If you’ve never participated in a fantasy basketball auction draft, I highly recommend it. The greatest pleasure of such a format is baiting the uninformed dopes you’re playing/friends with into overpaying for players so that you might scoop up the sleepers on the cheap, and in no other sport do athletes enjoy the benefits of exaggerated reputation more than than basketball. It’s why one guy in my league blew half of his cap space within 10 minutes on Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum, and how Jeremy Lin went for the criminally-undervalued-and-possibly-sort-of-
But the unquestioned highlight of my draft was when Derrick Rose’s name was put forward toward the end of the draft, probably just for kicks, and someone immediately tossed out a bid of $15. Nobody matched such an amount, and he was quick to congratulate his own deal-making. I pointed out that Rose probably wasn’t due back until the spring, if at all this season. His response only produced more laughter in our tiny chatroom: "Damn," he said, "those Adidas ads made it seem like he was on his way back soon."
You have seen these ads, so maybe you can understand why he was so easily confused. One of them opens with a voiceover of the call that Rose was down and holding his knee during last year’s opening playoff game, which ended up as a torn ACL. As it continues, we’re taken through a few slow motion scenes of Chicagoans clad in Bulls gear looking like they just lost their jobs, pets, family members and homes. (This includes one guy sadly operating a pretzel cart, never mind the fact that food trucks weren’t legalized in Chicago until last week.) Young children and old women stare forlornly into the distance, trying to figure out how they will live in a post-Rose world.
Then, all of a sudden, we see Rose huffing and puffing in the workout room as said Chicagoans, sensing his triumphant spirit, look up from the gloom and begin to feel anew. Pretty quickly, Rose is walking through the tunnel at the United Center, doling out high fives and turning back to the camera with a sly grin to inform us that he’s back. It ends, appropriately, with some mildly vomitorious copy: "The world stopped when D-Rose went down. Not only for Bulls fans, but for everyone who's a fan of a basketball. Join the Return as we see that every step D-Rose takes towards recovery isn't just bringing him back, it's bringing us all back."
Which, honestly: yuck. And I love Derrick Rose. I traded YouTube links of his high school highlights, I specifically watched college basketball because of his Memphis career, and when the Bulls inexplicably scored the number one pick in 2008 I literally tackled my nearby friend to the ground and screamed in his face until he pushed me off. Rose's career with the Bulls has been a true delight, for dozens of physical and philosophical reasons.
But there’s something disingenuously fawning in the way these ads elevate Rose to savior status; not franchise savior, but redeemer-of-all-of-us/so-loved-the-world-et-cetera savior status. There’s no doubt that, one day, Rose could be a transformative figure in his hometown, and a person legitimately capable of affecting political and social change in his hometown. An incident this summer, in which he helped mediate between rival gangs, is one such example.
Overall, though, it simply isn’t where his career and his life are at the moment, or in the foreseeable future. Rose is first and foremost a basketball player, and then a savvy pizza businessman, and an icon of whatever-you-want after all that.
I don’t think it’s mere cynicism*, either, to point out the obvious financial stake in making Rose out to be some kind of magical Tebow Obama, because it was barely a year ago that Adidas signed Rose to a quarter-billion dollar deal in the hopes that he’d be a constant presence in both the Finals and in highlight packages, not a dude hugging the elliptical until March Madness comes.
I’m sure the people at Adidas have come to like Rose, inasmuch as they thought he was their best chance to make a whole lot of money, but it’s not as if they’re embarking on this ad campaign because of any vested interest in elocuting the fragile, beautiful way in which his personal narrative might be carried to glorious redemption. It’s merely the hand they’ve been dealt and must play, unless there’s an out clause in any advertising contract to account for torn ACLs.
But this is, maybe, more a problem with the medium than the message. Compared to other athlete-city relationships, Rose and Chicago are like blissfully canoodling high school sweethearts, and to imagine some Adidas ad man musing on how to monetize such a genuine connection seems both drearily predictable and kind of queasy. Rose almost certainly never asked to be seen as a messiah; it doesn't seem like him, and when even a world-historic ego like LeBron James is building his most recent advertising campaign around buying random people sandwiches and laughing inauthentically at a barbershop, it's also kind of off.
But such a campaign was presented to Rose, and such a campaign is what was run with. For all its production value, though, it feels most like those phony-baloney "viral" ads purporting to show a humble-as-hell Kevin Durant moving in his own furniture, as though fans couldn’t be led to water by Durant’s naturally occurring existence. It’s also a little bit like the YOLO section on Katie Couric’s website, though with more lens flare. The dreariest thing about the campaign, though, is how predictably flat all the soaring Shared Purpose stuff feels. If there's one thing American advertising has proved adept at over the last century, it's finding a way to leverage, commodify and quickly wear out the way anyone feels about anything. In that way, it's more than just a bad ad campaign built on some bad, cynical appropriations. It's actually kind of sad.
Plus, it should also be noted that those shoes are ugly as hell.
* It would be cynical, however, to wonder why someone couldn’t have done a similar campaign for the similarly injured Iman Shumpert.