7:36 PM CDT, September 17, 2012
Last week, Bulls superstar point guard Derrick Rose shed a much-publicized round of tears during the unveiling of his new Adidas shoe. On the mend from a season-ending knee injury, his return not scheduled until late in the 2012-13 NBA season, with know-nothing douche bags like me speculating that he will not be the same player, Rose said this during his highly emotional press conference:
“It’s truly a blessing. With all of the stuff that’s going on in this city, a kid from Englewood has got something positive going on. That makes me feel so good. This shoe is great; all this is great. But I can’t explain this. I can’t. I went through so much. To have, like, true fans, that means a lot to me. And I know it means a lot to my family, because we’re not supposed to be here. At all. But God made the way.”
Shortly after his injury in the first round of last year’s playoffs I wrote that the Bulls should trade Rose and received one of the most hostile, aggrieved reactions on Twitter that I’ve experienced in all my years writing for RedEye. While my opinion of the long-term prospects of Derrick Rose’s NBA career remain bearish, I do admit that watching this video filled me with an awful lot of sports guilt.
Because Rose is right: as neighborhoods like Englewood experience one of the bloodiest and most senseless years in recent memory, Rose remains a hometown hero the way professional athletes can rarely be hometown heroes anymore. He comes from one of the most dangerous and intractable places on Chicago’s South Side, which means one of the hardest neighborhoods in America. As the teacher’s union and Chicago carry on their dispute, we remember that it’s all the kids who grow up without a lightning fast crossover that serve as the battlefield. It’s one of the places Barack Obama claims led him to public life. As Paul Tough puts it in his piece for The New York Times Magazine “Obama vs. Poverty”, it’s one of those neighborhoods, along with Roseland, where Obama supposedly saw that the only way to help anyone was to accrue political power, to come back for these neighborhoods someday.
It’s said that when Rose first started at Simeon Academy he wore No. 25 in honor of another Chicago star named Benji Wilson, who became the first Chicagoan to be ranked as the No. 1 high school basketball player in the country in 1984, and who was murdered in broad daylight by a 16-year-old kid while walking with his girlfriend on Vincennes Avenue.
Rose embodies this reality of big money professional sports: that some of the world’s most famous athletes come from the harshest circumstances, in pockets of the country that government and civil society has all but given up on. Yet unlike so many of those athletes who make it, Rose seems preternaturally possessed by the memories of people like Benji Wilson. As a recent GQ Profile suggested, despite being one of the most marketable athletes of his generation—the youngest MVP winner in NBA history—Rose also comes off as terribly lonely and, in age when fame is currency, highly uncomfortable with his own stardom.
As a dedicated sports consumer, I firmly believe it’s utterly pointless to think of the players and coaches within your preferred organization as anything but mercenaries. Yet in that piece about Derrick Rose, I failed to heed my own cardinal rule about the world, which is that any person and any situation has a political and socio-economic story behind it, and to ignore that story is to begin talking about something from a place of ignorance. This doesn’t change the escapist nature of sports (after all, it’s what I and so many other people look to in order to get away from thinking), but like everything else, sports often warrants a more thoughtful critique than it usually gets.
For me, that moment when Derrick Rose sucked in his tears to deliver a brief but incredibly telling statement—where he’s holding this stupid shoe he so clearly does not give a shit about, that everything Adidas-stamped surrounding him is so clearly artifice, part of the latter-day carnival he’s been told to perform his whole life by coaches and agents and managers if he wants to do the one thing that allows him space outside of his own head—it served as a reminder that you can never escape the forces that shape you. Not even on a basketball court.
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