DENVER -- It was quickly approaching midnight on a frosty Thursday in the Mile High City, where the Nuggets had just dispatched the Bulls by 10, and the media began perforating the visitor's sullen locker room.
There, in front of the back corner stall, with a simple "1" inked in black on a white piece of athletic tape affixed overhead, sat Derrick Rose, the pride of Chicago, in a chair changing into street clothes. At the time, the loss marked only his ninth game back (the 16th including the Bulls' undefeated preseason) from a season and a half away recovering from left knee ACL surgery.
While the rest of the early comers were huddled over forward Taj Gibson, who had been tossed from the game on a second technical foul, I approached Rose and inquired if I could ask him a couple questions.
"Can we wait until after I get dressed?" he asked politely.
"Sure," I said, followed with a hesitant apology. He responded, "Oh, you're good."
I hovered nearby as the locker room attendants packed away the team's shoes for their trip to Portland and collected used towels off the floor. All while, a swarm of newspapermen and other journalists coalesced in the room. Some minutes passed with Rose up facing his locker to put the finishing touches on his appearance; the sizable, yellow-tinted rocks fastened to each earlobe, black signature line knit cap on his head, custom headphones -- red with black "DRose" logo -- wrapped around his neck, and both of his backpack straps slung onto his shoulders. As he turned to the awaiting assemblage as a cue, the tape recorders and microphones lifted toward his mouth, and the questions commenced.
I couldn't quite put my finger on it just an hour or so earlier during the game, but Rose didn't look right. The aggressive, dominant, do-everything guard and the league's youngest MVP at just 22 in 2010-11, he is the superstar on which the entire city of Chicago's collective hopes rest. And he was playing fine on his way to a decent night for him these days -- 9-of-20 shooting, four assists, four boards and 19 points -- but the spark and explosion that has come to characterize his budding career wasn't there. He rarely looked the constant threat of the past, and he missed a couple of gimme layups and his team never had more than a two-point lead during the whole duration of the game.
I clearly was not the only reporter judging Rose on an admittedly-subjective eye test, and a third of the postgame conversation focused on his health, with a reporter asking how Rose was feeling within the first few questions.
"Like I said," Rose calmly addressed the subject for the umpteenth time, "I'm not worried about how I feel during the game or whatever. I'm going to continue to play the way that I normally play. And I'm not worried about my rhythm or anything. It's gonna come."
"I know it's there," he said later. "I've worked too hard. Set shots, I know I can knock 'em down, but just getting used to having the ball in my hand and creating and really knocking down the shot, that's the next thing. But, like I said, I know my rhythm is going to come."
It also explained why Rose commanded the postgame press conference with Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
"I thought he played hard," the fourth-year head coach said. "I think he's still shaking some rust off, and he's itching to play more minutes, so that's a good sign. He feels pretty good. It's coming, you can see it. So, just want him to continue to concentrate on improvement, get better each game. His confidence is growing, he's playing better and better."
That was 24 hours before the dire news broke the next night. The 25-year-old injured his right knee against the Trail Blazers. The people of Illinois -- heck, the entire NBA and its fans -- held its breath once more. The test results showing it was a torn meniscus, rather than the other ACL, which was initially feared, which allowed for a sort of communal exhale, even though Rose will again be on the shelf for an extended period.
Of course, hindsight is 20-20, and no one can claim to have seen an injury coming. But no matter what Rose or anyone else says, he wasn't the same player even before the second injury and certainly won't be after his recovery. Everyone can see it. His per-game career averages are down nearly five points and two assists this season, and he doesn't possess the killer instinct that got him where he is today and made every Chicagoan (and basketball devotee) fall in love.
Maybe it's because of the severe weather or its place always in the shadow of New York, but Chicago is one of those tough towns known for its thick outer shell. Yet beyond this seemingly impervious layer lies an utter loyalty and unquestioned devotion, especially when it comes to one of its native sons. That in mind, it's become clear that its citizens are so uniquely invested in Rose's return that it causes anxiety.
Perhaps like no other player in the league, Rose is the franchise. This new injury only causes further pain for the team and the city. Both will wait until he is ready, until then, whether we're a member of the press that chilly night in Denver or a fanatical Bulls fan longing for the supreme success from the days of Jordan, we're all in a state of sustained anticipation, just waiting on Derrick Rose.
"I think with anybody with an ACL injury -- any knee surgery, period -- listen to your body and be patient," Rose told the inquisitive drove gathered at his temporary locker that late evening after the loss, unknowing of what would come the next game. "You can't let anybody force you to come back and play. It's your body. You know your body better than anyone else. You'll know it's time when you step back on the court.
"I hope you just don't force it."