Rose's roots spread hope in Englewood
Bulls star making impact as role model for youth in embattled neighborhood
CHICAGO -- Before every game at the United Center, while his fellow starters are introduced as hailing from collegiate bluebloods Duke, Florida and Kentucky, Derrick Rose is famously introduced as being from "Chicago," rather than the University of Memphis.
This provincial designation resonates with the fans, because Chicago is, above all else, the biggest small town in the world, and Rose is the native son.
But everyone knows the kid called "Pooh" isn't from the Chicago with which most fans at the game are familiar.
Rose hails from Englewood, a South Side neighborhood that is all but invisible to much of the city's inhabitants. You will never see a double-decker bus showing off Rose's boyhood stomping grounds. Aside from Rose's accolades, Englewood is mostly mentioned in a negative light.
After the Bulls' point guard won the Most Valuable Player award last week, one of his sponsors, Powerade, put up a billboard that said "From Englewood to MVP." "It's special that a little kid from Englewood won MVP," Rose said at his MVP press conference.
Rose's old neighborhood is about 13 miles south of the United Center, the Near West Side palace where 22,000 and change chant "MVP" at his every move.
In the hours before Rose claimed his MVP trophy and led the Bulls to a second-round playoff victory over the Atlanta Hawks, I decided to drive around his neighborhood. It was only fitting.
Rose talks often about Englewood, sharing small details about his youth and the trouble he escaped from, thanks to his family, friends and his prodigious talent.
His current house in a tony northern suburb, which he shares with three high school teammates, is -- in terms of environment -- a world away. He bought his beloved mother Brenda a house in the south suburbs. His brothers have moved out, too.
When the basketball season is over, Rose likely will go to California, where he's worked out with shooting coach Rob McClanahan the last few years. He'll film some commercials and work out at the Berto Center, the Bulls' practice facility in Chicago's northern suburbs. His main corporate partner, adidas, is utilizing him more and more as the face of the company. Rose got his first shoe this season, a piece of fortuitous timing that has paid off for the sneaker giant. Next summer, he will be on the Olympic team in London.
Rose doesn't mince words when it comes to his old neighborhood, consistently talking about the long odds the kids there face.
His boyhood stomping grounds abut the 7th Police District, where nearly 2,400 violent crimes have been reported in the past 365 days, the most in the city of Chicago, according to the Chicago Police Department's online database. The two neighboring districts, 6th and 8th, are third and fourth, respectively, in violent crimes, with more than 2,000 reports each.
"I try to go back there, at least drive through there, let people see me every once in a while," Rose said at practice in Atlanta. "But I haven't been back in a [while]."
Rose's progression from city star to international name brand is already part of the city's basketball lore, like Isiah Thomas' mother brandishing a shotgun at local gangs, or William Gates and Arthur Agee making their journeys public in "Hoop Dreams."
But while Rose is following in the footsteps of a legion of Chicago-born athletes, he has a chance -- by virtue of those 1.7 percent odds that paid off for the Bulls in the draft lottery three years ago -- to be the most meaningful athlete in the city's history, and yes, I'm aware I'm committing heresy.
Others agree with me. Because while Michael Jordan showed kids how to fly, and what sneakers to buy, Rose is proving that where you're from doesn't have to keep you from getting where you want to go.
"For him, the sky's the limit," said teammate and fellow Englewood native Jannero Pargo. "If he keeps playing like he's playing, he's going to be able to touch people in the community like no other. Not even Michael Jordan, because [Rose is] from here. I think it's really big what he's doing right now."
Oddly enough, Rose is one of the few modern MVP winners to come from a public high school in the middle of a major metropolitan inner city.
And no, I don't count Kevin Garnett's one year at Chicago's Farragut Academy. He is one of many Southern-bred MVPs.
You have to go back to Wilt Chamberlain to find a true corollary. Ironically, Chamberlain, a Philadelphia native, is the last MVP to win the award in his hometown.
While Chicagoans have filled NBA rosters forever, going back to Tilden's Johnny "Red" Kerr, Rose's landing in Chicago and ascending so quickly means that local kids have a homemade hero to look up to. It helps that Rose is made to be a role model. He's truly a nice person who hasn't yet learned how to big-time anyone.
"Kids have been rooting for Kobe or LeBron all these years," said Robert Smith, Rose's high school coach at Simeon. "Now they finally have a chance to root for one of their own."
Rose said he didn't have a lot of local NBA role models, but one of them, surprisingly enough, is Pargo, the Bulls' little-used bench player. Pargo is from Chicago's Englewood neighborhood and went to Robeson High School, then community college, and then Arkansas before catching on with the Lakers in 2002 and the Bulls in 2004.
"I met Antoine Walker when I was in high school," Pargo said. "That gave me the inspiration, gave me the drive. He's from where I'm from. If he can do it, I can do it. You just pass it down. It makes me proud that Derrick looked up to me."
Pargo is now one of Rose's biggest fans. Because Rose is so quiet and lacking the need to self-promote, people tend to get the wrong impression about him. He is more than just a gifted athlete.
"Trust me, he's a lot smarter than people think," Pargo said. "To play at the level he's playing at, you can't do that off sheer talent alone. A lot of people have talent in this league. But the way he's playing, he's playing smart."
Pargo is nine years older than Rose and stays involved at his high school, and because the reserve has a decidedly lower profile, he visits family in Englewood all the time. Pargo bristles at the notion that the neighborhood has worsened that much from his youth, but notes that he and Rose both have a responsibility to help.
If he keeps playing like he's playing, he's going to be able to touch people in the community like no other. Not even Michael Jordan, because [Rose is] from here. I think it's really big what he's doing right now.” -- Jannero Pargo
"I think it's up to us, Derrick and I, to make it a little bit better," Pargo said.
Down 79th Street, past the Salaam bakery, with the star and crescent high in the sky, past St. Leo High School, a proud monument to the legacy of Catholic education, past the many storefront churches, there is a secular outpost where people of all faiths can worship.
That's right, Harold's Chicken Shack.
There are Harold's outlets all over the South Side, and a few scattered elsewhere. Harold's is a welcoming, if not healthy, staple of many diets. Even if you don't know the cultural importance of Harold's, once you smell it, you'll understand the pull.
Inside Harold's Chicken Shack #43, a newer, modern restaurant tucked in between a Subway and a cell phone store at the corner of 79th and Western, is a mural of Rose that covers an entire wall. It's starting to get famous.
In the painting, Rose stands underneath banners at the United Center with his back facing the viewer. He is described as "The Rising Star."
Rose is the star of a national TV campaign, an All-Star starter, and of course, the MVP of the league. But his eyes light up when I mention a painting at a fried chicken joint.
"I swear somebody just sent that to my phone this morning," Rose said Saturday in Atlanta. "It means a lot, especially because Harold's is something I used to eat when I was younger."
Recently, a local T-shirt designer, Dwamina Drew, unveiled a shirt that is an homage to Rose and the Harold's logo. On the shirt, Rose is chasing a chicken with a cleaver on the front and the phrase "Four Wings and a Crossover" is on the back.
Rose's close friends heard about the limited edition shirts and went to a local boutique to buy some to wear to the playoff game where he accepted the MVP award.
With all of the official Bulls merchandise out there, including just-released MVP shirts, Rose's buddies wanted to celebrate his special day by wearing a shirt that has him chasing a chicken with a cleaver. And he loved it.
"I always wanted to do something with Harold's image," said Drew, who grew up partially in Englewood and has a fledgling clothing design business, Enstrumental. "Harold's is a solidified Chicago institution. Derrick Rose is on his way to becoming a solidified Chicago institution. So I wanted to combine the two."
From Harold's, it's a few miles to Simeon, where Rose really became famous. In every story about Rose, the poverty of his neighborhood is mentioned, and for good reason. But Simeon is a modern, new building, just opened in 2003.
"It's just like a suburban school," Smith says during a quick tour.
After a head-turning "career" as a middle schooler, every high school in the city wanted Rose. Led by his three older brothers, especially Reggie Rose, who starred at Hubbard High, Derrick wound up at Simeon Career Academy, a city school known for its discipline, but which hadn't won a state title since 1984.
Rose quickly matched his grade school titles with two state championships in his junior and senior years. Since then, he lost in the NCAA title game and is in the playoffs for the third time in three seasons.
Buoyed by good players, thanks in part to the success under Rose and Smith, Simeon has won the last two state titles.
As Rose's former coach, Smith constantly gets calls about his star pupil's exploits. One of his Simeon assistants serves as a bodyguard for Rose, as well.
While Rose made it to only one Simeon game this year, he makes it back to the school occasionally to watch his buddies play midweek pickup games, Smith said. Rose certainly identifies with the school, and his image is the first thing that greets a visitor in the form of a painting of Simeon greats.
Rose's framed jersey also hangs near the school's parking-lot entrance, not far from a small, framed black-and-white picture of Ben Wilson, the high school star who was shot to death just before his senior season in 1984. The gym is named after him. Rose wore Wilson's No. 25 jersey at Simeon.
Smith is always asked about Rose, and he uses his former player's squeaky-clean image as a carrot to get his current players to work harder. He was especially impressed with Rose's emotional MVP speech.
"It let you know he hasn't forgot where he came from," Smith said. "Some forget it. How they do, I don't know. But they tend to forget."
When Derrick choked up talking about his mother, Brenda, who raised her boys as a single mother, it really affected Smith, who lost his mother a month ago while she was waiting for a heart transplant.
"That hit right at home," Smith said. "Derrick and I come from similar situations, with mothers raising us on their own."
While Simeon can claim Rose as its own, Garnett's old coach at Farragut, William "Wolf" Nelson, said Rose belongs to the city.
"When you got somebody like Derrick, a product of the Public League right here in Chicago, it's not like he belongs to Simeon," Nelson said. "He belongs to all of us. That's a big thing."
A few miles from Simeon is Murray Park, the neighborhood spot where Rose practiced his tradecraft. At Murray Park, you don't want to get knocked to the ground, so you learn to contort your body to avoid contact. At Murray Park, maybe you don't have time, or inclination, to learn a textbook jumper, so you attack, attack, attack.
Two hours before Rose got his MVP award last week, about 100 kids, and a couple of reporters, assembled in the middle of Murray Park for a celebration of Rose's success.
The kids released red balloons to the sky in honor of Rose's MVP award. Two pastors and a local leader read a city proclamation declaring May 4 to officially be Derrick Rose Day. A community group sponsored basketball contests for the younger kids. Rose will return the affection by donating $25 for every point he scores in the playoffs to refurbish Murray Park.
"Good thing we just got the other rim," park supervisor Ivan Lee said.
The park is small but well-kept. There's a court, a field where the Junior Bears football program practices, some jungle gym equipment and a small building where they offer after-school tutoring and classes like "modern dance," according to Lee.
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"We try to do as much as we can with what we have," Lee said.
Lee is young and vibrant. He greets me, an unfamiliar face, as soon as I step foot in the park. He seems like a guy who loves his job. I ask if he's ever met Rose, but he said no.
"I have met a lot of his contemporaries," he said. "I'd like to meet him, but I don't want him to feel any pressure that he has to help out Murray Park. I'm sure he's got a lot of other things on his back."
Being Derrick Rose doesn't just mean driving to the rim. As he's finding out, he represents a lot more. And he's fine with that.
"I just want to be positive," Rose said. "I think it means a lot, especially to them kids now. They know that I'm young and I can relate to them. I'm not that much older than them. If anything, I could be like their big brother. But especially in Chicago, a lot of things that go on there are rough. I'm happy to be that guy people look up to, and I'm not running away from it."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.