Return of the Mack


Originally published in SLAM 172

by Adam Figman@afigman

Derrick Rose couldn’t run. He couldn’t jump, couldn’t practice those spectacular two-handed hammer dunks, those impossibly twisty lay-ups or those in-your-face jumpshots that tend to find net just when the offensive possession appears all but broken.

So early on in his long, laborious recovery from ACL surgery—an operation needed after he blew out his knee on April 28, 2012, during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the 76ers—Rose did all he was allowed to: He began lifting weights.

This may not seem like a big deal—Rose is an NBA player, so of course weight lifting is a standard part of his routine. But the ’10-11 NBA MVP had never been one to live in the weight room, previously leaning on his innate strength to overpower smaller point guards and creative aerial acrobatics to maneuver both around and through forwards and centers. Without clearance to run up and down the court, though, Rose hit the iron and pulleys, rolling through rep after rep after rep, with a focus on core strength, all while patiently waiting for the opportunity to get back on the hardwood.

“[Rose has] never really been a big lifter, but that’s all he could do for a little bit, and he started to really enjoy it and he kind of attacked it the way he does the rim,” says the 24-year-old’s trainer, Rob McClanaghan. “I think he is a little stronger [now]. I think he’s got a stronger base and a stronger core. That’s all he could really focus on for a big portion of that first six months—he had no other choice. But it’s gonna end up helping him in the long run, for sure.”

Eventually, Rose, a native of South Side Chicago, was allowed to shoot, so shoot he did—with Bulls team trainers, with McClanaghan, even all by himself. Sometimes, hours before Bulls games, he’d hit the court and fire ’em up, almost looking as if he was preparing to suit up in the red and white that very night.

That never actually took place during the ‘12-13 season, of course, as Rose elected to take the full year to regain his health and start anew in ’13-14 rather than risk further injury by returning to the court before his body was prepared for it. Critics of this decision—who, it should be noted, would likely take a full week off from work with a mild flu—popped up everywhere: in newspapers, on the radio, on the Internet.

“I didn’t think it was entirely fair,” says Bulls General Manager Gar Forman. “I think from the very beginning, from our ownership on down, within our organization, it was pretty consistent. This was going to be a process, and he wasn’t gonna play until everybody felt he was 100 percent ready. And the biggest thing was that we were always going to take a big window approach with it, not a small window approach, in that he’s young and still has a long, long career ahead of him.”

The whole saga’s PR could’ve been handled a little bit smoother, but when last season concluded and the offseason officially got underway, fans of the game finally knew for sure that the next time NBA basketball was played, one of the sport’s most electrifying athletes would once again be competing on a national stage. Rose spent this past summer training with McClanaghan in Los Angeles, breaking for a bit to travel through both Europe and Asia with adidas. “I went to some places that I’ve never been,” Rose says. “Brought my son with me, so that experience was a great experience, just traveling with him, taking a lot of pictures with him, so when he gets older I can show him the pictures.”

Here’s assuming Rose will one day be showing his son some highlights—culled from the coming ’13-14 season, amongst many, many others—as well.

SLAM: How are you feeling?

Derrick Rose: Right now I’m in training and I’m getting a lot stronger. I gained 10 pounds of muscle. I don’t know how that’s going to carry over to how I play on the court, but I know it’s going to be very weird. I’m shooting a lot of shots right now, working with Rob, just putting memory back in my leg.

SLAM: You’re a big guy for a point guard, and you’ve always had some serious strength, but it sounds like you’re trying to take that to a new level.

DR: Oh, definitely. My whole body changed. I think I’m a lot quicker, a lot more explosive, and I think I’m gonna go this year without that many little nagging injuries, just trying to prevent them by stretching and doing all the things I have to do to take care of my body.

SLAM: Do you approach that differently now than when you first started your career?

DR: Yeah. When you first come in the League and you’re talented and you’re athletic, you don’t care about stretching or anything [laughs]. You just kind of go out there and hoop—you overlook that stuff. But now it’s my sixth year, so you really have to look at that and take that more seriously so I can prevent all of the little injuries.

SLAM: After the knee injury, you were able to start weightlifting before you were able to hit the court. Did you learn to enjoy it?

DR: Definitely. With me, I was always kind of strong, but the way that I play, I hit tricky lay-ups and all of that stuff because going to the hole in my neighborhood, they don’t call any fouls, so I was just used to hitting all types of shots. Now this year, I got a little more strength behind me, so I think going to the hole, taking those shots, I’ll be able to finish a lot stronger and a lot more efficiently this year. There should be a lot more and-ones, hopefully.

SLAM: And then you were able to get out there and start shooting, which we know you focus pretty heavily on each offseason.

DR: Oh yeah, I’ve been shooting a lot. A lot. Especially during the [’12-13] season, I’d go out there before games and shoot up a lot of shots. Now you add lifting weights and you’re shooting almost every day, your shot becomes easier, and your confidence grows, and with shooting, there’s nothing like confidence. So I think I’m gonna be a great shooter next year.

SLAM: What’s been the toughest part of your recovery?

DR: I would have to say sleeping with that brace for like four or five months. Like the beginning part, lying in bed, can’t get comfortable and you’re trying to find a comfortable position to go to sleep. It was terrible. But other than that, you have your little down days—you definitely get those with how much work you’re doing each day, each week. As long as I was seeing improvement, I was good.

SLAM: Did self-doubt or a loss of confidence ever creep up?

DR: Not at all. I think through my process I always knew that I could change my whole body. Every time I went to go train I knew that I was getting something good out of it. I knew I wasn’t going to see the improvements in a day or two, but it seemed like every week I was getting stronger.

SLAM: When some people in the media started to turn on you and say that they wanted you to get out on the court, how’d that make you feel?

DR: It probably [would be] hurtful for someone who cares about that, but for me, I can care less about it. I knew that our team—whoever I had around me who spoke to me—as long as they were telling me the truth, then I was comfortable with the decision that I made. I could care less about what people were saying about me.

SLAM: What has the support from your teammates been like throughout the recovery?

DR: They’ve been great. The teammates I had on the team last year, like Joakim [Noah] and Nate Robinson and Marco [Belinelli], all of the people, it was good. They knew that I was trying my hardest to get back on the court as quick as possible. They were all behind me. With my teammates, that’s all I ever wanted.

SLAM: Is there anyone specific that you grew close with during the process?

DR: I would say Joakim, just because he’s the teammate I’m closest to. He’s like a big brother to me, so he’s gonna tell me the truth about everything. He was just telling me to take my time.

SLAM: Did you feel support from the Chicago fans?

DR: Oh, Chicago’s my hometown, so they knew that I wanted to be back on the court as much as any other player on the team, and it was definitely hard, sitting out that whole year. It’s the most I’ve ever missed basketball. If I could’ve been on the court I would’ve been out there, especially with the great year that 
we had.

SLAM: What are you thinking about, goal-wise, as the season approaches?

DR: There’s only one goal that I have, really my whole team has, and that’s to win a Championship. All the individual awards, of course we appreciate it and we love to get ’em, but our No. 1 goal is to go out there and play as hard as we can so that we can be raising that trophy at the end.

SLAM: Do you often think about what it’d be like to bring a Championship back to Chicago?

DR: It’s big. You kinda think about it, but I know like all of the stuff that you can daydream about and you can dream about, it’s not going to be close to what it’ll really be when you win it, because you gotta add the emotions of the crowd, you gotta add the emotions of so many people for you really achieving something.

SLAM: How do you think you’re going to feel when you step back on the basketball court on opening night in Miami?

DR: Oh, it’s going to be great. That’s the ultimate stage for the beginning of the year. I missed the whole year last year, so for me to go out there and play against the best team in the League, with the players that they have, it’s gonna be the ultimate challenge in the beginning of the year. But I’m gonna take it as a regular game and just try to go out there and play hard.

SLAM: Do you imagine it’ll take a while for you to get back into the flow, back to playing your minutes average? Or are you planning to hit the ground running?

DR: The minutes part, Thibs [head coach Tom Thibodeau] will have to manage that, but I know he has a pretty good idea with how he’ll play me. But as far as hitting the ground running, I don’t think it’ll take me a long time to adjust, to the tell you the truth.