Controversial offseason doesn't define Rose
Since being taken No. 1 in the draft last June by his hometown Chicago Bulls, Rose has gone from one-year college phenom to the face of his childhood team.
He was, for all intents and purposes, living the dream of every kid from Englewood to Highland Park who wore No. 23 in every sport and bounced basketballs against bedroom walls. So why has his public life become a nightmare in the past two weeks? As it turns out, Rose isn't perfect.
In the time it took for the Bulls to take Boston to the brink of elimination in a seven-game playoff series, Rose's sterling image has gone from that of a choirboy to just another basketball player. People were wondering if the whole Rose image was just an act.
Derrick Rose was supposed to be different. He was lauded for his humility, admired for his abilities. But maybe some of us saw in him something other than the reality. He's just a kid playing a game.
The chipping away of his image started two weeks ago when several media outlets found that an NCAA investigation implicated Rose in two separate acts that could constitute academic fraud. He allegedly wasn't supposed to be eligible to take Memphis to the NCAA finals. Rose has been silent on the matter, aside from a statement from his lawyer.
Then, earlier this week, Rose officially became an athlete of the 21st century when an embarrassing picture showed up online. An old college picture of Rose throwing up gang signs with a buddy from the University of Memphis made the rounds, causing eyebrows to raise and tongues to cluck.
Let's get this straight: Rose is no gangbanger. It's obviously a goof for the camera, but it still raised eyebrows. In the picture, Rose is wearing a T-shirt adorned with a marijuana plant. He's at a party, one that allows smoking, because there's a clear haze in the air. Rose, as usual, looks relaxed.
Rose's people quickly released a very formal, very polished mea culpa apologizing for the picture:
"Recently, a photo has been circulating on the Internet which appears to depict me flashing a gang sign," the statement read. "This photo of me was taken at a party I attended in Memphis while I was in school there, and was meant as a joke a bad one, I now admit. I want to emphatically state, now and forever, that Derrick Rose is anti-gang, anti-drug, and anti-violence. I am not, nor have I ever been, affiliated with any gang and I can't speak loudly enough against gang violence, and the things that gangs represent."
At the end of May, news broke about an improper grade change for Rose at Simeon Career Academy and, according to the NCAA report, an invalidated SAT score. There was also the matter of the Memphis basketball program providing his brother with extra benefits, more than $2,000 in travel expenses.
Rose hasn't put out an official statement on this matter, though his lawyer did, noting that his client has cooperated with the investigation, which has been ongoing for a year.
But since we don't have any concrete details on Rose's involvement with his changed grade (which was then changed back), or SAT malfeasance, let's focus on the picture, representative of the now-universal price celebrities must pay for fame.
We have reached such a level of celebrity saturation online that I'm almost surprised this is a big deal. Every day, there are pictures of athletes drinking (umm, everyone), smoking weed (Michael Phelps), fooling around with women (everyone again), etc., posted on various Web sites and linked ad nauseam. So what makes this different?
Well, for starters, it's Derrick Rose we're talking about, and these past two weeks betray the ideal that he is supposed to represent. Rose is supposed to be the last humble athlete, the perfect blend of on-court genius and off-court modesty, the guy who made it out of one of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago without being hardened. He's the guy whose only vices were no-look passes, fast cars and Gummy Bears. We wanted Rose to be perfect.
Rose isn't much of a communicator, but he's polite to a fault. More than a week after the Bulls' playoff loss to Boston, my colleague Gene Wojciechowski, who has covered sports for nearly 30 years, wrote a brief column extolling Rose's virtues. The tone was of pride and awe, because Gene has seen just about everything nasty in the sports world, and he wanted to see Rose stay a nice kid forever.
I liked the story, but I disagreed with him, if only semantically.
I found myself, at the wise old age of 30, wanting to see a change in Rose. I didn't wonder if he would become jaded in five years -- that's inevitable -- but rather if he would become a man, and what kind of man he would become. He has been sheltered much of his life, from his brothers controlling where he goes to school and who he hangs out with (good things, mind you), to his coaches on the floor. When Rose went to Memphis, his older brother Reggie moved his family down there to be with him. I want to see Rose grow up. So far, his life has centered around basketball, but things will change in the coming years.
Now that he's had to deal with some actual turmoil, and his first dose of media revulsion, can Rose handle the public demands of being a celebrity without growing bitter? Will he become a distrustful athlete like Brian Urlacher? Or will he construct an impenetrable corporate shell like Michael Jordan? I hope not, on both accounts.
Maybe it's good to get these first embarrassments out of the way. Maybe he'll learn from it without retreating into the insular world athletes today reside in. There are bound to be more mistakes. Women, booze, late nights, fast cars, the athlete's life.
I can't say I know Rose. I had talked to him once or twice this season and been around him a dozen times at the most. Like everyone who has come into his orbit, I found myself impressed with his humility, if not his sparkling personality. More importantly, I loved watching him play.
By all accounts, Rose's brothers and his doting mother did a great job raising him. No one's saying they're going to take his Rookie of the Year trophy away, but the NCAA allegations are serious business, and Rose should own up to whatever his culpability is, once the legal side of it is taken care of.
Like most Chicagoans who follow city basketball, I figure Rose's amateur career probably wasn't squeaky-clean. That would be practically impossible for someone who made his way through the Chicago Public League, not to mention AAU ball, before playing for Memphis coach John Calipari, who might get his second Final Four banner confiscated over this mess. There are too many open wallets and too many shades of gray.
Earlier this summer, I talked to an old Public League rival of Rose's, a guy named Brandon Ewing, who just finished a record-setting career at the University of Wyoming. Ewing is two years older than Rose, and had the pleasure of recruiting the then-eighth-grader to Julian High. Rose ended up at Simeon, where he won two state titles, earning a place in the pantheon of great Chicago point guards.
"I like to say, Derrick was always the No. 1 pick," Ewing told me.
So I see these photos and I read these stories about changed grades and dummy SATs and I feel bad for all those who have lost faith in Derrick Rose and everything they thought he represented. Then I think about where Rose came from, and what he's like as a person, and what kind of man, and role model, he could be one day, and I decide that the dream is still attainable.
Derrick Rose will be 21 this fall, and he can still be everything he wants to be, and most of what we want him to be. But the ball is in his hands now. There's plenty of summer left.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com