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Derrick Rose's Long & Winding Path Back to Memphis

Savior. Icon. Cautionary tale. Mentor. Rose’s journey back to Memphis has been arduous and unpredictable, but he hopes to end his story on a bright note.

Every year in March, like many other American sports fans, I am glued to my television watching college basketball. March Madness is a sporting event that transcends the bubble of sports fandom and bridges the gap with popular culture. There is just something special about seeing a group of young athletes go on a run in pursuit of basketball immortality. One of my favorite tournament runs to watch was the 2008 Memphis Tigers that were coached by John Calipari and led by do-it-all point guard Derrick Rose.


That Tigers team went 38-2 in the regular season and ran through the entire tournament field before falling short in the National Championship game against Kansas. It was a great moment for the University of Memphis, the best the team had done since the 1992 season when Penny Hardaway led the team to an Elite 8 appearance. Rose would go on to be the number one overall pick the following year in the NBA Draft to his hometown Chicago Bulls.


It was the stuff of dreams, but what has followed is a career of incredible highs and devastating lows. Now coming up on his 35th birthday, Rose is back in Memphis. But this time it is with the Grizzlies, in a capacity as a backup point guard and mentor. It has been a long and winding road for Rose to arrive back in Bluff City. A tale of greatness, heartbreak, and perseverance that has made him one of the most liked players in the league and now he has a chance to end his career on a positive note in the city where it all started.


The Highest of Highs, the Lowest of Lows


There was a moment in the early 2010s where there was a question about the axis of power in the Eastern Conference. The Boston Celtics had their trio of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett. All of which were still dominant but rapidly aging. The Miami Heat had formed a Big Three of their own with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh and seemed primed to take control of the conference. But for a brief moment, there was a third team that was in that mix that seemed to be the natural challenger to the Heat and the inevitable championships that they would win: Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls.


In 2011, Rose was named the league's MVP, and at the age of 22 he was the youngest player to achieve this accolade. It seemed that the combination of Rose, Joakim Noah, and Luol Deng was setting up a long-standing rivalry with James and the Heat for years to come. But as we know now, it never happened that way. After losing to the Heat in the Conference Finals in 2011, the Bulls seemed primed to make a deep run in 2012, finishing as the number 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the second year in a row. But all of this changed when Rose tore his ACL in the waning moments of a game in the first round of the playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers. This moment altered the trajectory of Rose’s career. He would have 4 major knee surgeries over the next four years and the path was cleared for LeBron James to be virtually unopposed in the Eastern Conference on his way to multiple NBA Finals appearances.


Rose was projecting as the Bulls final answer to navigating their post-Michael Jordan existence. He was supposed to be the next great Chicago sports star. Instead he was rapidly turning into a tale of lost potential and heartbreak. He would only play 10 games over the next two seasons and ultimately try to restart his career in New York with the Knicks. Rose put up good numbers with the Knicks (scoring 18 points per game), but the magic of his early days in Chicago were gone. In the following years Rose navigated his way as an NBA journeyman with Minnesota and Cleveland before landing in Detroit as a veteran leader for a struggling young Pistons team.


It was at this stage of his career that Rose experienced a bit of a renaissance. He redefined his game in Detroit. The injuries had taken away the burst that he had in Chicago, so we did not see any high-flying dunks or crazy athletic jump passes. Instead, we saw a player that understood his limitations, became a better distributor, and a better shooter. He was a quick fan favorite in Detroit because of all that he had overcome to make it back to a high level, and the fan base was ultimately saddened when he was traded back to the Knicks.


Rose became an instrumental part of a resurgent Knicks team that made it to the playoffs, and was arguably the teams second best player after Julius Randle. But last season, Rose fell out of the rotation after the team signed Jalen Brunson and prioritized playing young guard Immanuel Quickley. But again, Rose took this in stride and embraced a mentor role. Julius Randle recently praised Rose for his mentality on the court as a guiding force for the team despite not playing. It became clear that his second run with the Knicks had run its course and Rose has signed with the Grizzlies, back to where his pro career was jump started, a signing that Memphis more than any other team needs at this moment.


Leadership and Other Intangibles


The Memphis Grizzlies are at a pivotal point in their team building and development process. They have won over 50 games in each of the last two seasons, relying on a young core of drafted talent with Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, and Desmond Bane. The team has extended all three of their core young players and will be paying them collectively close to $100M this season. As a result, Memphis is firmly in win-now territory. This has been evidenced by their acquisition of Marcus Smart from the Boston Celtics and their willingness to let Dillon Brooks walk in free agency. Bringing in Rose to the fold gives this team necessary leadership and experience, but perhaps more than all that it brings in a player that can be a mentor for Ja Morant.


There have been many comparisons made between Ja Morant and a younger Derrick Rose. These comparisons are understandable considering that both players have a high-flying style that are tailor-made for highlight reels. But Morant, despite all that talent, has been plagued with issues off the court. Due to multiple instances of brandishing firearms on social media and other gun-related antics, Morant will serve a 25-game suspension to start the next season. Many have felt that he is headed down the wrong path and could jeopardize his future as a superstar in the league.


The signing of Rose in the immediate future will allow the Grizzlies to tread water until their star is back after his suspension. But the other aspect of it is that the team now has a player that Morant respects and will likely listen to. Earlier this past season when the Grizzlies played the Knicks, Morant had this to say about Rose:


“He really made it to where people believe in guys like me. Coming in, athletic guards, I felt like he was pretty much the one who kind of made it more famous. With how acrobatic his finish is, his touch around the rim, and how explosive he was. Coming in, he was my comparison. It’s crazy to be out there on the floor sharing a court with him.”

Morant reacted to the news of the team signing Rose with two emojis: a yoga pose and a rose. Many have interpreted this as Morant embracing that Rose will be a mentor and a calming figure for him, just as Rose was for Julius Randle. In some ways, the Grizzlies have signed Rose in the short-term as a stopgap replacement at the point guard position but the long-term vision is as more of a counselor and coach for Ja Morant, a way to protect the investment they made in their point guard as a way to contend for titles in the very near future.


Derrick Rose is a player that is a showcase of perseverance and showing that the path that you thought you were on is not the path that you are destined to take. He has embraced every wart of his career and it has made him a better human being. It is no surprise that every stop he makes, Rose is beloved. Whenever he visits Chicago he receives a standing ovation, the crowds in blowouts want him in the game and will chant his name, and many modern NBA players often cite him as an influence to their game. Rose’s deal with the Grizzlies is pretty unremarkable at 2 years for $6.5M, but is an important one for the Grizzlies. He is back where it all started, where he made a name for himself as a future NBA star. Those expectations have been derailed but that is not to say that there isn’t some good basketball left in Derrick Rose, and perhaps he can finally experience the large-scale winning that has eluded him throughout his NBA career.


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