One of the most frustrating parts to me of All-Star Weekends, at least in recent years, has been the general lack of flair shown by the young guys. Humility has been pounded into these dudes as being such a virtue of the game — and a lot of them are probably a little shy in their inexperience to begin with — that you don’t get to see any of the arrogance of youth that you’d otherwise expect from young athletes at the highest level of their craft.
All-Star Weekend is a time where the game’s best and brightest should be showing off not only their games but their personalities. As arguably the most character-driven of the Big Four American sports, it makes sense that the sport should use its high-visibility weekend to introduce its marquee players, and what those players are all about, to national audiences. Yet, if you were to draw a conclusion from watching the silent, grim-faced participants of the Rookie-Sophomore game, you’d think the future of the league rested in the hands of a bunch of swaggerless automatons.
When we saw Derrick Rose, reigning No. 1 pick for the Chicago Bulls, at the 2009 Skills Challenge, we still didn’t know all that much about him as a pro. We knew he was going to be good, though we wouldn’t know quite how good until the Bulls’ first-round series against the Celtics in that year’s postseason. Moreover, he had shown the PR reticence typical of rookies in high-pressure situations, saying little and giving nothing of import away, especially visually, where his face remained a perpetually blank canvas. The only off-court headline he made his entire rookie year was for a precarious injury he suffered while eating an apple in bed. Even though we all suspected that the story was bogus — how could it not be? — Rose had given us no real evidence to prove that he wasn’t capable of being that absurd or boring.
At the Rookie-Sophomore Game the night before, a night where many of the greatest young’ns use the stage to make a statement of arrival — like, say, Kevin Durant, who scored 46 in the game on the opposing sophomore team — Rose again gave us no indication of what lied beneath. He played only 20 minutes and shot just five times, making one and scoring four total, albeit with an impressive seven assists. Meanwhile, Heat forward Michael Beasley — the No. 2 pick in the draft after Rose, and one who made much less of an effort to stay guarded publicly, beginning with a preseason near-bust for marijuana possession — took over for the Rookies, scoring 29 points on 11-22 shooting, as Rose remained largely anonymous.
As the Skills Challenge commenced, it again looked like Rose would fail to make an impression. He started his first round lackadaisical, showing little urgency as he dribbled through the traffic cones and jogged from passing station to passing station, with announcer Reggie Miller even calling him out for his nonchalance. True, the Skills Challenge is not exactly an urgent affair by nature. It’s probably the least-watched or noticed event of the entire weekend (at least the Shooting Stars Competition is laughably ridiculous and awkward), and if you asked most NBA fans to name their all-time favorite Skills moment, or a single player who participated this year, you’d get a lot of blank stares. Still, as Rose ho-hummed his way through the first round, you wonder if he cared at all—and even in our most frivolous of sporting competitions, we always still want our best stars to give a shit about winning.
Still, you had to give Rose’s first round this — he got the job done. Reggie may have gasped “Are you kididng me?” at the way the rookie lollygagged through the final set of “defender” markers, but as he smoothly converted the final layup, he finished with the best time of his competitors, having calmly aced the passing stations and converted on just his second jumper, where his more hyperactive competitors had faltered in their overanxiousness. In the second round, co-finalist Devin Harris started off scorching, but got tripped up on one of the passing stations and took four tries to convert his jumper. Ending with a subpar 39.7 final time, all Rose would have to do would be competent to secure the win.
As with the first, Rose started the second round at a medium pace, gliding in for his opening layup where Harris had burst to the bucket. “He’s very nonchalant again,” commented Reggie as Rose navigated the first round of cones. “But maybe his nonchalant is faster than everyone else.” Again, the rookie breezed through the passing stations, only once rattling the ball out between the three, and he converted on just his second jumper. As he angled his way through the “defenders,” it was obvious that he would comfortably beat Harris’s time, and he would win the Skills Competition, seemingly without even trying.
Only one aspect of the challenge remained: The final layup. “Finish it with a dunk!” urged Reggie, desperate to see some flair from the No. 1 overall pick. “FINISH IT WITH A DUNK!!” Though I doubted Rose would do as Reggie commanded, I found myself wishing the same thing. As impressive as he’d been in the smooth, efficient way he’d solved the Skills Competition, I needed to see something else. I needed to know there was something more going with Rose, some intensity lurking behind those glassy eyes, some sense of the moment and of history and of the fact that winning in the NBA is twice as sweet if you tell ‘em about how you’re winning as you’re doing it. I needed to know there was something about him that separated him from the Swaggerless Automatons.
And lo and behold, my (and Reggie’s) wish was granted. As Rose glided in for the final layup, suddenly there was a brief, barely perceptible burst towards the basket, and as Rose went airborne, he double-clutched the ball, slamming home a reverse dunk from between his legs. It wasn’t that the move was all that technically impressive — it might have won him the Dunk Contest 20 years earlier, but would’ve barely rated today — but the move was executed with such ferocity and such spontaneity, and in such direct opposition to the cold efficiency he’d shown in the competition to that point, that it was probably still the most jaw-dropping moment of the weekend.
Instantly after the dunk’s completion, the moon-faced expression returned, and Rose’s post-game interview with Cheryl Miller was typically emotionless and non-revelatory. But in that moment, I learned everything I needed to know about Derrick Rose. He could’ve probably shown that fire for the whole competition, and might’ve won just the same, but why bother? He had the confidence of true greatness, to know he could turn it on if and when he had to, but if he didn’t, then he also knew not to burn it unnecessarily, to reveal his secrets too early. Like the guy at a party who stays almost completely silent for the first hour, then out of nowhere makes the funniest, sharpest joke of the night, Rose certainly had my attention from that point on.
As D-Rose grew from Rookie of the Year to All-Star to MVP in just three seasons, he would accrue a career’s worth of winning plays and flashes of personal invincibility for his highlight reel, moments that have already come to define him as one of the most important and impactful players of his generation. But when I think of him now, I still think first and foremost of that Skills Challenge dunk — the moment where he showed everything that he was capable of (though he only needed a fraction of it to still be light years ahead of the pack), and the moment where I learned that sometimes, you have to be patient with the youth of the NBA. The swagger will show itself in time.