In the early days of July, when the basketball world was consumed with the recruitment of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, one of the league's brightest young stars immersed himself in solitude. Far from the circus-like environment of pitch visits and badly orchestrated TV announcements, Derrick Rose retreated to the only place that gave him comfort.
"He was in the gym," said a personal friend of Rose, "working on his game."
At a time when Chicago native Wade and fellow Creative Artists Agency client Chris Bosh were huddled in their agent's office in the Windy City being wooed by Bulls executives, Rose was nowhere to be found. When Bulls officials went to Cleveland the next day to join in the biggest superstar suck-up in NBA history, pulling out all the stops in hopes that James would say "I do," Rose did not inject his influence into the process.
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"Obviously, no NBA player is going to go beg someone to come play with him," said another person familiar with Rose's approach. "He was fine with LeBron, Wade or Bosh on his team, and he's fine with Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. He goes about his business the same way regardless of who's on his team."
In addition to his electrifying talent, precocious leadership and the MVP trophy secured in only his third season in the NBA, these traits are what make Rose one of the anti-stars in the modern-day, buddy-up culture of pro basketball. At a time when his elders were conspiring to change the landscape of the sport, when CAA already was plotting the next wave led by Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, Rose was where he felt he belonged: in the gym, out of the spotlight and in his proper place in the pecking order.
"Don't let me be one of these guys trying to tell people what we need," Rose told a confidant last summer. "Let's figure out who we are first. Let's control the things we can control."
As the Bulls face the Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday in Chicago, it's easy to project onto Rose what a player of his stature should've done back in July. But that would be ignoring the obvious. Rose's talent and star power might have him in the same exclusive neighborhood as the Miami duo, but in his mind, the elevator carrying Rose to the top hadn't reached the penthouse yet.
"He's not pretending to know what this league is about," Rose's close friend said. "He's not pretending to know what [supporting talent] he needs. How arrogant would that be for him to even do something of that nature? He never won a playoff series until this year. He's a young kid and a good kid, and he doesn't know those things. You have to know what you don't know."
When James and Wade were re-aligning the basketball solar system last summer, they had both played seven seasons with the same organization and were setting the table for the next phase in their careers. Amar'e Stoudemire, the first big free agent to jump when he signed a five-year, $99 million deal with the Knicks, was at a similar point -- and immediately began using the clout and status he had earned as a perennial All-Star to put the full-court press on LeBron and Wade to join him with the Knicks.
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Rose was only 21, two years into his NBA career. The idea of wooing LeBron and Wade "was never discussed" last summer, his friend said.
"What are we trying to project on him? Let's not forget, this is a 22-year-old kid. He's supposed to be a senior in college."
"I'm a player," Rose told the confidant last summer. "You do your job and contribute and you trust the other guy to do what he contributes."
Including the people who were making the trip to Cleveland to court LeBron, including co-executives of the year: GM Gar Forman of the Bulls and president Pat Riley of the Heat.
"Those people get paid lots of money to do that," Rose said, according to his confidant. "Give those people the respect."
Rose's reluctance to recruit James and Wade didn't speak to his opinion about playing with either. It spoke to his recognition that it wasn't his job to partake of the kind of basketball nation-building that was unfolding all around him.
"If LeBron wanted to come, I think Derrick was fine with it," said a third person familiar with Rose's thinking. "And I think Derrick was fine if he didn't want to come."
The assumption that Rose would've jumped into the free-agent fray with public statements, secret meetings or a barrage of text messages if he really wanted to attract one of the top 2010 free agents was flawed from the beginning. Rose only stepped in when his silence was spun as reluctance to team up with James, whose immaturity with the whole process belied his more seasoned status in the league.
Rose's lone foray into the world of free-agent recruitment was a single text message to James, sent more to clear the air than to woo the Cleveland star. As revealed in a Sports Illustrated profile in March, Rose succumbed and texted James in his typically understated way to shoot down speculation that he didn't want him in Chicago.
"I'm just hitting you up to kill all the rumors that I don't want to play with you," Rose wrote. "I'd like to play with you. I just want to win."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but that's Rose. That's a basketball talent who in less than a year would become the youngest MVP in league history -- in large part, because he was more obsessed with improving his game last summer than sucking up to free agents. He was more interested in bonding with the teammates he had than importing new ones.
"The kid says it every time he does an interview, and no one seems to have figured it out," Rose's friend said. "He just wants to win."
Maybe after seven or eight years in the league, Rose will change. Maybe he'll be more opinionated or forceful about exerting his star status than he is now, in the infant stages of greatness. But until then, he'll go to battle against Miami's free-agent super trio with Boozer and Deng, Noah and Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson and Ronnie Brewer. He'll execute Tom Thibodeau's game plan, say, "My bad," when he messes up and let his talent and the work he put in last summer speak for itself.
"He won in high school, he won in college, and he's winning on the NBA level," one of the people who knows him said. "That's just the way he goes about his business."
Even if he has a different view of business than his contemporaries, and would rather mind his own.