- Shaun Assael, ESPN Senior Writer
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The Englewood section of Chicago is in virtual lock down. Police are hunting for suspects in the murders of actress Jennifer Hudson's mother, brother and second-grader nephew. Mourners and neighbors still manage to view the scene, some leaving stuffed animals on the stoop of the plain white house sealed with the familiar yellow crime scene tape. The mayor is a holding a press conference that day, admitting that Chicago now rivals much larger New York as the Murder Capital of America.
Derrick Rose knows the corner where the killings took place. Two years ago, he might have walked past it on the way to shooting hoops in the nearby park. But now he's taking free throws at the Bulls practice facility 33 miles north in the calm suburb of Deerfield, the sound of his NBA debut the night before still ringing in his ears:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, from Chicago … "
The Bulls used to have a thing against drafting hometown kids. There are enough distractions for a rookie without the added pressure of regularly playing in front of friends and family. But Rose is the prodigal son of Englewood, the baby-faced point guard whose public school career garnered as much attention as the post-Jordan Bulls. And thanks to a remarkable twist of fate—a 1.7 percent chance that Chicago could get the top pick in the draft—he's been delivered back to his city.
The street cynics don't know what to think. They're so beaten down by gang violence they can't imagine optimism. It would be a lot easier for them if Rose screwed up. Crashed a car. Turned the town against him. Who could blame him for not being able to handle the expectations? Even Barack Obama calls him "The Man."
But Rose isn't about to hand anyone a reason to doubt him, or doubt Englewood, which he has tattooed on his left forearm. At Simeon High School, he won all but 12 of his 132 games. Then he went to Memphis and helped the Tigers to a 38-2 season. (He still winces at the mention of helping Kansas win the NCAA title when he missed one of two free throws with 10.8 seconds left in OT.) When he was drafted by the Bulls, Memphis coach John Calipari warned his rookie counterpart, Vinny del Negro: "Tell that kid he's not going to win 82 games. Because he doesn't know that. He's never had a losing streak."
And he's not about to lose Englewood if he can help it, not when he has a chance to show those kids in the killing fields that there's another way.
"When I was 10, I didn't know a neighborhood greater," Rose says. "If you had a fight it was just fists. At the park, it was just positive stuff. Now, it's crazy. You have kids dropping out of school at 13 and everyone has a gun. They don't care who's around when they go shooting."
Just being a rookie in the NBA is hard enough. Try being a rookie who wakes every morning to learn the neighborhood that raised you up is going down.
When he walks onto the court at the United Center, Rose sees their faces. There's the old AAU coach, his former history teacher, his barber. Maybe there's also Arne Duncan, the CEO of the Chicago Public School system, who says, "It's absolutely crazy that we let our school children live with so much fear every day. People in the outside world have no idea what they deal with."
One of Duncan's initiatives has been to open the city's public schools on Saturday, so that kids shadowed by violence have a safe harbor. But that didn't help Chavez Clarke, an honors architecture student at Simeon, when he walked out of his class last March 29. By the time he got to the school's parking lot, he was trapped between two gangs. Caught in the crossfire, he was killed instantly.
Rose learned about the homicide—the 20th of a Chicago public school student in that academic year—while he was in Houston, busy guiding Memphis to a Final Four berth over Texas. After the game, he used his national TV exposure to send a message to their mutual friends back home: "Stand up, Englewood."
Those words hung over a prayer vigil that was attended by some 500 people the next day. Reggie Rose, the second oldest of Barbara Rose's four boys and Derrick's manager, stubbornly refused to move out until six months later, making him the last member of the family to pull up stakes from the neighborhood. "Most of the kids between 17 and 22 have fathers who are dead or in jail," he says. "I knew a lot of their fathers. They're doing exactly what their dads did."
That wasn't going to be the Rose way. Reggie grew up playing. He finished his own high school career as the all-time leading scorer at Hubbard High, and between he and brothers Dwayne and Allan, they made sure Derrick would be sheltered. They kept watch and coached the family baby. Derrick won his first public school championship in the sixth grade. By the time he made it to Simeon's varsity team—a six-foot-three sensation already drawing comparisons to LeBron James—the Chicago Sun Times devoted a full page to his debut. The gym was so crowded the concession stand had sold out of food before he took his first shot.
Those memories make it easy for him to see Englewood through Rose-colored glasses: the way he used to sit on the porch of friends' homes until his ma called him back. The protective feel of pick-up games at the two-hoop Murray Park where friends helped shoo away the drug dealers and street agents. It's why he can still be light-hearted about life, so quiet and polite. His family and neighbors poured the best of themselves into him. He beams it back.
Part of him is still the shy kid who likes playing ping-pong and hanging out at his favorite pizza place, who still calls reporters "sir" and chokes on his laughter until he snorts. And part is exactly what you'd expect from a college sophomore who's dreaming big dreams in a dorm room—except that he's not in a dorm room or a sophomore or dreaming. "It's weird when people come up to me to ask for advice," he says. "I mean, I'm only 20. There's not much I can tell them."
He's not even sure what the contours of his new life should look like. In the spring, after he declared for the draft, he headed back to Englewood, just to look around. He was driving his Land Rover. And he was alone. He drove around his old haunts, looking for friends, until he heard the distant sound of gunfire. "My mom flipped when I told her what I did," he recalls. "She didn't want me ever going over there again like that."
The last time he was back was in early October to see his old school. But in the ensuing week, five residents lost their lives in a bloody three days. "Two were boys shot in the face," he says. And right then and there, Rose realized that things had to change. "My mom is right," he says, looking down at his sneakers. "I can't be driving by there anymore alone." So he's hired two security guards. Now, he calls them whenever he goes out.
Eddy Curry, who was 18 when the Bulls used the fourth overall pick to draft him out of suburban Thornwood High School, says that is only part of the adjustment. "You may be in the NBA, but you're going to the same barbershops and malls, and the people you see feel they grew up with you," says Curry, who needed three years to feel comfortable in the pros. "If you're not careful, you can fall into the trap of giving them tickets, making them feel like they really do know you. Before I knew it, I had 70 people at my games. When I tried to stop the madness, people started saying I was turning my back on them, that the money was changing me. Eventually I had to turn away from all that because it's not safe for you."
Reggie Rose is already seeing the signs. "You think that there's no way someone you know for 20 years can change so quickly," he says, trailing off before finishing the thought. "…But they do."
The Roses have a luxury box above the United Center so that Derrick can waive to them when he warms up. Yet the family cocoon that's protected him for so long is loosening. "My family is letting me become a young man," is how he puts it. He's reading music magazines for pointers on how the big-name hip-hop stars spend their money. And he's just bought a ten-room house near the Bulls practice facility in Deerfield to live. He also ordered a Maserati for the garage.
Considering what happened on April 29, the car may not seem like such a good thing. While he was driving home on I-88 at 2:58 a.m., Rose was clocked by a cop doing 105 mph in his Land Rover. But even that seems to show how much Chicagoans have invested in him.
Writing in the Sun Times, columnist Rick Telander noted that Rose "wasn't drunk or stoned. And, by golly, I recall going 108 mph in my dad's car when I was a dumb-ass teenager a thousand years ago. So can we cut 19-year-old Derrick this one break?"
It's a small request considering how much he has to carry—especially with veteran guard Kirk Hinrich is out of the lineup for three months with a ligament tear in his thumb—and how little slack he gives himself. Calipari worries that his work ethic isn't suited to the NBA. It's too fierce. "When he got to Memphis, Derrick wasn't sure he belonged," says Calipari. "So he spent hours in the gym. Not one-and-a-half hours. Six hours a day, to the point where his knees started bothering him."
That same obsession is taking a toll now, too. In the first two months of the season, Rose has been battling a range of nagging injuries, from a strained right hip in the opener to back spasms in November against Atlanta. But he's quietly gutted his way through them, showing a resiliency that the Bulls need at point by averaging 19.0 points and nearly six assists per game. (And only his backcourt teammate, Ben Gordon, is scoring more at 20.2.)
Just as important to the team, the small things that have bothered other Chicago rookies are rolling off Rose's back. Jay Williams, the point guard from 2002-2003, never got used to practicing in Deerfield and playing downtown. "Every time we played at the United Center it felt like an away game because we never practiced there," he says. But Rose is averaging 48 percent at home—five points higher than on the road.
So maybe you can go home again. Maybe you can take all the pressure and even forget about the fact that the two Chicago stars who proceeded you into the NBA—Curry and Antoine Walker, both former area HS stars and longtime Chicago-area residents—were bound and gagged in home invasion robberies last year. Maybe you can put out of your head what Curry says: "Some people will ask you for your money nicely, and some people will just take it." Or what Walker adds: "It takes you a long time to sort out your friends."
Because you already know what bad looks like. And you know how to get out of its way. Mike O'Brien, the prep-school reporter for the Sun Times, points out that Rose's entire team at Simeon fizzled in college. Rose is the only one who's made it.
A few days before Rose left on a West Coast road trip, a 17-year-old resident of Englewood named John Welsh became, by one count, the 446th murder victim in the city this year. He was shot in the chest on South May Street, about two miles from where the Roses used to live. There was a time where Derrick might have gone to the funeral and been a part of the community's grieving. But he's being asked to lead in other ways now.
"Everyone's not going to make it out of this neighborhood," says his old Simeon coach, Robert Smith. "Some kids here have real issues. But Derrick has put a different light on things. Through all the negativity, he's shown these kids they're not limited by where they come from."
He's also shown Chicago that he's poised enough to handle the first real losing streak of his career. On Nov. 18, Kobe Bryant confused the Bulls enough to force 21 turnovers, ruining a 25-point night from Rose. After that, it was onto Portland, where the Blazers went up 23-7 before Greg Oden made his debut. The Bulls are currently 2-3 on their traditional season-opening circus trip.
Rose has, for the most part, been upbeat about his experience thus far. But every so often, he reveals a rare glimpse into the pressure he feels—the pressure to lead. On a trip to Boston, watching Kevin Garnett electrify the Garden caused Rose to analyze himself. "I have to be more emotional on the court, talk a little bit more, yell," he said in the locker room afterwards. "It's so hard for me. I don't know why."
He was dressing while he spoke, revealing a body of tattoos that tells his journey out of Englewood. The front of his chest features a rose and the phrase Family First. The small of his back has the words God's Child. A wizard cradling a basketball rests on his left shoulder, alongside his nickname, Poodini. Below that is etched Englewood All-Star. And the first one he ever got, Only God Can Judge Me, rests on his right bicep.
Then there is the one he hasn't finished. It's a portrait of two hands cradling a baby and it spreads across his abdomen. He already knows what he wants the caption to say: A different breed.
Some in Englewood are beyond saving. Rose knows this first-hand. "They see me doing good but they think hanging onto the street hustling will get them a better job," he says. "I got a couple of friends back there still like that."
But there is still a chance to make the younger ones see their neighborhood through those Rose-colored glasses. "They just need to believe in themselves like I believed."
Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine
6hMike Fish and David Purdum