By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) For seven years during my 20s, I covered high school sports.
During that span, I saw more prep basketball games than Wilt Chamberlain saw women (seemed like it, at least), as I watched hundreds of Illinois teens shoot hoops inside cavernous big-city arenas, as well as crackerbox gyms tucked in towns where many of you probably didn’t even know there was a high school.
Or a town.
Most of the players I saw were mediocre. Some were good. And a few were even great. But only one of them was Derrick Rose.
Back in December 2004, I saw the future Chicago Bulls superstar for the first time when he was just a high school sophomore playing in a holiday tournament in Downstate Pontiac. On that evening, the wiry point guard from Chicago Simeon was as raw as could be — Rose committed eight turnovers in the game — but he also flashed athletic gifts beyond belief.
And pulled off a dunk even more unbelievable.
During the game, while on a one-on-one fast break with a smaller defender attached to his hip the entire way, Rose sprinted the length of the court and appeared as if he’d go in for a contested layup – perhaps a difficult one-handed dunk. Instead, however, as Rose came within just a few feet of the hoop, he suddenly erupted off the floor for the most unexpected two-handed slam that I’ve ever seen.
In fact, so startled was the crowd at Pontiac High School that the entire gymnasium audibly gasped in unison.
I’ll never forget that sound.
And I’ve been a Derrick Rose fan ever since I exhaled.
I think the kid is the most athletic – and perhaps humble – point guard to ever play basketball. I think he’s probably the best individual thing to happen to the Chicago sports scene since Michael Jordan soared into town a generation ago. And I think he’s going to win the Bulls an NBA championship sooner rather than later (although, I suspect he’ll win some later, too).
Like the rest of the Windy City, I think Derrick Rose is great. But there also is something about him that I don’t like. And that’s how his national basketball story began at the University of Memphis, as well as how his legend was portrayed locally last week after Rose signed a five-year, $94.8 million contract extension with the Bulls.
During the press conference announcing that mega-deal, the 23-year-old who escaped Chicago’s violence-plagued Englewood neighborhood to become MVP of the NBA looked toward his mother, Brenda, and said, “I think I can finally say this now: Mom, we finally made it.”
The next day in the newspaper, Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh wrote about that exchange: “Somewhere, the most cynical NBA fan wiped an eye and a Hollywood director yelled, “CUT!” This was the satisfying scene every doting son in America could appreciate whether he’s a weekend warrior or league MVP, the chance to take care of Mom after years of sacrifice no longer necessary.”
Now, as a son myself, I certainly can appreciate those sentiments. And as a former Tribune Metro reporter who’s been to Englewood at midnight after a young girl was killed in a drive-by shooting (not my most enjoyable assignment), I also have a deep appreciation of exactly where it is that Derrick Rose comes from.
But, truth is, I didn’t wipe a tear from eye when I heard Rose’s “Mom, we finally made it” comment. Rather, it furrowed my brow a bit. And the following day when I read all of the media accounts fawning over that statement, I found myself with a full-blown frown.
That’s because while Rose has indeed now “made it,” what seems to have been completely glossed over in the hubbub is that his hoop dreams were launched on an enormous lie which grew into an ugly cheating scandal that shouldn’t be used as an example for any kids to follow – no matter what kind of neighborhood they grew up in.
What wasn’t at all mentioned last week was the fact that on Aug. 20, 2009, the NCAA Committee on Infractions determined that Rose had been academically ineligible during his electric freshman season at Memphis, a decision that forced the school to vacate its record 38 wins and 2008 Final Four appearance.
In its report, the NCAA accused an unnamed Memphis player, whose description matched only Rose, of having another person take his SAT so he would qualify to play at Memphis. According to the report, the player failed the ACT on three occasions in Chicago before he was credited with a qualifying SAT score for a test that was taken in Detroit.
The NCAA reported that it attempted to contact the player twice to attain proof that he took the exam in Detroit, but he didn’t respond. During the first week of August 2009, Rose said that the allegations were false, saying, “I know I took the test.”
After the official ruling stripped Memphis of its ’08 season, Rose issued a statement through his attorney that said: “It is satisfying to see that the NCAA could find no wrongdoing on my part in their ruling. It is important for people to understand that I complied of everything that was asked of me while at the university, including my full cooperation in the university’s investigation of this issue, and was ultimately cleared to play in the entire 2007-08 season by the NCAA Clearinghouse and the university. I look forward to putting this behind me.”
With an MVP award on his mantle and monster paychecks pouring into his bank account, the issue certainly is behind Rose today. But that doesn’t mean it should also just be forgotten – particularly when just this month 20 current and former high school students in Nassau County, N.Y., were criminally charged with cheating on their college entrance exams.
According to the authorities, five test-takers used bogus school IDs to take the ACT or SAT for 15 students who paid them $500 to $3,600 apiece. The alleged test-takers have been hit with felony fraud charges, while those accused of paying them face misdemeanors.
Now, I’m not saying that those students were necessarily encouraged by Derrick Rose to cheat on their tests to help further their futures, but let’s just say that they certainly weren’t deterred by his past actions, either.
Yet, in the legend of “Rose’s Road to $94.8 Million” that was told around town last week, you heard nary a peep about the details that actually surrounded the start of his lucrative basketball journey.
Instead, you simply heard that Rose “made it.”
Again, I think Derrick Rose is great and I love watching him play, but I do long for a day when both the media and the public do a better job of balancing the myths and the realities of the men who play and coach the sports we love. After all, with just the Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno sagas this past year, we’ve seen enough examples of the folly of sports idolatry to last a lifetime. It would be great if we could start keeping a more balanced perspective in 2012.
Last week, however, the Sun-Times’ Rick Morrissey helped close this year by noting in his column that, “The most rousing part of the pregame introductions at Bulls home games is when public-address announcer Tommy Edwards says, ‘From Chicago, 6-3, a guard …’ Not, ‘From the University of Memphis …’”
Morrissey added “that distinction was made at Rose’s behest.” And while the decision no doubt did involve a great deal of Chicago pride, it’s incredibly silly to just ignore that it was likely made due to a healthy measure of Memphis shame, as well.
Again, by all means, let’s celebrate Derrick Rose for all his greatness, everything he’s accomplished and where he’s come from. But when we’re telling that story, I’m just saying, let’s not forget to also remember how he got started, too.
Because, this is basketball. Not a fairy tale.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.