There's a portrait to be painted of the last two seasons of Chicago Bulls basketball, and the way it looks is up to you. Let's not pretend like there haven't been good times.
In the moment, that streak-snapping win over the Heat in March of 2013 felt like a championship in and of itself. There was the night Nate Robinson went nuclear against the Nets in Game 4, how each impossible shot he hit during that fourth quarter was life-affirming in its own way. And then there was last season, as we watched a terminally flawed team grind out victory after victory even after after the beating heart of the roster was traded in January. That was a real accomplishment that would have been even more inspiring if we didn't already come to expect such things from a team led by Tom Thibodeau and Joakim Noah.
There's a reason the Bulls of the last two seasons were able to routinely feel so fulfilling, and it's the same reason most of this country hates LeBron James, Barry Bonds and the New York Yankees. America loves an underdog, and the Bulls were the ultimate one after a hard-luck streak you couldn't empathize with until you lived through it. Hanging over it all was Derrick Rose, a gift to this city that always seemed too good to true until he was cruelly taken away from us. It was something you couldn't wish on any rival fanbase. Some days, I think Derrick handled it better than we did.
The emotional trauma that Rose's absence brought to this city is and was undeniable. It only hurt the way it did because he fell from such a high perch. Rose was raised in one of the small pockets that makes Chicago the league-leader in murders every year, and his ascent from the gang-laced poverty in our own backyard to international stardom went beyond the experience of having a great athlete play for your favorite basketball team. He was our own, distinctly Chicago in a way you couldn't understand unless you grew up here.
Rose was sheltered by his mother and older brothers just to make it out alive, not just from gun-fire and gangs but from the rest of the pitfalls that come with being anointed a prodigy in a billion dollar business by the time you're 14 years old. With that came some defensiveness and other personality ticks that didn't make these last two and a half years any easier. When Rose was playing basketball he was the most likable person in the city, but as soon as injuries prevented him from doing it the entire enterprise crumbled.
The way so much of this city has turned on Rose is the single worst development of the last 27 months. You know someone who could generally be considered "not an asshole" who's done it. My dad has. Many of my friends have, too. Listen to The Score or ESPN radio for more 30 minutes and you can't escape it. A lot of it is the fault of Rose and his camp for the PR missteps they've made, but it doesn't change the most basic fact of the story. Derrick Rose suffered two devastating knee injuries in back-to-back seasons, and there's nothing he or anyone else could have done about it.
Because we've seen Rose's star fade and because we know how arduous watching this team is without him, even the smallest steps in his road to recovery feel like a cause for celebration. That's why this week has felt so amazing even if not entirely consequential. You can't look at the Internet without seeing a glowing quote about Rose from USA basketball's training camp ahead of the FIBA World Cup. There are no dissenting opinions or negative reviews. Everyone agrees Derrick looks great.
Best players (per one coach in attendance) thus far in Vegas at National Team tryouts: Durant, Paul George, Anthony Davis and Derrick Rose.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) July 30, 2014
"I think he has been terrific. He looks strong. He looks confident. He looks explosive," said GM Gar Forman.
"He's better than four years ago," said Coach K, who started Rose in the last World Cup.
"He looks explosive. Explosive and strong. He’s in good shape and I have not a single concern about his knee," said former teammate Kyle Korver.
"It's gonna be funny seeing them eat their words," said Rose on the subject of haters.
One day, Rose is slicing through the lane to finish a tough layup in traffic then elevating for a two-handed tomahawk slam the way he used to back in 2011. The next, he's coming out of nowhere to swat Trey Burke's layup.
In a way, it doesn't really matter. We saw the way Rose torched the preseason last year, only to watch him struggle immensely through his first 10 games. He looked strong and fast and explosive even then, but there was failure to balance when to be tentative and when to be aggressive that only comes after missing so much time. Even if Rose makes Team USA and goes out and impresses in the World Cup, it's still going to take some time in the regular season. He's just been away from the game for too long.
There seems like there's been a change in Rose's mindset, though, one that could go a long way. Even before the injuries, Rose has always appeared so deep inside his own head. It might be starting to dissipate
"Of course, I wanted to prove everybody wrong last year," Rose said. "I just wanted it too, too bad. And this time around, I just know that I've got to let the game come to me; go out there and just play.
Healthy amount of skepticism is deserved. It has to be. No one engraving his name on the next MVP trophy or designing the Bulls' next championship banner. To me, it doesn't matter. I know these reports from USA camp don't mean D. Rose is finally and officially back, but I can still cherish all of them just the same.
He's just been gone for too long, and the pain that came with that absence was too layered to forget. To see Rose regain his position as one of the golden boys of the league is like hurtling back in time. It might not signal anything just yet, but it feels too good to ignore.