A Rose That Has Only Begun to Bloom
April 4, 2008
SAN ANTONIO (AP) - There is no shortage of cautionary tales in the neighborhood where Derrick Rose grew up.
"It's surprising that a little kid from Englewood, the South Side of Chicago, would come this far," Memphis' savvy freshman guard marveled one more time Friday.
And perhaps go farther still.
Even as Rose perched on a stool inside the Tigers' locker room awaiting Saturday's Final Four matchup against UCLA, one of his good friends and fiercest competitors from the AAU basketball scene, Eric Gordon, reportedly has made up his mind to skip his sophomore season at Indiana and jump into the NBA draft.
Rose said they hadn't talked in the past couple of days, but added, "If he chooses to go, I'm right behind him."
Yet in the next breath, Rose made it clear he was simply supporting Gordon's decision, not necessarily announcing his intention to follow closely behind - even if some in college basketball expect it to happen right after the tournament.
It hasn't hurt Rose's stock that he's coming off arguably his best performances of the season in back-to-back games.
"I've still got three more years to go," Rose said a moment later, but he had to clarify that, too.
What he meant is that he COULD stay that long. What he knows for certain is how fortunate he's been to get this far already. The family that wrapped itself around him like a protective cocoon never lets him forget that.
Four years ago, when Rose enrolled at Simeon Career Academy, he was handed a book about a prep basketball legend named Benji Wilson. It has become mandatory reading for kids at the school.
Wilson was the best high school basketball player in the land in 1984, a 6-foot-8 blend of smarts and skills who led Simeon to the Illinois state title. One brisk November afternoon, while walking down a sidewalk outside the school with his girlfriend, Wilson bumped into two gang members and barely got out the words, "Excuse me," when one of them pulled out a gun and shot him. Wilson died the next day.
It's a measure of how much hope he inspired that all these years later, kids who weren't born when he was gunned down play in the Ben Wilson Memorial Gym and the best of the best still vie for the honor of wearing his No. 25 jersey. Nick Anderson, a teammate who went on to play at Illinois put the number on there and then wore it for the remainder of his pro career. NBA star Kevin Garnett, who arrived in Chicago for his senior year of high school in 1994, heard the story and began writing "BW" on his sneakers.
"I wore No. 25," Rose said quietly, then pushed back on the stool.
"For him to get shot like that, just outside of school, man ..." he added, then let his voice trail off.
Rose's oldest brother, Reggie, never stopped fretting about where Derrick was, or who was he hanging around with from the time Derrick was old enough to dribble a ball. Reggie was nine years old the day Wilson was shot, but the memory remains as vivid as ever.
"The three older brothers, we all went to Harper High, but everybody knew about Benji," recalled Reggie, still working on last-minute travel plans to bring the rest of the clan together in San Antonio for Saturday night's game. "Michael Jordan was just starting out with the Bulls, but back then, if you were a kid, what you hollered every time you put up a shot was 'Benji Wilson."
It's impossible to calculate how much time the Rose brothers invested in Derrick, one or the other always instructing him or keeping a watchful eye open for gangbangers, street agents and anybody else they thought could derail their little brother's future. Derrick hardly needed toughening up, but they made that part of the mission, too. Every practice session had to end with a made shot, and sometimes several, no matter what.
"I remember the time I cracked my elbow and Allan said I couldn't leave until I made some lay-ups with my left hand," Derrick said, smiling at the memory. "I was in sixth grade. He said I had to made six in a row. I was kind of mad at the time, but now I thank him for that every day."
UCLA coach Ben Howland might not know Rose's backstory, but he had little trouble spotting the toughness it produced.
"Because he's so strong, he can get wherever he wants to go," he said. "I saw one play against, I believe it was Texas, where he went up and grabbed the ball on a rebound on defense, two hands, way above the rim.
"It looked like Jason Kidd or Sidney Moncrief or something. Went coast-to-coast like a bull at the time, about three seconds, if that, to the other end and laid it in."
At times like that, Rose's game resembles that of his latest hero, LeBron James, whose No. 23 he asked to wear when he arrived at Memphis. But the resemblance extends only a little further, since at 6-3 and 195 pounds, he hasn't even filled out enough to look like James or the first No. 23 he idolized, Michael Jordan.
But from a leadership standpoint, his teammates see flashes of both NBA greats.
"He came in with a lot of hype. It didn't get to him at all," backcourt mate Chris Douglas-Roberts said. "He always tries to, you know, pump up his teammates and give all of his teammates the credit. We noticed that immediately.
"Being able to play with that much heart and that ability and still being a great teammate, it's hard for a freshman," Douglas-Roberts added, "but he made it look easy. It was an easier transition for him than I've seen for many freshmen."
Part of it, no doubt, has to do with where Rose hails from, where kids either grow up in a hurry or not at all.