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Much more than a fashion statement

CHICAGO -- Before Saturday's game against the Golden State Warriors, Derrick Rose told a friend to make sure he was there early and to get a picture of his warm-up shirt.

That wasn't necessary. Rose's shirt went viral.

During warm-ups, while his teammates all wore Chicago Bulls shirts, Rose wore a black T-shirt that read "I Can't Breathe," the last words of New York man Eric Garner, who died in July in a struggle with police, an unnecessary fight over selling loose cigarettes.

A video recording of the arrest shows Garner gasping and saying, "I can't breathe," during the fatal encounter. Those three words gained currency Wednesday when a Staten Island grand jury decided against indicting the officer responsible.

"I can't breathe" has joined "Hands up, don't shoot," the protest mantra from the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, as phrases that have entered our national lexicon. Chicago was among the cities where protesters gathered last week in reaction. Several St. Louis Rams players made their statement by coming onto the field last Sunday while making the "hands up" gesture.

After his show of support, Rose still had a game to play. Following a solid first quarter, he settled for too many 3-point attempts in an uneven outing in a 112-102 loss to the NBA's best team.

"He's got to attack. That's what his strength is," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He's got to go."

That's very true. But while you can debate Rose's reticence to drive to the basket in the fourth quarter, his quiet strength before the game should not be overlooked.

Rose, a young, fabulously wealthy man from one of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago, knew what he was doing wearing the shirt but chose not to explain why.

While his words would have resonated, the erstwhile MVP let his actions speak for him, leaving the locker room out of a side door while reporters waited to be let in.

Even without speaking, when a guy like Rose makes a statement, it stands out.

"Exactly, I said that to the guys," Warriors forward Andre Iguodala said. "That's a real issue if you got a guy like him, who pretty much stays to himself, and it affects him. He's an icon, and he's looked up to by so many. He's kind of the way Allen Iverson was, not in that magnitude, but he's in a position where he's so quiet when he does speak up, everyone listens."

Coming on the heels of a grand jury decision not to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, these stories are building on each other. America's athletes, richer than ever, with more to lose than ever, are setting good examples by speaking out in a positive, socially aware manner.

LeBron James was vocal during the Trayvon Martin case in 2012, and he has talked about Ferguson and the Garner situation as well. Magic Johnson wants to see more NBA players speak up.

"They have to get involved socially," Johnson said Friday. "They have to because it affects them too. And it affects their families. They grew up in these situations; they must not forget that."

Plenty of NBA players have long been concerned about social issues, particularly in the African-American community, and these cases have brought those feelings out into the spotlight, where they belong.

"I think when guys believe in something, they have the right to express themselves, especially in the manner of the way he did," Iguodala said. "Because of the situation coming right off Ferguson and what's been going on, something has to be changed. Because we come from that way, a place where we're targeted. People look at us and say we make a lot of money, we play basketball, we don't have any issues. That could be us. That could be any of our family members, so it hit real close to home."

It's not surprising that someone on the Bulls would speak up. They have a very conscious, very worldly locker room, and it's been that way for years.

"We talk about deep [stuff] in here," forward Taj Gibson said.

But with everything going on in his world, missing two seasons with knee surgeries and trying to get acclimated to playing basketball at the highest level again, I was surprised Rose made the statement, but not that he felt strongly about it.

Rose might live a world away from his Englewood upbringing in Trump Tower, but he is surrounded by familiar friends and family. He stays connected. Rose scoffs at the idea that he's "mute," but he's vocal only inside his tight circle of friends, family and teammates.

"He talks to us," Gibson said. "He doesn't talk to people he doesn't know. He's not into that, because he's in his shell. For the people he's close to, in his circle, we talk all the time."

Rose has spoken to reporters about the violence in Chicago numerous times over the years. He made news in May when he attended a funeral of Endia Martin, a 14-year-old who was shot and killed by another teenage girl. He showed up to Joakim Noah's "One City" tournament, a basketball game between "at-risk men" at the United Center, during the summer.

Noah, naturally, said he supports Rose "150 percent."

"I knew that Derrick was going to put that T-shirt on," Noah said. "I think he has every right to express his beliefs. He told me that he was going to wear it. I respect Derrick a lot. I think he's definitely making a statement by wearing it. That's my guy."

Rose is Gibson's guy too, more than ever.

"It was a big statement, especially for me being from New York," Gibson said. "It was big. I felt that that whole situation was bad. How it turned out was even worse. It's tough, tough."

Gibson is from the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn. The Garner case saddens him, he said, but he's resolved to lead by example.

"I'm pissed off, but we have to do it the right way," he said. "We can't just lash out. We can't just use our fists and hurt our own neighborhoods. That's why it's important you have to vote, you have to go to school and help your community."

"It's really sad what happened," Noah said. "Police brutality is something that ... it happens. Not every cop is a bad person. Not every black person is a bad person. You can't judge people. But he definitely made a statement by wearing that T-shirt."

Yes, he did. Even in a loss, Rose won in my eyes.