He Rose to superstar status
In spite of success, Sportsperson of Year will remember 2011 as a banner-less season
The Maurice Podoloff trophy stands sentry in the living room of his "little townhouse" near the Bulls' practice facility. Every day, on the way to the Skittles machine or out the door to the Berto Center, Derrick Rose can admire what he accomplished last season.
The trophy represents the past, which makes Rose wince, and more importantly, it's a testament to his basketball education.
"I look at it here and there," he said, when I asked if he thinks about what he accomplished last season. "I can't be caught up in it. That's just from working hard. I know if I work hard every summer, I don't have to think about it while I'm on the court. It's just going to happen."
Rose says basketball is about reaction -- "reacting here, reacting there"-- and while he talks, he starts snapping his fingers to simulate reaction. Rose is often asked if he plans his mesmerizing moves, which sent adults into childlike hysteria last season, and his answer is always the same.
"If you think too much," he said, "you're going to mess up."
Rose appreciates the enormity of his ascendance last season, but now that a new season has begun, most of his time is spent reacting. You saw how he reacted in the season opener, dropping in a floater in the lane over Pau Gasol with 4.8 seconds left to beat the Lakers.
Rose might be insanely famous, and thanks to his recent contract extension, insanely wealthy, but at his core, he is just a 23-year-old kid yearning for perfection in an imperfect world. And he's unhappy with last season, his best season, because last season was not perfect. Last season ended badly.
"It was the best year and the saddest year," Rose told me the other day.
After a long practice and a group interview about the season opener against the Lakers, I talked to Rose in the hallway that separates the practice floor from the locker room at the Berto Center to inform him that he was named, without a vote, ESPN Chicago's Sportsman of the Year.
I congratulated him on his $95 million extension and told him, facetiously, I had even bigger news: Our honorary award.
"Oh wow," he said, trying to sound earnest.
Derrick Rose's Top Games
From a 42-point performance against the Spurs to his first triple-double, check out the MVP's best games of the 2010-11 season. Gallery »
I didn't tell him he beat out the likes of Carlos Zambrano, Adam Dunn and Caleb Hanie. In case you've blocked it out, this wasn't the year for star performances from our city's athletes, even by Chicago's standards.
Maybe Tom Ricketts gets a gold star for hiring Theo Epstein, Jonathan Toews for being so consistently professional and Matt Forte for backing up his salary demands, but as December fades, it's quite clear Rose didn't have much competition.
Rose, who became the youngest MVP in NBA history last spring, was the slam dunk winner, pun intended. He vaulted from provincial all-star to mega-star as he was the linchpin of the winningest, and arguably the most likable team in the NBA. He represents more than just 25 points and eight assists a game. Rose is the perfect sportsman, a play-fair, play-awesome urban hero.
Just by being himself, Rose became the poster child for the anti-LeBron James movement, a star seemingly unaware of his wattage. His humility act was almost comical sometimes, but Rose's general niceness is completely sincere, and it's nice to see someone get rewarded for it.
As Joakim Noah put it last week, "You never hear anybody say anything bad about Pooh, you know."
We do know, Jo.
Noah, one of the world's foremost experts on Rose, also deflated his friend's humble balloon last year when he was informed Rose told reporters he wasn't a star. This was before he shredded the Lakers in a home game.
"When he plays on the court, you really believe he thinks that?" Noah said. "He might tell you guys that, but when he's dribbling that ball up the court, he knows what he's doing."
Yes, he does. Rose's innate niceness often obscures his competitive fire. Last season was the best time of his life, and he learned how quickly things can change.
"It just dropped off," he said. "It brought me back to reality. I've still got to work harder and still push for it."
Rose told me he never really celebrated his many accomplishments from last season. After moping for a week in his townhouse -- "I had on my pajamas the whole time" -- he went back to work, mixing in training and family time. But he didn't throw himself a party or anything.
"I didn't win a championship yet, so there's no point to celebrate," he said, his voice gaining a hint of anger. "Celebrate what? Go on talk shows for what? Because I lost? I'm not going on any shows or anything until I win a championship."
Rose said he turned down numerous opportunities to promote his personal brand on talk shows, the ones he called, "Late, Live, all those." It's not because he's so, so humble, either.
"Ain't no point in being on there," he said. "At the end of every show they're going to ask you, 'So, what happened with whoever you lost to?' There's no point. I want to be on the show where they say, 'How did it feel to win a championship?' 'It felt great.' That's how I want to be on the show."
Rose's last game of the 2011 playoffs haunts him still. He scored 25 points in the Heat's closeout win in late May, but on 9-for-29 shooting. At that point, he was clearly exhausted, which he wouldn't, and shouldn't, use as an excuse. In the bowels of the United Center that day, he rightly put the blame on his shoulders. Months later, he still hasn't veered from the script. He has high expectations for himself, another admirable trait.
Rose's athleticism makes him elite, and his personality makes him unique. But his background as the son of Chicago makes him our city's perfect sportsman. Rose is a public school kid from the inner city.
"Everything I do is for Chicago," he said. "This is where I'm from. It's a great city. There are a lot of flaws in it, but those flaws help you improve and grow into a better person. [Chicago] means everything to me."
For all his intensity and his Tao of Thibs approach to tackling the present, Rose can appreciate last season for what it meant to his development.
"The journey was great," Rose said of last season. "That's something I definitely learned from, but it was the greatest and the saddest season."
When asked what his goal was for the end of this season, Rose was succinct.
"Not to be sad," he said.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.