Seven years ago, a Chicago Bulls executive stood on a practice facility court, holding a phone, practically pleading with his franchise star:
Please, please call him.
In Rose's mind, he was available to answer whatever questions James had about joining the Bulls in free agency. Chase him? The world was changing rapidly, and Rose wanted no part. The prospect of pitching praise on a fierce rival felt distasteful, desperate. Perhaps this was becoming common practice, but that made it no easier for Rose.
Above all, the Bulls' management and coaches knew they needed Rose's voice in this courtship, and were resigned that his reticence could cost them. Nevertheless, Rose was loyal to those on his team, loyal to the competition and, more than that -- this exercise ill-fitted his introverted persona.
Rose finally shot James a text message, but it all felt too hollow. As the rest of the NBA desperately tried everything to recruit James, Rose walked away from the phone, grabbed a ball and returned to work. He was on his way into a season when he would become the youngest MVP in league history, confident that he could battle James for years of Eastern Conference supremacy. Rose was always an enigma to his peers, a shy, quiet, but fiercely proud player who compromised nothing.
"Even when Derrick didn't want to recruit, it was respected," one of James' close associates tells ESPN now. "It's not who he is."
Ten months later, Chicago lost in five games to James' Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Never again did the Bulls and Rose advance so deep into the playoffs. Soon, the injuries started: a devastating ACL tear in 2012, torn menisci, lost months turning into lost seasons. James constructed powerhouses in Miami and Cleveland. Chicago crumbled, and suddenly, Rose found himself spit out of a season of New York Knicks dysfunction and into this gutted-out summer marketplace.
From the issues surrounding Rose's civil case, to an unexcused absence for a New York game, the Knicks' organizational mess, the season-ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus, yes, Derrick Rose needed a lifeline back into relevance.
Which is why the timing worked perfectly for Rose and the Cleveland Cavaliers, for Rose and LeBron James. This time, Rose needed James. And just maybe, James needs him, too.
Cleveland is starting to engage in trade talks to move All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, and the possibility grows every day that Rose could be afforded a significant role on these Cavaliers. Just a year ago, Rose still believed he could earn a $20 million a year long-term deal, but he accepted a one-year, $2.1 million veterans minimum deal. To regain his footing in the NBA, Rose wanted a real team with real games.
"A one-year deal on a bad team to try and put up numbers -- we did not want to entertain that way of thinking," agent B.J. Armstrong, a three-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls, told ESPN on Tuesday. "Getting up every day to go to the gym to just try and put up numbers -- that's not who he is. He didn't want to chase anything this summer other than, 'Hey, let's get around a group of guys who are like-minded, who are pursuing winning and be a part of that.'"
Rose tried hard to get top Western Conference teams to sign him -- the San Antonio Spurs, the LA Clippers -- but those teams passed. Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd had interest, but the Los Angeles Lakers and Cavaliers eventually made offers. Teams drafted point guards (Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Philadelphia 76ers), and re-signed starters (Toronto Raptors and New Orleans Pelicans) and found veterans on the market (Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves). When his old Bulls coach, Minnesota's Tom Thibodeau, chose Jeff Teague over Rose, it felt as if the market had bottomed out on him.
No one imagined this dramatic of a drop in the marketplace. Eventually, the Lakers wanted Rose to play behind Lonzo Ball, and be a mentor. Rose lives in L.A. in the summers, and loves Southern California, but he didn't want to imagine another losing season. Once James and coach Ty Lue became involved in the Cleveland conversations, Rose had a better idea about how it would work for him. In the end, the Cavaliers had interest regardless of the Irving circumstances, league sources said.
Seven years ago, James passed on the Bulls, and Rose didn't blink. He won the MVP, lost in the conference finals and expected it to go for years and years with James. Only, the injuries kept pummeling Rose, and the Bulls unraveled. And since then, somehow, James hasn't missed a trip to the NBA Finals.
This is unlikely to be an extended partnership, but Rose and James do have a season together. All these years later, Rose is trying to find his way into the NBA Finals, and for him, no more does it go through LeBron James. Now, it goes arm in arm. Yes, finally, Derrick Rose and LeBron James need each other.