Will Rose return even if he rehabs ahead of schedule?
When Rose went down with his knee injury in the first playoff game last year, the song became more of a country lament. Like the prototypical cheatin' husband, the Bulls' postseason chances up and walked out the door.
So when this season rolled around, there was one question on every Bulls fan's lips: When will Rose come back?
But now, there's another question everyone's asking, a question no one expected to be asking:
How long can the Bulls keep him out?
This is the new question because not only are the Bulls a surprising 3-2 after a tough loss to the Thunder Thursday night, but also because Danny Granger, star small forward on the Bulls' chief Central Division rivals the Indiana Pacers, is expected to miss three months because of patellar tendinosis, with Chicago management getting ever more copious praise for its well-voiced plan to be cautious with Rose's return.
And perhaps the praise is well-warranted. After all, if Chicago can stay in the hunt, there's no reason to rush Rose back, right?
Not so fast.
Being overcautious is the obvious approach, the pragmatic approach, the safe approach. There is no chance that anyone in the front office would sit in front of a microphone or a reporter's pad and say, "We want Derrick Rose to come back as quickly as possible."
Rose is a human being whose health absolutely and unquestionably comes first. He's also a huge asset to the Bulls from a business standpoint, and bringing Rose back when he isn't ready means risking long-term disaster for short-term results. That's just not a sensible move.
But here's the thing about making these decisions based on what "the right thing to do" is: The decision will not be customized to the person.
Rose is not like every other player. GM Gar Forman has said he's never seen a player approach rehab with as much diligence as Rose. The kid's been jumping and shooting jumpers since early September. You'll never hear it from anyone involved in this recovery process, but Rose is ahead of schedule. And with his courage and fortitude, who's surprised?
Doctors predicted eight to 12 months until Rose could play again. But as almost anyone who's seen a doctor can tell you, doctors are often—perhaps even usually—wrong.
It is entirely possible that Rose can reduce his rehab through sheer force of will. And it's happened before in pro sports.
The example that most recently comes to mind is Adrian Peterson. After tearing his ACL, the Vikings' running back extraordinaire was in no way expected to return for the first week of the 2012 season. Yet, Peterson, who also rehabbed just as he plays—with intense purpose—is statistically having his best season, averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
However, if Rose passes every on-court test, he'll still have to run a gauntlet of doctors and team officials, who, though they won't admit it, will be worried about lawsuits and media criticism just as much, if not more, than they will be about Rose's long-term health.
The point is, nobody knows for sure how long a rehabilitation will take. It varies from person to person—and the person we're talking about right now is Rose. Guys like Rose want the ball, want the last shot...and they want to play. If he happens to be ready early, to sit him out of mere prudence is showing disrespect to Rose and his superstar status.
Who can forget Michael Jordan's flu-riddled masterpiece against Utah in the 1997 NBA Finals? Would doctors have told him he could play? Certainly not. But play Jordan did, and his performance is indelibly etched in the memory of every spectator who watched the force of nature that was Jordan work his magic before collapsing in Scottie Pippen's arms.
Sure, sure, it's not the same thing: Jordan had the flu, Rose has a severe injury. But it's the same idea. An athlete knows his own body. Case in point: A month ago, Rose admitted he was scared to start cutting. He knew it might hurt or cause a setback.
See what I mean? Rose knows.
And if Rose knows, who are we to presuppose?
Amazing athletes have histories of doing amazing things despite injuries. Do you think Curt Schilling regrets playing on a bleeding ankle to beat the New York Yankees in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS? Does Willis Reed rue his decision to walk through that tunnel on an essentially broken leg in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, igniting his team and his city?
Tiger Woods probably regrets a whole (dirty) laundry list of things—but I'm guessing his unforgettable, inspirational one-legged performance in the 2008 U.S. Open is not one of them. Kirk Gibson has said he "feels fortunate" that he was able to limp out on two bum knees to hit his unforgettable pinch-hit home run in the 1988 World Series.
But apply overly cautious thinking to all of those moments—which comprise some of the greatest moments in the history of sports—and they vanish in a puff in smoke.
I'm not suggesting anyone ask the man to play injured, or even think about rushing the process. If the rehab process lasts a full 12 months, or even 14 or 20, no one should question it. But, if Rose—2011 NBA MVP, heir to the Jordan mantle and leader of probably the only Eastern Conference team that, if healthy, can beat the Heat—stands up firmly on both legs and declares that he's ready and then proves it to doctors, then by God, the powers that be had better acquiesce to him.
Otherwise, this litigation-skittish, judgement-averse culture that sports and society have conspired to create will triumph over one great player's heart and determination...and rob the fans of a potential goosebump moment and finish to a season, the kind no one would ever forget, the kind people tell their kids and grandkids about.
And that would be a true shame.
Derrick Rose has earned every accolade he has received as a breathtakingly talented NBA player.
He has also earned the right to demand his way back on the court when he's ready.