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Delegations from six teams went to Cleveland in the first week of July to pitch LeBron James. The Bulls had the last meeting and, by most accounts, the longest. The New York Times had already published a story quoting an executive to the effect that James was headed to Chicago. "I think it's a done deal," the executive said. The Bulls had the point guard and the center, not to mention salary-cap space to add two max contracts.
Rose assumed a curious role in the proceedings. While other stars acted like college boosters courting the ultimate blue-chipper, Rose's recruiting effort consisted of one text message, sent mainly for damage control. Rose remembers texting James, I'm just hitting you up to kill all the rumors that I don't want to play with you. I'd like to play with you. I just want to win.
The message was vintage Rose, honest and understated, while his peers were over the top. James expressed his appreciation in a text, but on July 8 he joined Dwyane Wade and Bosh in Miami. The Heat's new threesome was portrayed as the product of the AAU culture, with its stacked rosters and superteams, but Rose came from the same system and took a vastly different lesson from the experience. "He always told me he didn't want to be on one of those stacked teams," says Reggie, who coached his younger brother's AAU club, the Mean Streets Express. "He wanted to be with an underdog."
Rose recognized that he would be affected by James's decision, but he was ambivalent about it, according to several associates. He loved the idea of playing alongside James and of the wins that would inevitably follow. But he also loved the team he had, with Deng at small forward, and he was not about to lobby strenuously for an upgrade. "That showed you what kind of guy he is," Noah says. "If you want to come here and be part of this, that's cool. If not, we're going to try to kick your ass."
The Bulls took their cues from Rose, and when he revealed no disappointment, they did the same. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf went so far as to call his team superior to Miami. If anything, Rose seemed emboldened, eager to accept the responsibility that James had turned down. "It made me want to get in the gym," he says. The gym was at St. Monica High in Los Angeles, where Rose spent more than two months of his summer practicing twice a day, six days a week with trainer Rob McClanaghan, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook and Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love. Other players also stopped by, but when they tried to take breaks or skip sessions, the regulars told them to stick with the program or drop it. While Westbrook and Love had their own summer to-do lists, Rose was building a jumper almost from scratch. He shot 22.2% from three-point range as a rookie and 26.7% in his second season, while defenses sagged off him. On the rare occasion that Rose let fly, his release was low and his arc flat. The ball invariably smacked the front of the rim. McClanaghan told him, "If you can just get to 39 or 40 percent, where guys have to respect you, it will be over."
McClanaghan lifted Rose's release point, gave him the mantra "no short shots" and made him hoist upward of 1,000 threes a day, off dribbles and ball screens, pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. He hollered at Rose, "If you want to be an All-Star, you can't miss these!" and Rose's practice percentage ticked up, from 60 to 68 to 72. Defenses were not going to sag off him anymore, but to take advantage of open driving lanes he had to throw himself into big men as often as he slithered around them. McClanaghan guarded Rose with a three-foot black football pad, forcing him to absorb contact and appreciate the resulting free throws. The players who stayed in that gym and took the punishment—Rose, Westbrook and Love—would make colossal breakthroughs this season.
After Rose returned to Chicago, he raised his voice at media day and declared himself an MVP candidate. The Bulls wondered what had happened to their favorite wallflower. "We thought he'd gone nuts," says Noah. The gesture was indeed out of character, but it was a bold reminder that the Bulls were fine as constituted, with Rose supplying the spark instead of James. The new coaching staff had watched tape of every game from the previous season and seen in Rose a transcendent driver and improviser who often penetrated without a plan and did not always make full use of his quickness on defense. New coach Tom Thibodeau stopped practices in training camp when Rose wasn't chattering on D, and he taught Rose to distinguish between scoring drives and passing ones. Thibodeau urges Rose to rush directly at the basket—"More north-south," Rose says, "not as much east-west"—and look for his shot. But Rose also has to recognize when teams are collapsing on him and who they are leaving open. Typically, a point guard's scoring rises at the expense of his playmaking, but Rose is averaging 2.1 more assists than last year.
Early in the season, after a single-digit victory, Thibodeau charged into the locker room and screamed at the Bulls for not winning by more. Rose beamed. "That would not have happened here before," he says. Rose played for John Calipari at Memphis and Vinny Del Negro in Chicago but never for a tactician like Thibodeau, who leads the Bulls through 75-minute morning shootarounds in which he reviews every play the opposing team runs and every option off that play. The Bulls rank second in both field goal defense and scoring defense, keeping games close so Rose can win them in the end. He scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Rockets on Nov. 16 and 11 in the fourth to edge the Heat on Jan. 15. In a rematch with Houston less than three weeks later, he made a three at the buzzer to tie and scored five points in overtime to win. In Phoenix on Nov. 24 he made a layup with 0.1 of a second left in overtime to tie and added five points in double OT to win. "He has totally changed," says Hornets point guard Jarrett Jack. "Where he used to defer, he now realizes it's all on his shoulders."
Had James come to Chicago, he would have been the one making the need baskets. Rose would have backed off again. The Bulls might never have witnessed his growth. "We lost out on a top five player," says one club official, "but we got a top five player too."
Rose is not comfortable with compliments. When told he is playing well, he shakes his head and mutters, "I wish." In this way, at least, he is still hard to buy as a killer. He lacks the jutted jaw and pronounced strut and unrestrained ego. He says sir and ma'am. He apologizes to a tape recorder for cursing. He never challenges teammates, even though they sometimes wish he would. Despite his MVP proclamation and the trash talk with his buddies, Rose carries himself like the 15th man. "I'm way cockier than he is," says Scalabrine, "and I never play." During film sessions Rose provides a self-deprecating sound track: "My bad ... my fault ... my mistake ... sorry about that ... I'll get better at that."