Derrick Rose at 26 is not the superstar he was, and he will never be that player again. With knee injuries that wiped out most of two seasons, the Chicago Bulls point guard was forced to view his life differently. Which is to say he started thinking there was more to it than basketball.
He has told those closest to him that he does not expect to play the way he did as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2011.
His legs are almost as strong as they were before the injuries, but he doesn’t take the risks he once did. He says he’s reluctant to soar and dunk with his 6-3 body, because he wonders how that body will feel 15-30 years from now.
Now he thinks more about his 2-year-old son, about wanting to play ball with him.
And he thinks about the world his son will grow up in, the dangers he will face.
Which is why Rose became the first major athlete to make a public sign of protest about police brutality against unarmed citizens. He showed up for pregame warmups wearing a T-shirt with the message, “I Can’t Breathe.”
Those were the final words of Eric Garner before a New York policeman put him in a choke hold that killed him.
“I’m a parent now,” Rose said. “Two years ago I probably wouldn’t have worn the shirt. But now that I’m a dad, it changed my outlook on life.”
Other professional athletes have followed suit in protesting violence by white police officers against unarmed black men and boys that they fear to be dangerous.
Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush wore an “I Can’t Breathe” message on his shirt, to the approval of his coach, African-American Jim Caldwell. “I grew up in the ’60s,” Caldwell said, “where everybody was socially conscious.”
But in an era when athletes can make millions of dollars from endorsements, there is reluctance to offend corporate America or government institutions. A previous Bulls superstar, Michael Jordan, was criticized for not being more socially involved. He famously explained, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
No doubt there are thousands of Bulls fans who would prefer for Rose to focus only on basketball and be like Mike, leaving social issues aside until he retires.
They may not appreciate Rose as much with his minutes down from his career average of 36.2 to 26.9 per game through the first quarter of this season. He’s now making 40 percent of his shots, instead of the 46 percent of his past.
It’s not that he’s lost significant accuracy, but he doesn’t drive to the basket as often as before. The dunks and contested layups are no longer a major part of his repertoire. He hangs out on the perimeter and scores 15.6 points per game – five points below his career norm.
Still, his other stats are comparable to what they were, and it’s not like he’s hurting his team. The Bulls are in a tight battle with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for first place in the Eastern Conference Central Division. Six Chicago players are averaging double-digit scoring, as Rose distributes the ball and keeps his teammates happy and unified.
But there are bigger concerns. “I don’t want my son growing up and being scared of the police,” Rose said, “or having the thought that something like that (Garner’s death) could happen.”