We’ve never seen anything like Derrick Rose’s second Knicks act

It just doesn’t happen this way. Not here. Not in sports. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who once mused: “There are no second acts in American lives,” and he wrote that in 1932, which means he probably wasn’t referring to any basketball players.

But Derrick Rose is disproving that. What Rose has done in 29 games as a Knick this year is completely rewrite his legacy as a Knick. He’s permanently altered the narrative of his first stay here, in 2016-17, when he contributed 64 mostly unhappy games to a 31-51 Knicks team that failed to leave even one lasting memory to the city’s basketball posterity.

“Every time he steps on the court here he’s having fun,” says Taj Gibson, thrice Rose’s teammate with the Knicks and the Bulls and the Timberwolves. “He’s always smiling.”

There were few smiles the first time around. Sunday night in Houston, there was a nice moment captured on MSG-TV of Rose chatting with Jeff Hornacek, now a Rockets assistant but formerly his coach with the Knicks. They shared an embrace and bookend chuckles. While you couldn’t quite hear what they said, you can imagine it went something like this:

Jeff: “Can you believe Phil made me run the triangle with you?”

Derrick: “Let’s laugh so we don’t cry.”

You can’t blame everything from four years ago on Phil Jackson, no matter how much fun that might be. Rose had plenty of his own issues. He reported late because of a civil trial he was involved in, he went AWOL, he was mostly sullen and looked most nights like the best days of his career were in his rear-view mirror. He was booed at the Garden, sure, but even that felt muted, as if he wasn’t even worthy of scorn.

 Derrick Rose #4 of the New York Knicks dribbles the ball
Derrick Rose’s improved second go-round with the Knicks goes deeper than his statistics.
Getty Images

It is damned impossible to believe that is the same player we have seen these past few months. An awfully smart reader named Steve Simenri asked the other night: has a player in New York ever had a first stint in town where he was so disliked and then made their way back to town and become a fan favorite? 

Short answer: no. This is unprecedented.

We’ve had popular players who’ve returned for a thanks-for-the-memories victory lap – think Mark Messier with the Rangers, Tino Martinez and Andy Pettitte with the Yankees, Jose Reyes, Hubie Brooks and David Cone with the Mets, Mark Jackson with the Knicks. Tom Seaver returned a conquering hero in 1983 before a clerical error allowed the White Sox to steal him away a year later.

We’ve had players who didn’t really do their legacies any favors by making their way back to town for a second tour. You can put Darrelle Revis on top of that list. Nobody was much pining for Roger Clemens’ 6-6, 4.18 epilogue year with the 2007 Yankees. Dave Kingman I, whimsical and crowd-pleasing slugger, became Dave Kingman II, surly fan-baiting .204 hitter during his Mets encore.

There have been a few happy-ending returns. Lee Mazzilli had some crucial postseason at-bats for the ’86 Mets after starring (and languishing) for the Grant’s Tomb version of the team in the late ‘70s. Claude Lemieux returned to the 2000 Devils five years after leaving in a huff and his fingerprints are all over their first two Stanley Cups.

And then there are those who made a bad first impression and a worst second impression. We can name that trophy after Bobby Bonilla, who threatened to show a reporter the Bronx his first time around as a Met and showed utter indifference by playing clubhouse cards during an elimination game his second. Javy Vazquez certainly gets an honorable mention there, though. If Richard Todd had taken a snap his second go-round with the Jets in 1986 he would have, too.

Derrick Rose #4 of the New York Knicks looks on and smiles
Derrick Rose and the Knicks have plenty of reasons to smile these days.
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No, Rose stands alone. For one thing, he’s simply playing better. He shot .217 from 3 before; he’s at .400 now. His assist-to-turnover rate was 4.4-2.3 then; it’s 4.1-1.2 now. His player-efficiency rating? It was 17.0 then, 18.5 now. He had 3.0 win shares then, 2.3 in fewer than half the amount of games now. We could keep listing numbers.

Or you could just watch. Or listen. 

“He’s always been a team-first guy and winning’s always at the forefront, he’s always been a great teammate,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau says. “He’s happy when other people have success. He’s most happy when the team wins. And whether he scores two points or he scores 20 points, he’s the same guy.”

Says Rose: “The story is crazy but I’m just happy to still be here playing decent basketball. I’m very appreciative.”

It may not be crazy. But it is unique. Derrick Rose’s second act is so good it’s like the first one never existed. It’s better that way.