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Thursday, March 24, 2011
Updated: March 25, 9:33 AM ET
The evolution of Derrick Rose

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

Just when we think we really know Derrick Rose, he reveals a few additional layers of motivation that more closely resemble the swagger we're now seeing on the court than the politeness he has consistently shown off it.

Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose has the Bulls on top of the Eastern Conference.
That killer instinct he flashed most recently in the Bulls' blowout victory over Atlanta to atone for a loss to the Hawks earlier this month? Get ready for the NBA's leading MVP candidate to employ the same mindset to get past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in his pro career.

"Oh man. I don't want to think that far ahead," he said Thursday. "But it will be great just to make it past the first round. That's something we haven't done in a long time."

It's easy to forget, as Rose repeatedly and respectfully pays homage to the great Bulls teams of the past, that his strongest memories of his hometown club are not ringed by rainbows and championship rallies, but rather the bitterness of the past 12 years, which began before he even got to Simeon High.

"Trust me, I hear about that," he says of the lean years, which encompass his first two seasons in the league. "I think we're pretty close [to getting over the hump]. The city is feeling good, getting to have something to brag about again. It feels good when you're out and people come up to you and say you're one of the reasons they watch the Chicago Bulls again. That's a great feeling, especially being from Chicago.

"I remember in high school when my family members would be over watching like a football game or whatever, and turn right past the Bulls' game and just keep going. That was crazy at the time, but now, I think people are tuning into us."

He thinks? They are tuning in and then some. If not quite the wild mobs that threatened to tip over the team bus when the Jordan-Pippen teams were winning six NBA titles, then pretty darned close, judging from the Bulls-heavy crowds on the road for much of the season but especially of late.

And let's not kid ourselves; it is Rose they are turning out to see, those with the fraying Jordan jerseys, yes. But also a new generation that barely remembers Dennis Rodman, much less Horace Grant.

"I think the city's been waiting on it, the fans have been great following us around. Everywhere we go, we have at least half the fans," Rose said. "Fans are going crazy right now. You really can't go anywhere no matter where you are, no matter what city you're in. It's a great feeling. I wouldn't change it. But sometimes it is kind of crazy."

Because Rose is nothing if not refreshingly honest, we have been given the treat of watching him evolve as both a basketball player and a national celebrity, of seeing him sincerely react to everything from the concept of one day becoming the league's MVP to perhaps winning it as soon as this season to rightfully winning it this season. And we saw him go from a "Why can't it be me?" attitude to "That would be nice" to "I can't even think about it right now."

But on the court, Rose sure seems more in tune with Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy's assessment Wednesday night that it appears a foregone conclusion that he will win it.

Rose prefers to call his performances over the past few months "playing with an edge" rather than a swagger, but he has no trouble crediting it to the diligent work he put in last summer, working out with a private trainer while at every practice with the U.S. national team.

"A lot of players talk about it but they really won't do it," he said. "It makes you feel good as a player knowing that all the hard work you put in is finally showing."

But more than that, he said, flashing still another obvious source of motivation, is "just being back on a winning team. I haven't been on a winning team since college, and it feels good."

That confidence is what we're seeing now in every game, fostered by the experience of having to perform up to expectations and actually doing it at age 22.

"I think his confidence and poise comes from his preparation," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "This is his third year in the league, he's been through it, he's seen a lot of different defenses. But he has put the work in, and I think that's what has really prepared him for this so when he gets in a tight situation, he has a lot of confidence to go to all the things that he's been working on."

He said he is handling all the craziness surrounding him by simply staying himself.

"Just staying humble, that's just the way I am, just being myself," he said. "I'm not trying to be anyone else. I'm not a movie star or a model or anything. The things you see me do, I'm doing it because it's fun and I just want to take a chance with it. And it's my hometown, so I just do it. But I'm really a basketball player, nothing other than that."

If it feels like we're watching more polish than work-in-progress, it is probably because we are. And whether Rose does walk away with MVP honors this season, it is staggering to consider how many more years he will remain in the conversation.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.