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Derrick Rose's nonverbal 'I Can't Breathe' statement speaks volumes

Gestures mean something. So do words. So, even, do T-shirts.

So when Derrick Rose wore a black T-shirt with the words ‘‘I Can’t Breathe’’ in white letters on the front during warmups before the Bulls’ game Saturday against the Warriors at the United Center, it meant something.

People noticed. Rose certainly meant for people to notice.

The phrase refers to the desperate words spoken several times by Eric Garner, the man who was put in an illegal choke hold by a policeman last summer while being arrested for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes in New York. Garner, who had other health issues, would die soon after. The city medical examiner would rule the death a homicide.

But a grand jury failed to bring charges against the cop, even though the terrifying video of the event is available for all to see online, and that is one more apparent social injustice the disenfranchised and powerless in America must deal with.

The thing about Rose wearing the T-shirt, which his teammates praised him for, is that he hasn’t been outspoken about anything, let alone injustice, until recently.

‘‘I respect Derrick 150 percent, and I’m riding with him,’’ Bulls center Joakim Noah said. ‘‘A lot of people feel that way.’’

Rose hasn’t spoken with the media about his protest T-shirt, and the Bulls didn’t practice Sunday. So we will let his stark, nonverbal declaration speak for itself.

The racial anger over the recent killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri — and the failure of a grand jury to bring charges against the cop — started much of the recent unrest.

But ‘‘I can’t breathe’’ is an apt metaphor, with all its levels of meaning, to describe the daily existence of racial minorities and the poor in our country.

Thus, Rose follows in the footsteps of other athletes who have used their platform to express anger and dismay with the status quo.

His direct predecessors are the five Rams players who ran onto the field Nov. 30 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis with their hands held high, mimicking the supposed ‘‘hands up’’ posture Brown was in before he was killed in nearby Ferguson.

Before them, LeBron James posted a photo on his Twitter page in March 2012 of the entire Heat team wearing hoodies, a protest against the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin by crime-watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. The hashtag read ‘‘#WeAreTrayvonMartin.’’

The Clippers wore their warmup shirts inside out — so no logo was visible — to protest racist comments made by then-owner Donald Sterling last spring. The Heat did the same in another playoff game to show solidarity.

These socially aware gestures by star athletes flow back to what many think was the granddaddy of them all, the Black Power salutes Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos made on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. Their raised black-gloved fists, bowed heads, closed eyes and motionless postures during the playing of ‘‘The Star-Spangled Banner’’ have become iconic symbols of angry but nonviolent racial protest.

There’s so much tied up in symbolism that it is hard to know what is right and wrong. It must be your own interpretation. You must be prepared for the ramifications of what you have said or done.

In general, defiantly outspoken athletes don’t last very long. For years, perhaps even today, being your team’s union rep meant you were always on the bubble. There’s a narrow-minded, selfish, almost-narcissistic persona one must maintain when fractions of inches, microseconds of time and grievous injury are all that separate one from the scrap heap of used-to-be.

Noah’s powerful public-service video against gun violence — with him looking straight at the camera, hair bun undone and flowing, saying, ‘‘What do you stand for?’’ — features other citizens speaking out, plus a cameo by Rose. In it, Rose says, ‘‘I stand for my city’’ and ‘‘Stand up for peace!’’

No, we can’t have athletes turning into billboards and jingles, saying whatever pops into their minds, wearing shirts that spew slogans and pap. Where we draw the line isn’t easy to decide. The heart, as always, must judge with the mind.

Words, a philosopher once said, are loaded guns. ‘‘I can’t breathe’’ are but three.

As an old-school observer, I have to say it’s good to see Rose loaded up and ready to become a man.