CHICAGO — For once, the story around Derrick Rose has nothing to do with basketball or his health. It's about something bigger.
Before the Chicago Bulls' Saturday night game against the Golden State Warriors, Rose came out of the tunnel for warm-ups wearing a shirt that read "I Can't Breathe." It was a reference to last week's non-indictment of a New York City police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner.
The shirt was an unusually bold political statement from the normally soft-spoken Rose, speaking volumes without saying any words at all. He declined to address reporters after Saturday's game, but spoke at length at the team's practice facility on Monday about his decision to wear the shirt and why the Garner story resonated with him.
"I had the shirt made, my best friend Randall brought it to the game, and I decided to wear it," Rose said. "It wasn't any one [person's] idea, I just thought I wanted to support something that happened. That's what made me wear the shirt."
If there's anybody a story like Garner's or the recent shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, would hit home with, it's Rose, who grew up in the notoriously dangerous neighborhood of Englewood on the South Side of Chicago. For Rose, making a statement wasn't just about Garner's death. It was about something he knows all too well.
"I grew up and I saw it every day," Rose said. "Not killing or anything like that, but I saw the violence every day. Just seeing what can happen. If anything, I'm just trying to change the kids' minds across the nation and it starts here."
One of those kids is Rose's own two-year-old son. He talks often about how becoming a father has changed him, and his relationship with his son has informed his need to speak up on this issue.
"I'm a parent now," Rose said. "I had a kid two years ago. It probably would have been different [before his son was born]. I probably wouldn't have worn the shirt. But now that I'm a dad, it's just changed my outlook on life, period.
"I don't want my son growing up being scared of the police or having the thought that something like that could happen. I have a cousin, that easily could have been him, or that easily could have been one of our relatives. It's sad that people lost their lives over that."
Since Rose wore the shirt on Saturday, his message has reverberated around the league. On Sunday, LeBron James called Rose's gesture "spectacular" and hinted that he might wear a similar shirt on Monday night when the Cleveland Cavaliers play the Brooklyn Nets.
"(James) is a huge figure," Rose said. "And he grew up in a neighborhood like that. It means a lot for a star to come out and say something, especially a megastar, so I'm happy about that."
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau didn't know about the shirt beforehand, but for him, it was no surprise coming from the superstar who in September donated $1 million to After School Matters, a local charity focused on providing after-school activities for children in impoverished neighborhoods.
"I think it's a great message," Thibodeau said. "It's about equality and justice for everybody. So I think you guys know the type of person Derrick is. I'm sure he'll explain it further. Derrick's a great person. I think you guys know what he did earlier with the after school program. He wants to stand for something and it's important to him."
Rose's statement may have been out of character for him, but he isn't the first NBA star to speak up on a social issue. Many players were outspoken about this spring's Donald Sterling racism scandal, and in 2012, James' Miami Heat teammates took a group photo wearing hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin.
"Usually I'll stay out of politics and stay out of police brutality," Rose said. "I'm not saying all cops are bad or anything, I'm just saying what happened those days [in New York and Ferguson], it was uncalled for and I think that it hurt a lot of people. It hurt the nation.
"But my biggest concern is the kids. I know what they're thinking right now. I was one of those kids. When you live in an area like that and you've got no hope, and police aren't treating you any way, I'm not saying all police are treating kids bad, but when you live in an area like that, it gives you another reason to be bad. So my biggest concern is the kids and and making sure that my son grows up in a safe environment."
Recently, the St. Louis Police Department reprimanded some St. Louis Rams players for walking out on the field before a game making the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" sign as a show of support for the protesters in Ferguson.
So far, Rose hasn't faced any of the same resistance or backlash, and he hopes it stays that way.
"I'm just happy that the league hasn't said anything," he said. "The franchise hasn't said anything. I'm happy that everything has been positive."
As an NBA superstar, Rose has a massive platform to be a voice for these issues. The Bulls' last superstar, Michael Jordan, shied away from politics entirely during his playing career, famously remarking that "Republicans buy shoes, too." Rose isn't following in those footsteps—he has a voice, and he's going to use it to speak out on the issues that matter to him.
"I'm just happy that people paid attention to it," he said. "I think it touched a lot of people because I grew up in an impoverished area like that, and that stuff happens a lot of times. It touched a lot of people and I wanted to make sure I got my point across."
Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @highkin
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