I was hosting a Friendsgiving party the day it was announced, still nursing a heavy hangover from the aftershock of the night before, keeping my body running on a mixture of caffeine and anxiety. The situation was strikingly familiar but the sensation felt different, subtly yet distinctly . There was more tension. After everything the Bulls and their fans had been through the year before with Derrick Rose, it did not seem possible this could all happen again. He was just starting to get it back.
Eight days earlier, Rose hit six three-pointers as the Bulls ran the Pacers clear off the United Center floor to give Indiana its first loss of the season. A night before, Rose scored 15 in the first half against the Nuggets on a dizzying array of floaters he couldn't get to fall earlier in the year. Rose cooled in off in the second half and the Bulls would lose in Denver, but the signs were there. Derrick was coming. It was taking time but he was getting there.
Know your Enemy
Know your Enemy
And then, of course, it happened. Another non-contact play. The replay didn't look terrible, but it didn't look terrible when he tore his left ACL against the 76ers 19 months earlier, either. You could see the pain in his face. It was the only translation of the injury we were going to get for about 15 hours, as the Bulls flew to Los Angeles ahead of their Sunday meeting with the Clippers. That's where Rose was going to have an MRI. In the meantime, we had this tweet, a tweet that meant nothing from someone who wouldn't know but still turned into the sort of thing every information-starved publication ran with.
It made me upset in a way sports things rarely do anymore. That last sentence, the way it presumes without anything close to medical certainly, the way it hangs out there like some sort of brilliant insight as if the thought hadn't already overpowered anyone who cares even a little bit about Chicago basketball from the moment Rose went down ...
That's how I woke up on Saturday morning and how you probably did too, waiting for an MRI result that seemed delayed forever.
I think the news finally came around 4 p.m. locally, just before everyone showed up at the party. Not an ACL but a torn meniscus. I remember seeing people say "he could return in eight weeks!" but the gravity of the injury combined with how Derrick chose to recover last season should have led everyone to know better. It felt over. I put on an Indian headdress made out of colored construction paper, the type a kindergarten teacher would make, and ate a lot of turkey. I was mostly thinking about Derrick.
Rose spoke in Chicago days later. He sounded shell shocked but defiant, which was probably the only appropriate tone. We haven't really heard from him since. I haven't thought about him much. There was one very bad column by Dan Bernstein, sure, but it seems like no one else has thought about him much, either. It's so much better this way.
On the surface, this year's Bulls team shares a lot in common with last year's squad, the one that reached the second round of the playoffs before LeBron James and the Heat ran off four consecutive wins to end their season. No Derrick. Cheap signings saving the day, from Marco and Nate to D.J. and Dunleavy. The defense is great and the offense is among the worst in the league. This team won three more games than last year's squad, and again no one is quite sure how they've managed to do it.
Well, we have some idea. Joakim Noah's will is just that strong, Taj Gibson's rim protection is just that stout, Tom Thibodeau is just that good. This year even comes with the added bonus (if you want to call it that) of doing it all without Luol Deng. They've turned into a group we can be proud of, not dissimilar from what developed in Rose's absence last season.
If you've followed this season closely, though, there's no denying how much more enjoyable it has been compared to the last one. That's mostly because of Rose, or at least the atmosphere surrounding him.
Derrick is like family in a way I'm not sure another athlete in this city will ever be able to achieve. Chicagoans can criticize the way he chose not to return a year ago when he was cleared by team doctors at the beginning of March. We will lament Rose's combination of seemingly being the most injury prone player in the league and the slowest healer. We'll wonder what's going on in his head when he sees Noah whipping the UC crowd into a frenzy and watches the way the Bulls have overcome hurdle after hurdle without him for the second season in a row.
It's all easy enough to recognize, if not straight up undeniable. But there's still something about the conversation surrounding Rose that always makes it seem like everyone is wrong when you're not the one doing the talking. It's because the emotional investment in Rose from this city is beyond compare.
Objectivity? Not if you remember reading about this lightning-fast point guard at Simeon in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2006. Not if you consider the moment the Bulls won the draft lottery in 2008 as one of your happier sports memories ever. Not if you watched Rose ascend to become the youngest MVP in league history just six months after asking "Why can't I be MVP?" at the preseason media day session.
Rose has touched the highest highs and lowest lows of our personalized fandom, going from an angelic savior to a portrait of millennial entitlement all in the course of two years. Naturally, he was never either of these things, he's only a human, a human who made it past a tough upbringing on the side of town the media only touches on when its convenient, a human blessed with the size, athleticism and spirit so many have wished for when playing pick up ball on the blacktop courts throughout the south side. Rose was the realization of a million dreams before turning into a very specific civic nightmare. In the time between, an entire city has projected its feelings onto his shoulders, and Rose very much feels the burden. It wouldn't be an easy thing for you to deal with, either.
Here's what it comes down to, as simple as it may sound: Derrick Rose got hurt, and then he got hurt again. That's the real problem here. It's not Rose's faulty competitive drive, or the corporate overlords at adidas pulling strings, or a distrust between the player and the doctors his team employs. It's not Reggie Rose's fault. It's not Thibodeau's. It's just a thing that happened. It's bad luck, is all. You play with the cards you're dealt.
As the Bulls prepare to start another playoff run on Sunday against Washington, a season we thought would be defined by Rose has been about everything but Rose. It's been about Noah turning himself into one of the best players in the league. It's been about Taj evolving from luxury to necessity. It's been about D.J. Augustin turning in a remarkable bounceback season when the team needed it most. It's been about Jimmy's perimeter defense and Dunleavy's shooting. It's been about Hinrich and Boozer still being Hinrich and Boozer, for better or for worse.
It's not Derrick's team. If we're being honest, it hasn't been for years. Last year, that realization felt like a blow to the stomach, if not the brain. This year, we know there's something to these Bulls that goes beyond Rose. Something we can enjoy watching. Something we can be proud of.
There's peace in Rose's situation now, a peace we weren't afforded a year ago even as Nate Robinson played like a video game character and Noah turned in a warrior's performance. This isn't about Derrick anymore. We're better off because of it.