. With that in mind, Rose is trying as best he can to write a different story for his son to follow.
In the short term, the proud papa is trying to enjoy this latest comeback with his favorite wingman by his side.
"It means everything," Rose said of having P.J. "Just seeing what I'm going through. And just seeing him growing up, he's going to have so much pressure on him just from me and what I achieved. I think he has the right attitude because he's real firm with his decisions right now. He's real independent, and I think for him, that's what he needs growing up because he's not going to take no [crap] from nobody."
Just like his daddy.