On the NBA: Nothing At All Without My Mojo

I really do not know much about Chicago. I’ve never been, the poverty-stricken hermit that I am, which means, like most of America, my closest experiences with the city have come through listening to local rappers, which is, as you can probably expect, a failed proposition. Unless Chicagoans can be ably represented by the gruff materialism of Twista and Do or Die, known by the weird backwoods stylings of Crucial Conflict or epitomized by the soul-brotherliness of Common and Rhymefest, the city and any extrapolations I could make about its denizens remain a mystery to me. Through Derrick Rose, perhaps the most prototypical hometown hero ever, I had somehow unconsciously hoped for a better grasp of a particular Chicago aesthetic, something endemic to the town that I’d be able to use in some future column to look clever. This was, of course, prior to my knowledge that Rose is a robot programmed to produce as many strategies as possible to get to the rim within milliseconds.

Rose’s 2010-11 run has unquestionably been something worthy of endless documentation, an endless spectacle of hasty violence and craftsman-like precision, and there can be no more dissection of the yearly popularity contest he won without further denigration to the one-man offense that Rose seemingly produced out of thin air every time he passed halfcourt, occasionally at blinding speeds. Derrick Rose most certainly stands for all of the things with which he has been attributed by a lazy media who may have pre-written all of those laudatory words for Kevin Durant this October; he is modest, softly charming, mild-mannered and the exact opposite of all of those modifiers on the court. As aforementioned, when on the hardwood, Rose tends to be one of the more methodical rim chasers this game has ever seen, his every move in anticipation of a counter and his touch around the rim unequivocally sublime. Few have combined the blink-fast legs of his with that unmatched ability to finish in the history of this game; however, of those who have, one remarkably walks the same courts in the same era and seems fated to match up with the MVP in the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals: a man who claims rights to a nickname Rose might have had he been born a few years earlier, Dwyane Wade.


Before Rose’s so-fast-it-must-be-premature ascension, Wade had long been a favorite of NBA heads looking for a superstar to call their own. All that Rose brilliance around the cup could be seen nightly by League Pass freaks fiending for some organized chaos on a beeline toward the promise land for years in Miami, and his remarkably early ring (Wade won his first title in his third year, the same one in which Rose is currently) lent him the mainstream credibility that drooling over Monta Ellis 360 layups and Jamal Crawford pull-up threes could not. Wade had that great Radiohead thing going where he could be universally beloved and still have a cadre of supporters who thought that you didn’t appreciate their favorite thing nearly enough (for years, when people asked me to name the human being with whom I would like to trade lives, I would automatically say Wade. Handsome, rich, accomplished and living in Miami. I’m still just trying to pull off any one of those); of course, this was all pre-Summer of Bron, before we knew about the world’s least-liked best friendship, before we had seen what Chris Bosh looked like without dreads (even weirder). At that point, media saturation and a July-worth of preening along with his superstar pals would claim Wade’s underground king status, leaving a lot of young men with bundles of adulation and nowhere to put them.

It makes perfect sense that Rose would soon collect those fanboys as his own, becoming one of the NBA’s most controversial figures without actually creating any controversy. Both Rose and Wade possess a will to penetrate that most perimeter players simply don’t have, or at least don’t have the capability to actually realize. Though they use somewhat different methods (Wade is the better ball-handler, generally losing defenders with a combination of speed and ball trickery on his way to the basket, while Rose prefers using his lightning-fast spin moves and ungodly up-and-down celerity to bully his way to the bucket), their unending drive to make the ball go farther and farther into the paint links the two Chicago natives at the hip. While the name “Michael Jordan” is invoked at the faintest whisper of a talented perimeter player, it pretty hard not to think of that guy when discussing the best player since him to don a Bulls uniform (no offense, Ron Mercer) and the actual new face of the Jordan Brand. They both mirror his fire, his creativity, his lack of other passions besides winning. But where Wade makes every play look like an expression of his personal vendetta against those who would dare doubt him, Rose just drives, twists and releases. Maybe it’s a two-handed flush after splitting two defenders, maybe it’s a one-handed floater taken with a center breathing on his face; his expression remains unchanged.

In a way, this should further develop the myth of the 22-year-old MVP; instead of celebrating or taunting, the timid point guard needs to get back on defense. He can worry about looking cool (admittedly, this is ostensibly one of the Miami Heat’s chief concerns) when the W is posted, when he’s done working. When Dwyane Wade ran through the Bulls in 2009 for a single-handed double overtime win in which he dropped 48 points and 12 assists (and a running, game-winning three hit only after getting the steal) , he climbed on top of the scorer’s table in blind fury as his crowd of compatriots roared alongside him, and screamed, “This is my ****!” repeatedly as a throng of supporters certainly did not try to dissuade him. Rose, having helped the Bulls scrape together the comeback that even allowed them to catch up with the Heat and take a lead, could simply watch, a rookie in awe of the superstar that had just forcefully obtained control of this game and done some superstar things. Last year, as Rose prepared along with a group of talented young men to snatch a gold medal in Turkey, Wade was endlessly courted by the Chicago team he had seemed preordained to lead, but alas, South Beach called. Rose got to see this as well, his team searching for a backcourt mate for their young franchise point guard, and whenever that opportunity passed, Rose seized this new one, the one in which he could truly claim this as his own team, where the ball ran through him, almost to a fault. No, the Derrick Rose robot never needed nor necessarily wanted the help that the Three Kings in Miami were offering, not if it meant relinquishing what he was trying to make.

They wouldn’t have worked in the backcourt together, their games too similar to know what to do without trying to dive into defenders and collect calls (a skill Rose only picked up this year, his third). But what seems clearer is that it wouldn’t have worked in that locker room because something about these guys, no matter how similar their games, differentiates their dispositions. Where Rose clicks and whirs, knowing he can make his defender (and the other four looking at him) react to the wrong thing, shift in the wrong direction, anticipating possibilities and seizing, Wade aims to humiliate, to disintegrate, to know that that which once stood in his way has been felled. It’s an odd  way to read his game, but it’s apparent in the gore that takes place in every successful Wade play. Rose cannot aim to destroy that which he doesn’t even accept as a battling force; no, the problem that he observes is solved by the end of any successful possession, and when not successful, he just tinkers until he makes it work, eventually, no matter how much effort or ugliness it takes.

In the midst of Chris Paul’s blitzkrieg of the NBA in the first round, Eric Freeman (currently of the ineffable Ball Don’t Lie crew) tweeted that while Derrick Rose would get rid of a soon-to-detonate bomb by hurling it deep into the ocean, Paul would diffuse it. To bludgeon Freeman’s analogy, Wade would grab the bomb and swallow it whole, Jim-Carrey-style, with a smirk on his face as it nonchalantly and safely exploded in his stomach, which is, of course, lined with adamantium.

All year, I have questioned why, despite the obvious highlight-iness of Rose’s game, I simply was not captivated by his nightly reel of freak moves in the same way I was by Wade’s endless bag of tricks, the two Chicagoans giving me such dueling depictions of the Second City. Was it the stolid, serious workmanship of Rose that aimed for professionalism even when at a level of brilliance that few have ever encountered? Or was it the swaggering, snarling beast that Wade could leash or unleash at anytime, a city that could be defined as much by its greatness as by its confidence? It’s only now, as the two likely stare each other down in a dream ECF, that I can truly get the contrast. Swag alone does not account for why a Rose two-handed gorilla slam just doesn’t bring the cache that Wade’s cabbage-patch dunk did; it’s all in the details. Those details that Rose makes sure he nails every night, without fail, because he wants to win more than anyone, because his Chicago is the city that works. Those same details Wade gets and masters, but only while reminding every single one of us that this is his ****.


Jacob Mustafa is a regular contributor to Red 94 who’s probably playing pickup ball badly somewhere right now, pumping himself up with rap lyrics.

EDIT: This post has been edited thanks to a key detail, the location of Wade’s 48-point game against the Bulls, being incorrect. Thanks to readers for pointing out said error.

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