Derrick Rose is celebrating his 27th birthday Sunday, in a different place than he was two years before that, or two years before that.
Where he’ll be two years from now will largely depend on how he plays in the next two seasons when he’s available—if he’s available. At 25, Rose was gearing up for his return after missing the entire 2012-13 season with an ACL tear, with many in the NBA world holding the belief a Rose-led Bulls team could challenge the Miami Heat for supremacy.
As he blew out the candles on that day, one wonders his level of confidence in coming back from that first injury and if he had fears, it didn’t take long before they came true, tearing his meniscus in Portland 10 games into that season.
At his 23rd birthday, the NBA was in a lockout, nearly two months away from a solution that would put the lights back on in arenas but Rose’s internal lights were at optimal efficiency, likely gnawing at the bit to get back on the floor for an encore to his 2010-11 MVP showing.
One can imagine the lack of doubt he had on that day, relative to his confidence.
Today, his confidence and doubt can likely be somewhere square in the middle of those two points, as he recovers from an unfortunate facial injury he suffered on the first day of training camp that required surgery.
The harmless naivete that comes with being a 23-year old with the world at your feet, illustrated by fearless drives to the basket while looking guys a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier square in the face has perhaps been diminished a bit.
It appears he’s been hardened, not by the treacherous streets of Englewood, but by the frailty of “unconditional” praise and more tangibly, the fragility of a body that seemed impervious to serious injury.
He’s learned—or is learning—that universal love is conditional, even in the hometown he’s never left, save for a collegiate season at Memphis.
Last season and the subsequent spring showed him an intersection between the doubt and validation toward to the success he once attained from what felt like many moons ago. Playoff game winners against the likes of LeBron James, sterling moments where it appeared he could get to wherever he wanted to on the floor made him feel invincible, or at least very close to the heights he once attained, gave him and everyone else reason to believe better days aren’t far behind.
But the injury he suffered in late February combined with the way the playoffs ended—being bottled up by the likes of the marginal Matthew Dellavedova amid rumors of discord with his talented teammate, Jimmy Butler, put enough doubt in the minds of many who wanted to believe only injury could slow him down.
And then came media day, with the ensuing drama that came along subsequently.
It places him in a precarious position, one that challenges the phrase “benefit of the doubt” in more ways than one as he enters yet another career intersection, another career crossroads.
Rose has become less introspective and more outward, at least in spurts. While some have viewed his statements about free agency two years from now as a negative, it speaks to uncertainty more than arrogance or even abject greed.
He spent this summer training with Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, who seems obsessed with availability to the point that it’s tacitly used to discredit whatever ailment Rose may be enduring at the moment, and the two likely saw the money being handed out by teams as the influx of salary cap cash from the new national TV deals.
Westbrook will hit free agency the same summer as Rose, and there’s no doubt he’ll receive a max contract. Teams will be lining up to pitch to him.
Rose’s future isn’t so certain, and his highly-criticized statement revealed some rare vulnerability as opposed to bravado. If he regains some level of NBA prominence by his play, becoming the feared player on the scouting reports as opposed to the one who fans fear will never earn true praise again, he’ll receive that maximum contract without much consternation.
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If his availability comes into question, so will his contractual status.
Hence, view this statement through the lens of someone who doubts whether he can reclaim a certain preeminence in the league.
“I know I’m great,” Rose said. “There’s a lot of people that don’t know I’m great, that’s the thing. But it’s cool. I know I can hoop.
“You can put me anywhere and I know how to play the game of basketball. I can’t get mad at people for how they criticize my game and the way that I play, or the way that I used to play. I know I’m great, and that’s it.’’
So when Rose blows out the candles two years from now, will he view 27 as the starting point or better days long gone?