Teaneck, N.J. Sprawled on a rumpled bed in Room 325 of the Hasbrouck Heights Hilton, bloated right ankle dangling toward the floor and straining against layers of medical tape, Derrick Rose is still unbelievable.
Considered the best high school basketball player in Illinois, and one of the premier players nationwide, Rose is explaining how he didn't believe he had a future in the sport until now.
Like, this summer.
Like, for all anyone knows, not until the episode of MTV's "My Super Sweet 16" showing on the hotel television began.
"Man, people used to tell me I had a future and stuff," Rose says. "I didn't really think of it like that. I didn't really see myself going to a good high school, or a good college, or playing in the NBA. I just played.
"I don't know. I never thought I was that good. Like really, really good."
His expression is fixed, his cadence an even drawl. Nothing to imply false modesty.
But, come on. Is Derrick Rose - he of the national rankings, state-title-winning shot for Simeon of Chicago, and ludicrous athletic gifts - actually serious?
"It's true to the point where a lot of people still don't know who he is," high school teammate Tim Flowers says. "People think he's just Chicago, there's no ballers in Chicago, like he's just (playing well) because he's an exceptional athlete. But Derrick is one of the smartest ... he knows the game better than anybody."
But he just might have been the last to figure out how good he really is.
The anonymous star
Before the Reebok ABCD Camp All-Star Game last Sunday, players on the Gold team gathered at midcourt for a photo. Rose, out with that ankle sprain, ambled over. He settled in the back row, his face barely visible between broad shoulders.
It was no coincidence. Rose, a 6-foot-4 guard with a gale-force first step and leaping ability that seems enhanced by hydraulic springs in his legs, is breathtaking on the court. Yet he is nearly anonymous everywhere else.
In his early years at Murray Park, Rose shot alone on vacant courts, joining games only after older players fetched him. When Rose wants to see a movie, he doesn't hit the Ford City Mall, a spot close to home. Instead he travels, often downtown, to just blend in.
Rose admits to drifting into daydreams, even in class, because, he says, "I don't want to talk, so I have to do something else."
"He lives within himself in big places," Simeon teammate Kevin Johnson says. "That's kind of a burden, when you're out and there's always someone asking for an autograph or what college you're going to. He just likes to get away from that."
Basketball isn't an escape, entirely, because Rose's abilities are the root of his popularity. It is also a calling, with the seven- or eight-hour days at Murray Park broken up only by runs down the block for food or drinks at home. His brothers were hardly overprotective, not even menacing the player who once flattened pre-teen Derrick as he came off a screen, the fall tearing skin off his thigh.
"I used to live in that park," Rose says, still bearing the scar from that tumble. "It helped me. You get tougher. You can't do a lot of things, things you can do with players your age, because they aren't going to let you do it."
Still a kid at heart
Eventually, the excited rumblings about another Chicago prodigy began. Yet the oft-debilitating hype evidently failed to afflict Rose. One could argue he works harder at being normal, at rendering himself unremarkable, than at anything else he does.
Rose intentionally watches Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel - watches the Cartoon Network with a purpose - to remind himself he's a kid. Rose and Flowers recently attended an 8th-grade graduation barbecue for a couple of future Simeon students, who sat rapt as Rose held forth.
"That's just to show the kid that he doesn't think he's bigger than them," Flowers says of Rose. "Derrick was like, 'Whatever you need to know, I'm here for you.'"
After the ABCD Camp games Rose played in before the injury, he lingered for autographs and pictures. And a day later, at the hotel, he offers a remarkable perspective on the fact that his signature, at that moment, may be on the Web, awaiting the highest bidder.
"As long as they're making money, and they know that I'm a good player," Rose says. "If it makes their life better, hey ... "
At that he shrugged, hardly inclined to judge such things.
An expanding highlight reel
During an event this summer, Glenbrook North coach Dave Weber didn't see the latest Derrick Rose highlight unfold as much as he heard it.
"Derrick was at the top of the key on defense, and a kid was going up for a layup," Weber recalls. "I turned, heard all this noise, and I guess (Rose) had blocked the shot. He took one long step and swatted it out of there. That was something you just don't see very often. He's the only one who can do that kind of stuff."
Such plays are increasingly common, and they make Rose one of the nation's most sought-after high school players. Witness one and apparently you see the world through Rose-colored glasses.
"Our second game, he took off from the free-throw line and did a finger roll," says Alex Legion, a guard from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and one of Rose's ABCD teammates. "He missed it, but you just had to stop and look. I'm on the court playing, and I had to pause and just look."
Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer certainly has been impressed.
"You see some athletes like Derrick, but not as a point guard," Meyer says. "He can get anywhere he wants to get on the floor. He has that extra gear. He's not a great dribbler, per se, but he's so fast and strong with the ball he doesn't have to be that nifty or tricky. And he has a tremendous point-guard mentality, which is very refreshing.
"It's just very, very easy seeing him being a great NBA point guard. ... It's hard to name a point guard in the NBA who is as athletic as he is. ... On top of that, he has upside - he has a live body, he will improve as a dribbler and he will improve as a shooter."
A future undecided
Where Rose will continue his ascent is the subject of endless conjecture. His brother, Reggie, even speculated to The New York Times that Derrick may bypass college and spend a year with a trainer or play overseas before entering the NBA draft.
Meanwhile, Derrick Rose exists in a soundproof booth during the recruiting maelstrom. His brothers are buffers, handling most of the talking. Rose estimates he speaks to coaches "once every three months."
"I love it," says Rose, academically on target with a 2.9 GPA and ACT results on the way. "Some people I met say they talk to coaches and other people almost every day. And they're sick and tired of it. That's why they commit so early, so they won't have to talk to anybody. Man, it's a burden off my shoulders."
The plan is to whittle Rose's suitors down after an AAU tournament in Las Vegas at the end of July. His brothers are said to have a great deal of influence over Rose's college choice, but then Derrick Rose seems always to prefer the team game, anyway.
"I'm not even really thinking about college right now," says Rose, who counts Illinois, North Carolina, Kansas University, Arizona and Memphis among his many suitors. "I've just been playing. I could commit anytime. Tomorrow. Whenever I feel like it. My brothers don't tell me that much to do except keep my grades up and be careful. They don't really tell me what college to go to. They tell me the situations I can put myself into if I do go to that college, good and bad. There's a lot they tell me, and I pay attention to it."
Thanks to Rose's bum ankle, the ABCD Camp closed without his long-awaited matchup with Cincinnati guard O.J. Mayo, the Class of '07's top-ranked player. Walking off the court after the choreographed and sloppy All-Star Game, Rose shrugged and said he was past the disappointment.
Moments earlier, camp organizer Sonny Vaccaro proclaimed to the crowd that they were observing "the best senior class I've ever seen." Imagine how good it will be when one of the class' maestros fully lives up to his place in it.
"Now I'm getting the confidence that you have to have, to make sure that nobody goes out there and busts you on the court," Rose says. "You have to have that attitude, really. I never had that confidence like I have now."