The Bulls held their annual "Paint the Town" event at the mall and turned the place into a madhouse. Fans poured into the suburban shopping center hoping to get an autograph or a picture. What they left with was the realization that the Bulls, led by Rose, are undoubtedly as popular as they've been since the Michael Jordan years.
Rose would have been the star of the day anyway, but the excitement seemed palpable on this day as fans waited for his arrival. After all, it's not every day a 23-year-old reigning MVP signs a contract extension with his hometown team worth almost $100 million. Rose, who was stationed in the center of the mall, was the last player to walk out to a table because team personnel and security guards frantically tried to set up the surrounding area for his arrival. Police officers and mall security lined the perimeter as they tried to clear a path for Rose to walk through.
Chants of "MVP, MVP" echoed through the mall as the fans waited to catch a glimpse of their hero. The mere mention of his name set off flashbulbs. When one asked if every other Bull was already here, another fan quickly piped up.
"Everyone else didn't get paid 100 million dollars today."
When the man of the hour finally made his appearance a little after 1:45, the crowd went crazy. Rose was escorted in by at least half a dozen members of security and was ushered to his table. He stopped for a quick picture with a fan in a wheelchair and immediately went to work signing items as fast as he usually dribbles up the floor. Sebrina Brewster and Shaun Hickombottom of the Bulls' media relations department played the role of Rose's caretakers, holding fans at bay, and keeping them in check as they tried to share of few seconds with the star.
Almost everyone had something to say.
One man told Rose to get a championship ring this year. Another told him to win back to back MVP awards. Yet another implored Rose to play well this season because he was on the man's fantasy team. Several young women welled up with tears as they watched Rose autograph their item. Another woman told Rose she was going to bring him Skittles but forgot.
All the while, fans lined the sides of each floor to catch a peak of Rose in action. Every few minutes a group of fans would scream something like, "D. Rose, We love you!" to which Rose would look up and smile while flashing a quick peace sign.
It had all the look and feel of an appearance by a rock star.
"I feel love, man," he said as he scribbled his name on another Bulls item. "Especially being from here. My fans, they definitely mean a lot to me. Just showing that hard work, it's paying off. This is something I never imagined."
That's what was ironic about the day's events. A couple hours before Rose said that, he was just finishing a press conference announcing his new deal. The humble kid from Englewood sat at the podium in near amazement of what he had accomplished.
"I'm tremendously blessed and I don't take anything for granted and I appreciate everyone," he said. "And I think I can finally say this now, "Mom, we finally made it."
A couple hours later, he was being showered with adulation as fans spent hours waiting to see him. Rose acknowledged that all of it was a little overwhelming.
"For sure," he said. "For someone that don't love attention. I've just gotten used to it. It comes with the territory, I guess."
Obviously, Rose has entered a new stratosphere as far as his popularity goes, but the rest of his teammates have entered a new territory as well. At the other end of the mall, fans lined up to see Carlos Boozer and Brian Scalabrine. C.J. Watson sent one young girl's heart a flutter when he looked over at her and smiled after she called his name.
On the other side of the mall, Joakim Noah happily signed autographs and mugged for the camera. Bulls GM Gar Forman's wife, Leslie, had the unenviable task of moving Noah's line along as the happy-go-lucky big man soaked it all in. Noah recalled days in the past when only a handful of fans would show up at these kind of events. Now he was being asked to sign any and everything thrown his way.
All in a day's work for the new kings of Chicago.
After a season in which the Bulls racked up 62 regular-season wins and almost advanced to the NBA Finals, the young team is in a brighter spotlight than they've ever experienced. All eyes are on them no matter where they go and they like it. No, the team isn't back to the popularity levels it experienced during the Michael Jordan years, but the gap isn't as far off as it used to be. If the Bulls win a championship this season, things are only going to get bigger.
As more than one team official proudly proclaimed in the midst of all the excitement, "the Bulls are back."
With Rose leading the way, they appear to be here to stay for a long time.