For Derrick Rose The Past As Prologue

As a native Chicagoan and sports fan, it will not shock anyone that I’ve generally pulled for Chicago teams over the years.  That said, I’m often even more partial to great players who were born and bred in the Windy City, even some with controversial  off-the-court records.  Thus, I pulled for the Pistons rather than the Bulls during the “Bad Boys” era because of my appreciation for Isiah Thomas (even though I was already teaching at UNC, Michael Jordan’s alma mater!).  And because of a similar appreciation for Derrick Rose, I’m now switching my allegiances from the Bulls to the Knicks.  Pulling for the Knicks isn’t all that difficult or foreign to me anyway, as I did so once before, while living in NYC as a grad student at Columbia during the   ’70s.

That the above not be construed merely as a throat-clearing exercise, let me be clear that there is a point to the verbiage.  There are some lessons to be learned from Chicago sports history that may be relevant to D Rose going forward, even though these lessons come from the career of another  fabulous Chicago player in another sport.

As some older fans might surmise by now, I’m referring here to the career of NFL great Gale Sayers, whose brilliant  career  as a running back with the Bears (1965-1971) was cut short by brutal injuries to both his right (1968) and left (1970) knees.  Readers who are too young to remember Sayers—arguably the greatest breakaway runner in NFL history—might wish to check out a youtube video or two, but make sure you do so while sitting down.  Despite playing in just 68 games and 4 -and – a -half real seasons, he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977 at the age of 34 (he is still the youngest inductee ever).  And well he should have been, having been rookie of the year in 1965, two-time rushing leader (1966 and 1969), and holder or co-holder of a number of NFL records even today.

This is not primarily a piece about the Kansas Comet, but about Derrick Rose, so let me focus a bit on  the circumstances surrounding Sayers’ rushing titles, one of which was pre-right-knee demolition and one post.  Sayers’ first knee injury– in game nine of the 1968 season (in case anyone is wondering, he was leading the NFL in rushing at the time) took a terrible toll on the running back.  Sports medicine then was not what it is today, and Sayers  was never again the same breakaway threat.   He somehow came back in 1969 and led the league in rushing again, but as a totally different runner– more of a tough, one- cut, between -the –tackles warrior than the elusive blur he was before the injury.  If he hadn’t endured the second crippling knee injury in 1970, fans likely would have seen him star in the same role for a few more years.  But fate intervened, forcing Sayers to retire physically impaired, but unvanquished.

Now cut to Derrick Rose.  As is well known to readers of NY Sports Day,  Rose, too, came into the league blazing, and was voted  rookie   of the year in 2009  and MVP—at 22 the youngest ever—in 2011.  Seldom had the NBA seen  a slasher such as Rose, “too big, too strong, too fast, too good,” as  Bulls’ color commentator  Stacey King often put it, with a fair amount of truth.  Indeed, one could argue that among current NBA guards  only  Russell Westbrook could bring to the table the physical  gifts that Rose possessed before his knee injuries, and I would argue that while Westbrook was as strong and fast, Rose was quicker, and better in traffic  getting to the rack.

But that was then and this is now.  Rose, post-injuries, is a work in progress and is still finding himself.   In his process of self-discovery and perhaps self-reinvention, he would do well to look back at the way Sayers reinvented himself after 1968.  Sayers, in  one crushing play, lost forever the physical gifts that separated him from any running back before or after him, but, through hard work and determination—what Angela Duckworth in her recent bestseller refers to as “grit”– and the adoption of a new running style, remained a premier player.   Rose, like Sayers before him, has lost some of what he previously  had, but—again, like Sayers—has enough left to remain a standout guard if he picks his spots, and works on his playmaking and his “D,” not to mention his outside shot.  And with the Knicks he will have plenty  of help.    To apply in another context a construction long associated with   Rose’s former coach Tom Thibodeau: Rose still “has more than enough” left.   I for one  hope  he harnesses his remaining talent   successfully with the Knicks.  If he does, Rose gets a bit of redemption, and the East becomes a whole lot more interesting in 2016-2017.



Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.  He often writes on sports.



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