Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the day that's been haunting Chicago ever since it happened, the day Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the final minutes of the Bulls' Game 1 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs. Time didn't momentarily freeze and cars didn't just stop in the middle of the Loop like an adidas commercial depicted, but the dramatization wasn't far off.
It's difficult to understand just how much Rose means to Chicago if you're not from here. The story of Rose's rise to stardom was almost too good to be true. He came from Englewood, the south-side Chicago neighborhood most notable for poverty and violence. He established himself as star in high school, leading Simeon to back-to-back state championships as a junior and senior. The Bulls got impossibly lucky to earn the rights to draft him, jumping from the No. 9 spot in the lottery all the way to the top pick. There was a 1.7 percent chance it could happen, but it immediately felt like destiny. That he did it all with seemingly unparallelled levels of quiet humility only made the story better.
On the brink of the 2010-11 season, Derrick Rose asked, "Why can't I be MVP?" There were plenty of logical reasons why he couldn't be. Rose was only 22 years old. LeBron James was in the prime of his career and had won the last two MVPs. The Bulls were coming off a 41-win season and just whiffed on James, Dwyane Wade and plenty of others in free agency, instead settling for Carlos Boozer and a few quality bench players.
And then he did it, leading the Bulls to a league-best 62 wins while averaging over 25 points per game. Maybe he got the vote because the story made everyone feel so warm and fuzzy, because this was the year the LeBron backlash was at its pinnacle, but it didn't matter. Rose was the youngest MVP in league history. "Hometown kid makes good" is well-worn media narrative, but its hard to imagine anyone has pulled it off as flawlessly as Rose.
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Jump forward to where we're at today, and the rhetoric surrounding Rose has changed completely. Since accepting his MVP, Rose has only played in 40 games. Everyone thought he'd be back on the court by now, assuming his rightful role as the leader of the Bulls just in time for the playoffs. No one thought he'd sit out the entire season -- not the team, not the fans.
Yet here we are. The Bulls face the Brooklyn Nets in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series on Thursday, and it appears Rose is no closer to returning. He hasn't been shut down, and there hasn't been a notable update on his progress in months. Rose just exists in the ether, waiting until he finally feels comfortable enough to play in an NBA game again.
Chicago is waiting, too. But it's getting restless.
Rose started taking full contact in practice on Jan. 31. On March 9, ESPN Chicago reported doctors had cleared him to return to games. Those are the two major checkpoints in Rose's recovery timeline, and the two that are brought up most often, but there's been no shortage of hysteria surrounding the situation in the time since.
Rose gave an interview to USA Today on Feb. 12 and said he wasn't coming back until he was "110 percent" -- and that at that moment, he felt like he was in the "high 80s." His older brother and lifelong guardian Reggie Rose blasted the Bulls on the day of the trade deadline for not surrounding Rose with better teammates. The day before the Bulls would end the Miami Heat's historic 27-game winning streak, rapper Waka Flocka tweeted that Rose was set to return. Shockingly, it never happened.
Where was Rose at during all of this? He was just trying to clear his mental hurdle. On March 21, when asked about when he might be ready to return, Rose said, "Nobody knows but God."
This is where we've been ever since, and the rhetoric has taken a toxic turn.
There are plenty of people in Chicago who are not giving Rose the benefit of the doubt. They're calling him a wuss, a wimp, saying that he's soft. After all, 361 days after he tore his ACL, Adrian Peterson had already amassed 1,812 yards rushing. Iman Shumpert tore his ACL on the same day as Rose and has been playing for the Knicks since January 17. What is Derrick waiting for?
Of course, this is a dangerous game to be playing. Rose was raised by a single mother in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the country -- you're really going to call that guy soft? He built up four years worth of goodwill before this ordeal -- does that count for nothing? So many of the injuries that plagued Rose during the 2011-12 season happened because he rushed back and his body was overcompensating. He had a bad back, turf toe, a stiff neck ... and never sat out more than a few games, returning to play the heavy-minutes load that Tom Thibodeau demanded. Is it really such a bad thing that he's taking his time?
But then you see Joakim Noah gutting it out in the fourth quarter of Game 2 to help key a Bulls victory when he can barely walk, and you wonder how Rose can watch all of this. He's apparently been dominating practices for months. He puts on dunking exhibitions before seemingly every game, now throwing it down off his left foot without a problem. The team is still very much open to the idea of his return. When asked about Rose after Game 2, Luol Deng told reporters, "If Derrick comes in this locker room and says he wants to play tomorrow, his uniform is ready."
Thibodeau agreed: "If Derrick can come back, we want him back."
There's more at play here, like Thibodeau's own dubious history of rushing players back from injury. This is same coach that cleared Omer Asik to return to a playoff game when he had a broken leg. This was the same coach who was drawing tons of criticism for burning out players like Noah just two days ago.
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It's not about who's "right" and who is "wrong," but it isn't hard to make an argument that Rose is wrong. When the doctors told him to run, he ran. When the doctors told him to practice, he practiced. Now the doctors have been telling him to play for almost two months, and Rose still won't do it. He won't play because he's scared. That's normal. We poke fun at Rose for having the same expressionless look at his face at all times, but Rose is human just like the rest of us, this ordeal has reinforced that if nothing else. Humans get scared of things.
The problem is, Rose's fear looks like an irrational one.
This isn't some hardline "do your job" BS. We shouldn't care about all the money the Bulls are paying him to watch the games at home. Rose should have returned at some point during the regular season because that's what the doctors told him to do. He didn't because he didn't want to come back until he was Derrick Rose again, dominating as one of the best basketball players alive. No one expected him to be a savior from the moment he returned. There was going to be a minutes limit and nights when he looked rusty. It happens to everyone. That Rose refuses to take that basic next step is what's frustrating.
This isn't Troll Tuesday, but if Rose was a normal guy out of work because of an injury sustained on the job, his workman's comp would be dependent on the doctor's word. Plenty rush to Rose's defense saying the doctors don't know his body, but you can argue the doctors know what's best for him more than he does. Doctors are important and smart and should be trusted. They've done a lot of good for a lot of people for a long time.
The difference between Rose and a normal guy, of course, is that Rose is irreplaceable. The Bulls would never pursue legal action against Rose (could you imagine?) because the Bulls don't have any leverage. What are they going to do -- cut him? Rose is bigger than the team and everyone knows it.
Credit the Bulls for supporting Rose, because that's the most important thing. The players and coaches have said the right things all along: that it's up to Derrick, that if he doesn't feel comfortable coming back this season, they'll take their shot with him next year. Thank goodness for that. I'm totally fine with Rose sitting the entire season, and it's good to know the organization is, too. There haven't been any stories about Taj Gibson complaining to friends that Rose should be back on the court. No one is publicly pressuring him.
For the long-term viability of the Bulls, this is the biggest thing. Rose needs to be happy and comfortable with the organization. If that means sitting out the entire season, so be it. I think he should have listened to the doctors and returned, but it's not the end of the world that he didn't. The Bulls should be very good next season with Rose back in the fold. As soon as he starts playing great and the team starts piling up wins, everyone will forget about this saga. The same sportswriters who are blasting him now will be back to worshiping at his feet. That's how these things work.
But that the situation is still hanging over the team is ridiculous. The Bulls haven't shut Rose down for two obvious reasons: a) there isn't a physical or tangible hurdle preventing Rose from playing; all he has to do it wake up and feel like going to work, b) ideally, the Bulls want him back. What's weird is that it appears Rose and his handlers haven't told the Bulls to shut him down. It's created an unfathomable set of circumstances where there are a good number of people who still think Rose will play in the playoffs after sitting out the entire season. Some honestly believe he'll play in Game 3, the Bulls' first home playoff game. Some think they're saving him for a potential second-round series vs. the Heat.
Like any of it matters. Rose isn't playing because he doesn't feel comfortable. End of story.
The Bulls are supporting him, and that's the right thing to do. But you can be sure that if the Bulls do make it past the Nets and meet the Heat in the second round, Rose is going to get killed by media by fans for willingly sitting out. It will be a PR nightmare. By that point, Rose will be outside the 8-12 month timetable doctors originally projected, the same one Thibodeau and the Bulls organization have been touting in his defense all season.
It's wild that it's gotten to this point, and very unfortunate. Rose saw the backlash against LeBron for "The Decision" and vowed to never let it happen to him. Well, it has. The Bulls aren't going to shut Rose down, and Rose will continue to give the same answers he's been giving for months whenever asked about his return. This won't end until the Bulls are mercifully knocked out of the playoffs. Until then, they'll continue to be as much focus on Rose as there is on the team.
This is the superstar's burden, and one Rose is obviously willing to accept. Maybe he really is tougher than the rest of us, because this sort of public pressure would drive lesser men insane.