By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) In October, Bulls guard Michael Carter-Williams explained how he went about initially choosing a jersey number after traded from Milwaukee to Chicago.
“I’ve been number 1 a lot,” Carter-Williams said. “They asked me what number I wanted. I said 1. There wasn’t too much discussion.”
Carter-Williams held that number in a Bulls uniform for a matter of hours before switching to his current No. 7. This was after Bulls fans in those few hours got as red as their shirseys over a new player daring to wear New York Knicks guard Derrick Rose’s old Chicago number.
Last Friday, Anthony Morrow arrived in town as part of the deal that sent Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and an inexplicable draft pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Morrow chose jersey No. 1 in Chicago. Morrow caught fan heat. Morrow quickly gave up the ghost of Rose.
Morrow has but 23 regular-season games and probably a first-round playoff exit to finish his time in Chicago, so this for him is probably not as much about respect as it is picking a wise path of least resistance. It’s such a choice needing to be made, let alone given serious thought at all, that is a problem.
Rose is still revered by some Bulls fans here in a way that has me conflicted. I tread lightly here, attempting to be aware of my privilege as a lifelong Chicagoan from a very different Chicago than that of Rose’s childhood. And I understand the pride members of certain communities, Chicago and elsewhere, hang on to for one of their own made big time.
Yet a jersey number seems like not the best hill to die on here. It represents a chapter of Rose that’s dead and buried for those whose standards for statues are a bit greater, a chapter that ended on less-than-ideal terms and that involved certain failures. To make his old jersey number — one that he doesn’t even wear in New York — untouchable puts on a pedestal a career that doesn’t meet such an honor usually reserved for better players and better men.
I’ve moved on from Rose the Bull, this after my heart was ripped from my chest twice with his knee injuries and an annual convincing of myself by myself that he could return to form. Rose himself is helping me be at peace with his time here. He’s not retired, and Monday there was talk that his poor play in New York could soon end in his being waived.
Rose has done about everything he can in public statements since the Bulls traded him to distance himself from red, white and black. He’s 28 and has plenty of NBA time ahead of him if he chooses and his body doesn’t again betray him. His career so far has three seasons in which his Value Over Replacement Player was less than zero and netted a Win Shares per 48 minutes of .101. To put that in context, Rose’s agent, B.J. Armstrong, had a career WS/48 of .121. Rose’s playing career is most statistically similar to that of Brandon Roy, though Roy had more Win Shares than Rose in 130 fewer career games. Oddly enough, the Portland Trail Blazers have yet to assign a player jersey No. 7 since Roy’s injury-shortened career.
Portland isn’t Chicago, though. Ours is a town that didn’t create much stink when former MVP Sammy Sosa’s No. 21 was worn by Jason Marquis while Sosa was still playing. I remember being bothered by Bobby Hill wearing No. 17 so soon after Mark Grace moved on from the Cubs but not outraged. Had Twitter existed, I think the tempting distance of it still wouldn’t have led 20-year-old me to harass Hill if I were able.
Grace’s greatest crime as a Cub was aging. Sosa’s was alleged steroid use and an ego bigger than the ensuing biceps, one one that’s still apparently inflated today. Both had greater Chicago careers than Rose’s, his with an MVP season that electrified the city while being on the whole one of this century’s more tragic — but still underachieving — arcs. Untouchable jersey numbers should be made of sterner stuff.
After expressing such a thought on Twitter, people still let me know that Rose deserves more respect, that not taking issue with another person playing in Bulls jersey No. 1 shows ungratefulness for … I guess some genuine thrills on the court, creations of civic pride for time and speaking up against oppression. I appreciate all that very much, as I do with other athletes like Craig Hodges.
And as he was traded to the Knicks (and maybe because of it), Rose was the subject of a gang rape civil trial. He was ultimately found not liable but not before his defense involved using his position to shame his accuser and reveal that Rose didn’t understand what consent is. He would take smiling photos with jurors afterward, as if he couldn’t make women feel more maligned by the justice system when it comes to violence against them. I could no longer treat Rose as a folk hero, no matter if we came from one Chicago or different Chicagos.
As is too often the case with celebrities, accusations against Rose and his courtroom victory have galvanized many of his loyalists and made “what he did for this city” even more heroic to them. This is unfortunate and misguided and leads to the sort of turning a jersey number that Rose might not even care about anymore into something undeservedly iconic. I get that there’s a certain hope for a Rose basketball resurrection to the player before the knee injuries. Part of my basketball fan heart still has feelings for that mythology, even if my education tells me that redemption stories of accused rapist celebrities are too common and problematic.
The Bulls themselves are having none of that Rose mythos, having allowed two players this year to take No. 1 and, in typical tone-deaf Bulls fashion, letting those two players fend off the wolves on their own. (The Bulls have retired four numbers in franchise history: Jerry Sloan’s No. 4, Bob Love’s No. 10, Michael Jordan’s No. 23 and Scottie Pippen’s No. 33.)
Know this: This Bulls awareness of Rose’s residual presence here and their willingness to keep it as a wound to many is petty. Is giving a new player the No. 1 less than a year after Rose’s departure petty and very Bulls? Yep. Should it involve a visceral reaction in a fan? I don’t know that even a hometown kid with such shortcomings deserves that backing. The team can and should either put it out there privately to incoming players that No. 1 is unavailable for now or tell the next individual who claims No. 1 to stick with it so that those fans get over it ASAP (and they would, too, in like a month and then move on to being mad about way more justifiable Bulls things).
Rose has moved on. Many of his fans haven’t. His is a tombstone of an Bulls era of disappointment that wasn’t all his fault. But the choice of quixotic battle symbol — a jersey number — seems as sad as Rose’s career here itself.
Like when Carter-Williams dared choose it, there shouldn’t need to be this much discussion. It’s time to give up the ghost of Derrick Rose.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.