Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Riske Business: My Hoop Dreams for Derrick Rose

I’ve loved basketball ever since I was a kid. It’s a hobby I care for almost as much as movies.

Being a die-hard fan of the Chicago Bulls, I have been having a lot of trouble recently making sense of the Derrick Rose narrative. How could the basketball gods let an exciting, elite player on the rise go down to devastating knee injuries two seasons in a row? Derrick Rose was supposed to be the white knight – the Chicago area kid who “made it,” unlike the late Benji Wilson, Ronnie Fields or William Gates before him. It seems unfair.

But if I’m being honest with myself, it seems unfair to ME more than anything. My beloved franchise is being held hostage by one player and his injury. Even though they are tied together, I would much rather have another Bulls championship than a healthy Derrick Rose. This makes me feel dirty and sad and I don’t want to feel dirty and sad about my favorite team and their star player. It goes to show you how odd the anger of a sports fan can get when faced with a prolonged injury.

I wanted to have a new perspective, a new narrative about the injury, so I got to thinking about Derrick Rose in relation to William Gates in the great documentary Hoop Dreams. The similarities were eerie. But more importantly, it put gave me a perspective us sports fans don’t usually give to athletes – they are people first and athletes second. Hoop Dreams reminded me that I should be caring less about the accolades and prizes and care more about enjoying the ride.
Basketball takes on an almost mythic quality in the Chicago area. It might be hard to understand if you are not from here. Chicago basketball fans adopt junior high phenoms, track their high school careers, scout them in college and cross their fingers that one day a local kid like NBA great Isaiah Thomas, Miami Heat superstar Dwayne Wade or current Duke freshman Jabari Parker will make good and maybe even one day don a Bulls jersey and lead the team back to glory. It finally happened in 2008, when the Bulls drafted local Simeon High School star Derrick Rose out of the University of Memphis. It was sort of a miracle that Rose ended up on the Bulls; going into that draft’s lottery, the statistical probability of the Bulls ending up with the number one pick was 1.7%. And they hit it and could draft Rose. One of our kids was going to “make it." And they were going to “make it” in Chicago – where they belong. Finally. It’s as if the basketball gods were smiling on us and a hero’s journey was lining up perfectly. The narrative was too perfect for this good fortune not to mean something, i.e. another Chicago basketball dynasty with Rose at the helm.
Rose making it to the NBA and performing at that MVP caliber level is important. I’m reminded of the scene early in Hoop Dreams in which William Gates is awestruck watching Michael Jordan play in the All Star Game. He then goes outside with a ball in his hand to shoot hoops. That’s it right there. Probably a million kids (including myself) have done that at one point in their lives. They see an athlete that is so spectacular, so exciting that they physically feel the need to immediately get out there and play ball to get better, if not just to share in the elation of the experience. That's why Derrick Rose playing matters. If he’s off the court with injury, present day kids (especially the ones growing up in dangerous neighborhoods like Rose himself did on Chicago’s South Side) can’t get inspired in the way that my generation was with Michael Jordan. The next Derrick Rose or Michael Jordan might not come to fruition because they didn’t have that hometown hero to see on TV -- the one that makes them want to run outside to shoot baskets and improve their game.
Another movie that comes to mind when thinking about Rose is, oddly enough, Purple Rain. Remember the end of Purple Rain where Prince takes to the stage and sings “Purple Rain,” followed by “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m A Star?" The crowd stands there in complete awe for the first song. They are moved. For the second and third songs, it’s a big party and we’re all together celebrating the joy of seeing an artist performing at the peak of his powers. It’s one of the greatest shows on Earth. The sequence in Hoop Dreams with Arthur Agee taking Marshall to “State” is the same thing. Look how much joy that experience brings to him and his family. He was “in it,” right Natalie Portman? He was in that purple rain. Derrick Rose’s 2010-2011 MVP season was like watching the end of Purple Rain on repeat for 6 months. It was the best. This is what a basketball fan lives for.

Then it all fell apart. Rose has had two devastating knee injuries that have kept him off the court since April 2012. I was there in person when he went down the first time. It was at the United Center during the first game of the playoffs, and the Bulls were winning with the clock running down. Rose went up; by the time he was down, he had torn his ACL, an injury that sets an athlete back for upwards of a full year. I never wish to have a live sports experience like that again. It felt like someone got shot. A crowd of 20,000+ cheering in elation for a local hero and their team one minute and the fate of the franchise and its star player in question the next. I felt sick. It was awful.

I recall Patrick and JB talking about a trip they took to the Sci-Fi Spectacular during the opening of the Do the Right Thing podcast and that takes me back to the day of the Rose injury. After the game, my friend and I were going to go straight from the United Center to celebrate a Bulls win and enjoy a slate of movies at the Sci-Fi Spectacular. We still went, and it only made things worse. We had the misfortune of entering the theater as Brazil was playing and let me tell you, Brazil is the worst movie imaginable to watch when you are sad. After the movie ended, with my friend and I now near overwhelmed by malaise, we went to Burger King to have a couple of Whoppers. They tasted like broken dreams. That day was weird.

I even had a sick feeling in my stomach before the game. I’ll always remember standing in line to get into the arena and two little kids were throwing a Derrick Rose doll around and letting it constantly hit the ground. As any Chicago sports fan has no problem doing when they see something this egregious, I told the kids to have some respect for D-Rose and not let him hit the ground. I was serious. You don’t let the plush version of your team’s saving grace take a beating like that. Children are naïve. I get that. They don’t know what they’re doing. But this couldn’t have been a coincidence. Those were voodoo children.
Rose took a huge amount of criticism for taking well over a year off recovering from the ACL injury. He especially was taking heat because virtually all of his teammates were playing through their ailments. Fellow Bull Luol Deng was having a freaking spinal tap done. Joakim Noah was playing on two bad feet. Nate Robinson was puking into a trash can while overcome by the flu and Rose sat in his suit and tie on the bench, never suiting up despite the fact that he had been dunking and participating in team shoot-a-rounds (in front of fans, before games) for weeks. Something you never thought you would question in regards to Derrick Rose was called into question: his heart. Figuratively.

Rose came back in time for opening night this past October and all was forgiven. It was just good to have him back and the Bulls were immediately contenders again to contest defending champion Miami and their own star LeBron James. And then, before Thanksgiving rolled around, D-Rose hurt his other knee, requiring surgery. The team announced he was out for the remainder of the 2013-2014 season. Fuck! He just came back! He was playing sort of shitty, but there were flashes of his former greatness. That’s part of what makes this so hard. How much more can one guy take before it’s all gone? Will Rose come back to laughing under the purple rain? Or is he Under the Cherry Moon? Excuse me for a minute while I graffiti a bridge.

One element that I think gets lost in an extended player injury is their personal struggle. Sports fans cast them off like they passed away. Can you imagine how Rose must be feeling right now? How disappointed, frustrated and angry he must be? One of the injustices of sports is that a player’s gift is only around for a finite amount of time. It’s not like an actor or a writer or a musician who can share their art into their old age. Basketball players usually have until their mid to late 30s before physical wear and tear prevents them from being able to express their art anymore. The will is stronger than the body allows, and that fucking blows. If someone told me I couldn’t go to the movies anymore when I turned 35, I would be pissed off. That’s got to be one of the most frustrating things for Derrick Rose. In losing the last two plus years to injuries, he is being robbed of time to participate in his art and share it with an audience.
As evidenced in Hoop Dreams, William Gates knew that feeling all too well. It’s such a crushing blow in the movie when William is coming into his own as a sophomore at St. Joseph High School before going down to his first of two knee injuries. At one point, Gates even says “Everything was going great and now this.” It defies explanation and shows the precarious nature of life for athletes – at any moment, one of their gifts (and their livelihood) can all be taken away. It all stews into one big mess of doubt that’s not only physical but also mental, emotional and spiritual. Coming off the injury, can the player ever be the same again? When should he play? What if the team needs him? Should he have gone back out there? Does he play with confidence? Do his teammates have confidence in him? Does he have that killer instinct anymore?

William’s coach, Gene Pingatore, said it in frank and almost clinical terms. He said as a sophomore, everyone on the team was in awe of William Gates and by the time he was a senior, he was just another guy. Pingatore continues with the backhanded compliment of “He had a good career, not a great career.” That’s a tragedy of its own. Your name comes off the scoreboard, your basketball family moves on without you and you become just another guy on the street. How awful must it feel to have the mention of your name become synonymous with missed opportunity, frustration and disappointment in terms of your unique gift?

I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who one said (I am paraphrasing) that audiences love seeing someone who is good at his job. That sounds about right. In the end, I simply want to have more of that MVP season level of performance to enjoy as a spectator, and I hope for Rose himself that he is able to rise up back to that level. I don’t care as much about championships anymore. That doesn’t make or break a player and their legacy. Derrick Rose has already made it. I just want to see him underneath the purple rain again.

P.S. Dear basketball gods – please let the Bulls get Jabari Parker next year. Thanks!

I’d also like to dedicate this column to the memory of Paul Walker, another talent robbed of his life and his gift far too soon. My condolences to his family, friends and fans. 


  1. Hoop Dreams pointed out to me that being a talented athlete can be a very lonely and anxious life. William Gates had so many people counting on him and wanting or expecting things from him. I still remember his last words in the documentary (I am paraphrasing a bit): "People say, when you get big, don't forget about me. I want to say hey, if I DON'T get big, don't you forget about me."

    1. Great point. Just look at all those lonely train and bus rides they had to take at practically dawn just to get to St. Josephs.

      That last line that you pointed out is one of the most poignant, vulnerable things I've ever heard an athlete say in a sound bite. It's great because it's so honest.