The career resurgence of former NBA MVP Derrick Rose is the feel good story of the 2018-2019 season. With the Minnesota Timberwolves, his latest team, he’s averaging 18.8 points per game and 4.8 assists, shooting an astounding 45.7 percent from the three-point line, and is currently second in NBA All-Star voting. This all comes after a disastrous stint in New York with the Knicks and a brief cup of tepid coffee with LeBron and the Cavaliers. By the end of both, Rose was assigned to the NBA equivalent of the giant trash pile twice the size of Texas floating in the ocean.
His recent success then is the kind of feel-good comeback shitty sports movies are made of. Yet it doesn’t make me feel that good. Largely because Rose is one of the most polarizing figures in the game today — thanks in part to a prickly, survivalist mentality that’s led him to tell his detractors to “kill yourself” and a 2016 rape case that has now been practically expunged from his record given his newfound on-court redemption.
The latter isn’t all that unexpected, I guess — our tendency to scrub our heroes’ biographies to render the most glorious hagiography is a severe roadblock to us ever coming to terms with its inequality — but it is impossible to detangle from the Derrick Rose story, easily negating any kind of redemptive arc (unless that redemptive arc were to include taking responsibility for his actions in that case).
Some background: Rose was found not liable in a 2016 civil suit filed against him by an ex-girlfriend who alleged she was drugged and raped by Rose and two of his friends. The jury cited insufficient evidence, while the accuser’s legal team said significant evidence was ruled inadmissible by the judge. The woman was seeking $21.5 million in damages. Rose’s lawyers painted her as a gold-digger who was out for a hefty payday. “I am thankful that the jury understood and agreed with me,” Rose said in a statement to the Associated Press after the verdict. “This experience and my sensitivity to it was deep. I am ready to put this behind me and focus on my family and career.”
A year before the Harvey Weinstein revelations ignited the #MeToo movement and forced men to reckon with lifetimes of systemic abuse of women, Rose’s trial passed through the cultural zeitgeist without the level of scrutiny that it would meet today. Rose has, for the most part, come out the other side with his folk-hero status reinstated. He grew up in Chicago’s South Side Englewood neighborhood — the kind of place one finds it hard to escape. A stellar college career at the University of Memphis led him to being drafted first overall by his hometown Bulls. Like Cleveland was able to draft its favorite son in LeBron James, Chicago could call Rose their own. He won the 2008-2009 Rookie of the Year Award, the first number one pick to do so since James. A couple of years later, he’d win the 2010-2011 MVP trophy after leading the Bulls to 62 wins in the regular season.
Then, the injuries — a 2012 ACL tear that forced him to miss the entire 2012-2013 NBA season, which was followed up by a tear of the meniscus in his right knee. Followed by the failures — with the Knick and Cavs he was neither a good fit nor the same explosive, dynamic player he was prior to shredding his knee. And now, the comeback.
It’s too perfect. If this were a film, the embattled Timberwolves — fresh off firing Tom Thibodeau, the former Bulls coach who helped Rose return to form, and installing Ryan Saunders, the son of the late Wolves coach Flip Saunders, as his replacement — would make an improbable run to the NBA championship, and Rose would make the winning shot in Game Seven. There also would be a wacky comic relief character — probably Andrew Wiggins. Any discussion of the rape allegations would be ignored, the darkness swept aside so we/Rose can celebrate without guilt. The very same thing happened during the waning days of Kobe Bryant’s legendary playing career, when little time was paid to the 2003 rape allegation against him.
The easy response, of course, is to say that Rose was found not liable. And Bryant’s accuser dropped her case. So why dwell on these incidents? None of us can say for certain what did or didn’t happen with Derrick Rose and his ex-girlfriend.
Fair enough, but what troubles me is how quick we are to forget — to the point where history is wiped clean. For years, it happened with R. Kelly. He, too, was acquitted of the initial charges. But after a decade, we simply couldn’t ignore it any longer. Michael Jackson’s post-death reputation has been almost completely rehabilitated, even if questions persist as to his child abuse allegations.
This isn’t to equate Rose with R. Kelly or Jackson, but to illustrate how we assimilate unpleasant stories about beloved celebrities. As much as the popular narrative revolves around how eager modern human beings are to tear each other down and how quick they are to take offense, there’s an equal pull toward redemption.
If Rose were contrite, humble and a variety of other traditionally acceptable ways of carrying oneself, his narrative could be more plausibly redemptive. But that’s not who he is, which is why he told his critics off in such a shocking way last week. (The exact language/quote: “I have a lot of confidence in myself. Thibs was just the coach that believed in me. He jump-started my career again and for that I’ll always be thankful, but for everybody that think that it’s going to stop, kill yourself.”) In a league that’s attempted to make strides in addressing mental health issues with its players, it’s a serious step in the wrong direction (even if he’s since apologized).
It should also be — like the rape allegations — impossible to overlook or to cover up with a strong season, All-Star selection or improved shooting percentage. When we understand that, we’ll be able to better redeem ourselves.