by Steve Aschburner
If ever there was going to be the perfect, if overdue, moment for Derrick Rose to return to action for the Chicago Bulls, it would be a Game 7 in the NBA playoffs, with his team desperate for help, facing the Brooklyn Nets in a hostile building …
Stop. Rose won’t be walking through that door for the Bulls Saturday night, even if he does have more spring in his step than Willis Reed did 43 years ago on the other side of the East River, limping back for a Game 7 and straight into sports mythology. The Captain only stuck around long enough to hit two shots and inspire the New York Knicks to their first championship. Rose would seem to have that much in him, in what would likely be a 15-20 minutes limit whenever he actually does return to action. And of course we’re wasting our time and our typing here.
After all, Rose’s extended layoff from knee surgery last May – we’re at 51 weeks now – could have had its perfect ending in Game 6 Thursday at United Center, where a packed arena’s warm embrace for however long he lasted might have been enough to propel the Bulls into the second round already. It could have come two weeks ago, synchronized to the start of a postseason he missed last spring. It could have come last month or sometime after the All-Star break, when word began leaking out from behind the practice curtains that, in 5-on-5 scrimmaging, that the 2011 MVP was looking as good as ever.
The arc of Rose’s repair and rehabilitation from ACL surgery has gone from anticipatory to antsy to anticlimax. It has overstayed its welcome in the Windy City, like the occasional stubborn winter, and as with the Chicago Cubs’ ridiculous drought, a numbness and a whole lot of scoffing is settling in for some folks. If they did not laugh, they would cry.
But there’s more floating out there than jokes. During the Game 5 telecast Monday, TNT analyst Steve Kerr was critical of Rose for his refusal to take that last big step of rehab, testing all that work and dedication where it matters most, in an NBA game, for a team in need. Multiple Bulls players have been pushing through bruises, pain and illness, while Rose still monitors the repair of a year-old injury (April 28, 2012, to be exact).
“I know I’ve kind of changed my mind,” Kerr said on-air. “I’ve really supported the Bulls and Derrick with the way they’ve handled it. I think you err on the side of caution. But I think where the Bulls are now with this series with [backup point guard] Kirk Hinrich struggling with the calf injury — if Derrick is OK and there’s no threat to further injury, I think he’s got to play.”
It’s that kind of talk, not just from Kerr but all over sports-radio airwaves and the Internet, that has dinged Rose’s reputation. As beloved in his short career as any Chicago sports star save one, Rose’s hesitancy to play until he’s fully “comfortable” or regains “muscle memory” has some people questioning his courage, his character, his commitment, you name it. It is as irrational as it was inevitable with a layoff this long, fan stuff of impatience mixed with the coverage of the other hobbled Bulls as “gamers.”
Rose told reporters at the Bulls’ shootaround Saturday in New York that he hadn’t heard the criticism. “That’s my first time hearing about it,” he said in another too-rare media moment. “I barely turn on the TV. I’m with my son all day so that’s about it.”
None of the second-guessing is coming from the organization or his teammates. Coach Tom Thibodeau and Hinrich, as all of them have for months, gave Rose absolute votes of confidence Wednesday. Still, the Bulls and Rose failed each other by failing to keep everyone – not just themselves but the media and the fans – in the loop. They let him, his agents, his family and his sneaker partners (adidas) dictate the terms of communication, kept at a trickle, that bled away empathy and heightened suspicions. Monthly sit-downs with Bulls reporters would have provided better feedback, kept Rose’s affable personality front and center and calmed if not satisfied the locals.
The Bulls also should have avoided distractions, speculation and all this angst by shutting down Rose’s will-he-or-won’t-he return about six weeks ago. Did they really want to overlay the learning curve of his return onto their playoff preparation, risking other guys’ roles and rhythms? Did they seriously consider throwing him raw out there against a Brooklyn backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson? Would they seriously put Rose as red meat in front of the Dobermans from Miami, if they made it to the next round?
Come on. Who’s believes this stuff?
There would have been nothing wrong had Rose and the Bulls tossed the entire 2012-13 season aside and simply let everyone know the plan, assuming they had a plan. If this truly was matter of, physically and mentally waking up each day and gauging his health and his confidence, OK, fine. Even that would have gone done better if not for the elaborate, expensive series of shoe commercials – “The Return” – that made it look as if Bulls fans would be getting Rose as “Rocky” sooner rather than later.
The long, unsatisfying NBA season in Chicago is nearing an end. When Rose does come back in October, he’ll turn this all into a win-win: Show rust and people will nod, agreeing finally (and probably wrongly, since rust is part of these things whenever) that he needed another five months. Play great and the uber-cautious strategy will seem like genius, and the teeth-gnashing of this spring will fade away.
It’s just difficult for a lot of folks over the next few hours or days knowing that – with Hinrich’s calf, Luol Deng‘s illness, Joakim Noah‘s plantar fasciitis, Taj Gibson‘s knee and Nate Robinson‘s towel-and-bucket routine Thursday – the healthiest guy on the Chicago roster might be Derrick Rose