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Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Chance to star on bigger court

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Derrick Rose's road back from knee surgery is being documented by adidas in the web-only video series titled "The Return."

It is both a rare inside look into the life of an athlete when he's not on top of the world, and, if you're the cynical sort, a clever, hashtag-friendly marketing plan to promote the Rose brand.

After a clip from "The Return" played during a question-and-answer session with Rose and adidas vice president of global basketball Lawrence Norman at his shoe launch event last Thursday, something real happened:

Rose started crying on stage.

Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose didn't publicize in advance that he would attend the Chicago Peace Tournament, but his presence was important.

It was jarring and real, and it led all the coverage from the event. Who cries at their shoe party? Derrick Rose, that's who. It plays perfectly into his reputation as the "keeping it real star."

"It's truly a blessing," Rose said after 40 seconds of silence. "For all this stuff that's going on in this city, for a kid from Englewood having something positive, it makes me feel so good. Where this shoe is great, all this is great, but I can't explain this. I can't. I've been through so much, to have true fans, that means a lot to me and I know it means a lot to my family. Because we aren't supposed to be here, at all. But God made the way."

And that's when I stopped worrying about Derrick Rose being swallowed by the maw of corporate America.

"It didn't surprise me, because I know deeply he loves this city," said Rose's security chief Andre Hamlin. "The [school] strike thing, the killings. It's bothering the hell out of him."

Rose was unavailable for questions at the event, but the one I have for him has nothing to do with his knee or his new logo.

I want to ask if he thinks there is anything he can do for a city in need. Violence and gunfire are skyrocketing in pockets of Chicago, with homicides up around 30 percent from last year. Growing up in Englewood, Rose is all too familiar with the dangers of the city. Unlike Benji Wilson, the Simeon star who was shot outside of school in 1984, Rose made it out and he made it big.

Now, Rose is arguably the most famous person in the city and he's from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods. With everything he has going on in his life, should he take time out to say something, to do something? To his credit, Rose has used his Twitter account to deliver concise messages of this sort.

In one tweet, Rose wonders if he "should stay in [his] lane" because all he does is "hoop." The answer is no, no, no. More athletes need to speak out. In Rose's case, it could do wonders.

We live in a world where athletes can speak out to embrace social causes via social media and really spread a positive message. Football players like Brendon Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe and Scott Fujita come to mind. Rose seems willing -- he's opened for President Obama in Chicago -- and as he grows older, I hope he takes some risks in this regard.

But for now, it's an unfair question, but the start of a worthy discussion: What can one man do about deep-seated social ills like poverty and violence?

Despite his fame and fledgling fortune, Rose is just a basketball player, not a politician or a full-blown philanthropist. But the answer is pretty simple: Just by speaking out first and investing second, Rose can do a lot for his city, maybe more than he knows.

Wouldn't it great if Mayor Rahm Emanuel enlisted Rose's help for a PSA campaign? Or if CureViolence (formerly CeaseFire) teamed up with Rose to publicize its efforts?

As I suspected, Rose is already thinking of ways to help.

"We've all been sitting down trying to come up with something," said Hamlin, 39, who is an assistant basketball coach at Simeon Career Academy. "All of us have been trying to put our heads together and come up with something, because it's getting bad. It's getting bad. It's been a topic of a lot of our conversations."

Rose made a conscious effort to show up, unbilled, at Isiah Thomas and Father Michael Pfleger's Peace Tournament on Saturday. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson also came. Rose's presence was a big thing.

Hamlin wouldn't say it's Rose's responsibility to use his fame to help combat increasing violence, but he added: "I know it's something he can do, at least try. If we can save one person. If there's something someone can figure out for him to say or good advice he can do, he'll do it."

The 23-year-old star is in a highly unusual position, going from Englewood to Trump Tower in the time it takes some people to finish college. He is a role model who can connect with everyone. I have a lot of respect for Rose, because I see how he carries himself. I hear stories of his generosity and his heart.

NBA vet Jannero Pargo, an Englewood kid himself, has told me on separate occasions he thinks Rose can have more of an impact in Chicago than Jordan himself. Blasphemy? No way.

"He's from the city of Chicago, and more kids can identify with him," Pargo said last season. "They know where he's from, they go through the same things he went through throughout his life. I'm just saying he carries a lot of weight being from this city. To be able to do the things he's doing in this league is incredible. It gives a lot of kids in this area a lot of hope."

For a young man, Rose is uncommonly grounded and mature. He already uses his wealth to support family and friends, and lives by the initials E.E., which stand for "Everybody Eats." Through his partner Powerade, he helped refurbish his boyhood park.

No matter how rich he gets or how big he gets in Shanghai, Rose carries with him earned authenticity, street cred and a homespun personality. And as evidenced by his tears and his tweets, Rose cares deeply about his city.

At his event, and at the Ben Wilson documentary panel discussion at Simeon a few weeks back, I asked people close to him if they think he could make a difference by becoming more vocal.

Some might ask, can Rose, who isn't known for being overtly vocal, find the words to help? Of course. Anything he says or does is a news story and a viral sensation. He is probably the most popular person in Chicago.

"When he speaks people are going to listen, because of who he is," his older brother and manager Reggie Rose said.

"He's a very mild person," Rose's high school coach Robert Smith said to me after the screening of the Wilson documentary. "He leads by example. But I think his words would be huge in the community right now. For him escaping and getting out of the community, and other people still having the opportunity to do the same thing, I don't think they know that and they have Derrick as someone who can help them. He's someone they can reach and touch and see every day."

But in reality, talk is cheap. The root cause of violence is poverty, something one man cannot fix. But Rose has money to effect real change by creating alternatives for children. As I talked to him about this subject, Reggie Rose lamented the cuts that have decimated after-school programs. I asked him if they're planning something in that regard.

Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose began to cry at a recent event when he reflected on how far he has come from his days growing up in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood.

"We got a vision of that, it's actually in the working," he said. "We're taking time with it."

While nothing has been finalized yet, I was told adidas is working on a "major community initiative" with the Rose family.

This is very good news. An investment in infrastructure to combat violence and poverty is the kind of help that can really make a difference. But as Reggie said it's not that easy. The older brother is rightly hesitant about promoting the young Rose as some kind of savior.

"Money can't save everybody," Reggie said. "Even if we put all this money into a center, we need responsible adults to run the center and make sure these kids get educated the right way."

Sonny Parker is one of the adults doing it the right way in Chicago and he too is dubious about a celebrity's presence alone being a salve for deeper wounds.

"Part of helping, you got to do it all year-round, it can't be seasonal," said Parker, the former NBA player who runs a local foundation, and is the father of current Simeon star Jabari Parker. "We can bring people in and they can talk to kids. They know all this 'Say no to drugs, say no to gang violence' and all this stuff. They know that. But OK, what are my choices? They need to see some choices."

Rose already embodies the city's fighting spirit and its basketball culture. His people at adidas too know he can do more than move product.

"We certainly see him transcending the sport," Norman said. "He's already becoming a global icon, known all over the world. But I think the place he can and will make the most impact is here in Chicago. He has Chicago tattooed all over his body. He mentions it all the time to us, as far as he's 'got Chicago style.' I think it's up to Derrick the level of influence he can have, but the potential is great."

Rose's legacy in Chicago doesn't have to be limited to a personal logo, a banner and a steakhouse. Rose's ceiling is unlimited in more than basketball. While Rose's return to basketball will be a major event, I'm just as excited to see what he can do off the court.