Monday, January 24, 2011

Thorny Rose

Posted By on Mon, Jan 24, 2011 at 9:22 AM

Thorny Rose

I don't like Derrick Rose.

This isn't a view I enjoy, and not one I relish sharing. But it's a stance I've come to accept after more than two years of conflicted thoughts, an angel (wearing number 23) whispering on one of my shoulders, a devil (in number 1) screaming on the other. My dad used to advise me against such negative vibes, something about wasted energy in a realm (sports) that should be an emotional booster. But the logic didn't take. Roger Staubach was Captain America to me, so Terry Bradshaw's black helmet fit his villainous role in my life like Darth Vader's cape. Ozzie Smith was my guy when baseball season arrived, and to this day I harbor no fond memories of Ryne Sandberg, the anti-Ozzie then and forever. To this rogues gallery I'm now adding Derrick Rose's name. But it's much more complicated than a Steeler quarterback or Cub infielder.

click to enlarge derrick-rose.jpg

To begin with, I admire Rose's tremendous talents on the basketball court. Over my decade covering the University of Memphis program, Rose is the only player who has made me stare. He's the fastest player dribbling a basketball I've ever seen. He even seems to elevate faster when jumping, something I'm not sure is physically possible. The fact that he's in the discussion for NBA Most Valuable Player during a season that would be his senior year of college says much about how brilliant Rose already is, and suggests no ceiling for where he'll go over the next 10 to 12 years as a pro. There are some great young point guards in the NBA: Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook. If I were building a team, I'd take Rose over all three.

My distaste for Rose isn't personal by any means. Most would describe him with that most generic (if condescending) salute: "a sweet kid." Soft-spoken and (to this day) media shy, Rose would look a reporter in the eye when answering a question as a freshman Tiger. You could count his words with your fingers, but he aimed to play the role he knew came with athletic stardom. In this sense, he was more mature than some four-year players at the U of M.

Rose has apparently shunned the kind of entourage many stars of his age require, his older brothers the only "handlers" in his circle. Again, an admirable trait, even if his brothers may have been protective to a fault in preparing their future breadwinner for a necessary winter of college basketball. Only Derrick Rose could tell you if he knew of that now-infamous SAT plot, but he'll be buried before he does.

Which brings us back to my uncomfortable view of a perennial (to be) NBA All-Star. Had things unfolded a little differently in Rose's preparation for college, he'd carry a banner for Memphis sports fans the rest of his career. So he played only one season here. Penny Hardaway played but two, and he's an institution, even (perhaps especially) with an NBA career that fell short of expectations. Rose trumped Penny's college achievements by taking the Tigers to the Final Four. Had the only free throw Rose missed against Kansas in the 2008 championship game fallen through the net, the Tigers would have been national champions. Temporarily.

And that's where Rose will stand in Memphis sports history: a temporary fix like no other narcotic this hoops-mad town has ever seen. I've lived in Memphis 20 years now, and I've never witnessed community-wide euphoria like I saw in the late winter and early spring of 2008. Schools, budgets, Mayor Herenton, even race was all pushed back to allow more cheering of the top-ranked college team in the country on its way to the sport's biggest stage.

Look up to the rafters today, of course, and there is no 2008 Final Four banner. Pick up an NCAA record book and there is no 38-win season by the Memphis Tigers. (You'll notice that no banner has been raised for the 2010 NIT team. I'd have trouble putting such a tribute two slots away from the "vacated" Final Four flag.) And there's no other way to put this: when I see those "vacancies," I see (and remember) Derrick Rose. And when I see Rose play for the Chicago Bulls now -- when he's racking up his first career triple-double against our own Grizzlies -- I see those vacancies. It's a bit of a curse, as Rose is going to be prominently visible long after the ache of a stripped season should subside.

Derrick Rose was not the first, nor the last one-and-done hoops mercenary to lace up sneakers for the Memphis Tigers. And I don't think there was any malice in his approach to an NBA-forced season of college basketball. But just as Rose led the Memphis community to heights it hadn't seen in years, he personifies the blemish on that amazing season, one that will never be forgotten for dramatically conflicted reasons. Makes it hard to cheer for him.

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