It sounds like a parable, or a Disney script. In the city championship game, the best Chicago team of its era, maybe the best team in the country, is struggling. The star, who won last year's state title game with a buzzer-beater, is in foul trouble, and his team is in a dogfight with a school it should be crushing. At halftime some players grumble about the refs. And that's when the star, a local legend whose game is so loud he rarely has to open his mouth, speaks up. "It's not the officials' fault we're throwing the ball away," he says. "The refs aren't missing free throws. It's us. Stop making excuses and play."
An hour or so later, the Wolverines of Simeon Career Academy have hammered Washington 89-57. The star finishes with four fouls, sitting during a third-quarter rally that blows open the game. He doesn't care. Three weeks later his team becomes the first Chicago Public League team in history to win consecutive state titles. The star finishes with eight assists, seven boards and … two points. Again, he doesn't care. "He was as happy as if he'd scored 40," says Simeon coach Robert Smith. "He cares only about winning."
Thing is, this isn't Disney. This is Chicago, where a get-mine mentality is as much a part of local hoops tradition as Jordan jerseys. So this is where it becomes clear that Derrick Rose is a new kind of Chicago baller. Says Smith, "You get a kid like that once in your time." Now it's Memphis' time.
JOHN CALIPARI'S Tigers, who've made it to the Elite Eight two years running, will rush the court with a roster that is 40 minutes long, 10 players deep. And all of them are thrilled with the addition of Rose. "I love playing with him," says guard Antonio Anderson. "He knows when to shoot and when to pass. He'll beat his guy and force the rest of the defense to help. When he does, we've got four guys who can go for 30 any night." One of them, guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, says, "His basketball IQ is really high, and he makes us a much more athletic team." Memphis already had a top-flight backcourt, with Anderson, Willie Kemp and Douglas-Roberts. And its big men—Joey Dorsey, Robert Dozier and Iowa State transfer Shawn Taggart—run the floor and defend. Add Rose's combination of quickness, fullback strength, viral-video hops and that absurd unselfishness, and you see why the Tigers believe they're ready to grab the school's first NCAA championship. Rose, though, prefers to tamp down the skyscraping expectations. "We'll be decent," he says. "We'll probably make the Tournament." Of course, he smiles when he says it.
There's no stopping it now. Rose has opened the title-talk floodgates on the lower Mississippi. But he has done something even more impressive up north. The pride of the South Side has spearheaded a restart of the Chicago recruiting pipeline. After quite a drought, Chicagoland players are once again imposing their will on college hoops. In addition to Rose, Sherron Collins at Kansas, Jon Scheyer at Duke, Jeremy Pargo at Gonzaga and Bobby Frasor at North Carolina could all be playing key roles deep into March. And those are just some of the guards. Rose may be the latest to the party, but he is the face of the resurgence.
It's been a while since the City of the Big Shoulders unloaded such a torrent of talent. Once, Chicago players like Tim Hardaway filled it up from the point, Mark Aguirre filled it up in the paint, and Nick Anderson filled it up from anywhere. But from the late 1980s through the 1990s, the biggest games sprouted in places like Texas and the Tidewater, and the biggest names came from Southern California and northern Manhattan. Chicago? It was home to surefire stars who flamed out. Who can remember Ronnie Fields, Rashard Griffith, Thomas Hamilton and Leon Smith?
And the city was home to tragedy. The worst was the death of Ben Wilson, a 6'8" high school superstar who led Simeon to a state title as a junior, in 1984. With a versatile game likened at the time to Magic Johnson's, Wilson was the top-ranked prep. His killing shocked the nation and woke the city to the carnage befalling an entire generation. But it also haunted Chicago's hard-court lineage.
Of course, violence was only part of the story. Poor schools, corrupt coaches and street agents, an inefficient city bureaucracy—all led to the draining of Chicago's talent pool for the better part of a decade. City teams, despite all that population and tradition, even had trouble in the state tournament. Between 1987 and 2004, two Peoria schools won a combined six state titles; Chicago's entire Public League won four. Meanwhile, city kids struggled to meet the NCAA's academic requirements. Yes, every so often a Juwan Howard or an Antoine Walker bounded out of town and into a great career. And yes, Kevin Garnett transferred to Farragut Academy from South Carolina before his senior year. But more often, Chicagoland ate its young. Or ignored them. When Dwyane Wade burst into superstardom at Marquette, Chicago-area fans were as surprised as the rest of us. Few had noticed the tweener guard who played at Richards High in Oak Lawn, a few miles west of the city limits. "Nobody knew about him," says Smith.
Wade made hoopworld begin to pay attention again. It was Rose, though, who made Chicago a must-see destination. His YouTube dunks and a28-point, nine-assist, eight-board performance in an ESPN-televised victory against Oak Hill last winter solidified his spot at the head of his class. More important, his brilliant career at Simeon, during which he led the Wolverines to their first state titles since Wilson played for them, has college coaches from outside the Midwest swarming the Windy City and its suburbs. "When the scouts come in and see a Derrick Rose, they're also coming to see if there are more like him," says Donavan Foster, a point guard at Curie High who has committed to Detroit Mercy. "He paved the way." Schools that had rarely recruited in Chicago before are even trolling for a piece. Oregon State signed shooting guard Michael Stovall from Marshall High last season, and Oregon landed verbal commitments from two of this year's top seniors, Farragut center Michael Dunigan and Hales Franciscan guard Matthew Humphrey.
The scouts are finding more than just players when they come to Chicago. They're seeing a reinvigorated public league, with more top-to-bottom balance than in the early 1990s, when Martin Luther King High was the alpha program. "The kids have figured out it's better to go to a school where they can play and improve than to go to a stacked team where they'll sit," says retired Robeson High coach Charles Redmond, who saw Chicago's prep hoops at its worst. School reforms have made players more aware of what they need to do to qualify academically, and unlike many urban areas, the city is actively funding the game: Gyms and playgrounds have been renovated and opened to the public, and an anonymous donor in 2005 pledged $2 million so Public League players would get free sneakers. These days, too, coaches from grammar school through high school have to be trained and certified. In the summer, the city runs free camps that stress skill and drill rather than wins and losses. "City coaches get paid to be at the camps, so the kids are getting a lot better training," says Curie coach Mike Oliver. "It's not just throw the ball out there."
In the fall, Oliver runs a Saturday-morning league in which high school teams face off, without their coaches, to get ready for the season. The games give lower-tier kids a chance to be seen by D2 and D3 recruiters. Chicago prep teams also travel freely to holiday tournaments and play national games again, now that a state-mandated limit on travel has been relaxed.
It is all good news for the Second City. Smith is not the only one who thinks all of the city's programs will soon be bearing even more well-prepared players. "I think we're still behind in terms of respect," he says, "but the talent is as good as anywhere in the country."
CHICAGO SHOULD thank Rose, not only for putting the city back on the hoops map but also for providing a shining example for future phenoms. Rose avoided the traps that caught those earlier would-be stars. He might have taken the city by storm as a high school sophomore, but, he says, that only made him play more scared. "Every year in Chicago, there are guys who come up strong but in their junior year they fall off because they get big-headed," he says. "That was always the scariest thing to me."
When it became clear that Rose was uniquely gifted, his family circled the wagons. His mother, Brenda, stood sentry, making sure he didn't get in any trouble on the streets of their gang-ridden Englewood neighborhood. "If I was hanging out somewhere I shouldn't be, she could just tell," Rose says. "So I didn't put myself in that drama." On the basketball side, Brenda put Rose's three older brothers in charge, and when the options provided by local travel squads were deemed unsatisfactory, Derrick's brother Reggie started his own.
Reggie isn't about to take credit for his brother, though. Once, at a tournament, an AAU coach asked Reggie to diagram the press offense he'd just watched Rose employ. "I was like, What offense?" Reggie says. "Derrick just figured out how to beat the press and told guys where to go. Made me look like a pretty good coach." The youngest Rose knows his life is about to get a bit more complicated. "When I was getting recruited, I watched Coach Cal yell at practice, and I know I'm gonna get it," he says. "But that's why I came here. I want him to push me."
In October, at one of UM's first workouts of the new season, that's just what happens. When the freshman takes the ball at the top of the key and stops to look for a teammate, Cal hollers, "Drive it! Drive it! Driiiiive it!" Calipari will tell you his goal for the kid is very simple: "I want to bring out the animal in him, so that he's dominating on both ends of the floor to where the opponent doesn't want to play anymore."
The Tigers run a version of the trendy Attack Attack Skip Attack Attack offense designed around dribble-driving, then kicking out to an open shooter or a more open driver. The first principle, though, is to look for the layup. It's a new concept for Rose, who at Simeon directed half-court sets when his team didn't have the numbers for a break and always looked for others first. "Even on a break, when I get it and just go and see who comes with me, Coach is like, 'Uh-uh. Know where you're going first,' " Rose says.
Although Rose has won all his life, he's rarely let himself go. As a junior at Simeon, his dramatic shot to win the state championship was the first time he'd ever hit one at the horn. Never had to before. Even after he did, Coach Smith still had to tell him that if he didn't shoot 10 times in a game, the rest of the team would have to run in practice. "His whole life, he's given up his points for somebody else's," Smith says. Rose shrugs when asked why. "A lot of times, I just didn't feel like scoring," he says. "I like to see my friends score. It makes me happy. Basketball for them might come to an end pretty soon, but they can always have that memory."
Rose has never been comfortable with attention. The stares he got from Simeon classmates made him skittish, and he eagerly ceded all recruiting calls to his brothers, Calipari's included. "Makes my job easier now," says the coach. "I can tell kids who think I should be calling them all the time, like I'm their girlfriend, that I only talked to Derrick Rose twice." Nothing makes Rose wince more than people comparing him and Isiah Thomas or Jason Kidd. "I'm nowhere near them," he says.
Rose isn't about to hog the spotlight, but he won't shrink from it, either. He's been known to strike a pose after a dunk, and his nickname from childhood, Pooh, has morphed into a tattoo, Poohdini, inked into his left shoulder above a picture of a wizard. "I've always liked magic tricks," he says.
For his next trick, he'll attempt to levitate Memphis to places it's never been before. So he'll maul people as an on-the-ball defender and make the Tigers a better pick-and-roll team. "He just has to be Derrick Rose, and we'll be fine," Calipari says.
And maybe much more than fine. If the Tigers do win that championship next April, and if Rose heads to the NBA in June, it will be because he fit right in, lifted everyone around him and put his team in the record books. Nothing he hasn't been doing all his life.
Ask anyone in Chicago.