The entire NBA season has been spent wondering when he would come back. Gradually, "when" became "if," but the true issue at hand never wavered.
We've been fascinated by Rose. Completely and utterly enthralled. And by immersing ourselves in his world, he's become more than just a player. He's a concept, something we believe or disbelieve in. Rose is his own attraction.
Even in his absence, Rose has had an impact on the league, his team and our perception of the NBA and everything in it. He's changed things.
This isn't to say he needs to play or that he should remain on the sidelines. We're not talking about his decision or his health. We're talking about him, as he is. However he is.
And about how his injury has morphed the reality in which he, the Bulls and the entire NBA live.
Derrick Rose the Symbol
Rose has spent the better part of the last year as a communal hero, dominating the headlines for all the right reasons.
When he tore his ACL last April, it was a tragedy. Not unfortunate or merely unlucky, but a disaster. Someone so young and dedicated was unceremoniously stolen from the game he loved, from the team and fanbase that needed him at the most inopportune of times. It just wasn't fair.
"It's tough," Carlos Boozer said at the time (via Scott Powers of ESPNChicago.com). "It seems like he just can't catch a break...I just feel for him, man. He really can't catch a break this season."
The entire league felt for the Bulls and Rose. His injury spurred national emotions, not isolated ones.
"You never want to see that happen, especially to someone who represents the league so well," said Evan Turner of the Philadelphia 76ers in April 2012 (via Powers). "But prayers go to his speedy recovery."
Chicago obviously felt the ill effects of Rose's injury more than any city, but he garnered universal support immediately upon going down. Everyone was rooting for him.
For some time, that didn't change. His heroism only gained traction as he began his path back to the hardwood.
In September 2012—when he was still months away from resuming basketball activities—Rose was in Chicago at a sneaker launch to promote his latest shoe, courtesy of Adidas. Well, it started out that way at least.
Not too far in, it became an emotional display that showcased the connection between Rose, his return and the millions of admirers he had amassed.
It was then that "The Return" campaign was unveiled, after which Rose was overcome with emotion. Raw, uncut tears.
With Rose unable to speak, Adidas vice president of global basketball Lawrence Norman stepped in and acknowledged the gravity of the point guard's situation.
“I know it’s emotional,” Norman said (via Brett Pollakoff of NBC Sports' ProBasketballTalk). “You just have to understand that you’re inspiring millions of fans with your comeback."
Following a prolonged silence, Rose responded in kind.
“This is truly unreal,” he said (via Pollakoff). “I’m just happy that I have true fans out there.”
At this point, who wasn't a "true" fan of Rose? It was inhumane not to be. He was putting everything into his return. The time, devotion, drive and desire was on his face. It was in every tear he shed and every word he spoke.
There was no one quite like him. The bond he shared with his peers, his fans and the City of Chicago was unique. It was unprecedented. He was the story everyone wasn't just forced to follow but wanted to follow. Rose was his own movement.
When the final installment of "The Return" went viral, we found Rose as humble as ever. He was killing himself to get back on the court, ensuring he did everything right. And he was doing it all for those who continued to believe in him.
"I'm not doing it for me," he said in the documentary. "I'm doing it for my fans."
He was adored for this stubborn and selfless resilience. He wasn't going to return until he was perfect.
"I don't have a set date," Rose said of his return in February to USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "I'm not coming back until I'm 110 percent."
The basketball world was anxiously awaiting his return, but his patience was a virtue. He could look around himself and see nothing but supporters and feel comfortable in knowing that his decision was being accepted and glorified.
No one wanted to hear that he was willing to miss the entire season, but at the same time, he was emblematic of chivalry. When he was able to play, he would play. If he had to miss the entire season because he wasn't ready to play, then so be it. He was still an inspiration, and his status—ready or not—will still dwarf that of everything else.
He was a pleasant distraction. What mattered most was his well-being, and we never tired of hearing where he stood.
Derrick Rose the Player
As it turned out, not even Rose was beyond reproach.
That universal support he had become accustomed to and arguably sheltered by eventually vanished. It was replaced by an assortment of feelings, many of which were still unconditionally supportive, but some of which turned baneful and were flush with resentment.
In early March 2013, Rose was cleared to play. But he didn't play. And the world was mystified by his continued absence.
"I'm feeling good, but like I said, if it's where it's taking me a long time and I'm still not feeling right, I don't mind missing this year," Rose said after being cleared (via Melissa Isaacson of ESPNChicago.com).
Such a party line was fine (bordering on revered) when Rose wasn't medically able to play. It took guts for a dauntless competitor like himself to admit he may not play at all this season. But that's because it was always assumed he would play when he could. And if the doctors were saying he could, why wasn't he?
Still a former MVP, Rose wasn't immediately condemned for his seeming hesitation. He had earned the right to be apprehensive. Detractors were then depicted as haters, perennial misanthropes. They were the minority. And then suddenly they weren't.
The case against Rose began to pick up steam. He was no longer an irrefutable symbol of hope. To some he was, but to others he was snaking on his obligations, abusing the abundance of faith that had been put in him. And some even believed him to be a coward.
By the time the one-year anniversary of his injury rolled around, his absence became subject to more and more scrutiny. Not as many people were hesitant to question him. After all, they thought that he owed them, his fans and his team answers (via Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated):
Derrick Rose sits. The one-year anniversary of the day he tore his ACL falls this week, the end of the typical 8-12 month recovery period approaches and still Rose sits. He has been medically cleared to play since March and has been scrimmaging for weeks, and still Rose sits. His Bulls sorely need their best player in a difficult Eastern Conference playoff battle with the Nets, and still Rose sits.
The rest of us wonder why, but we hesitate to ask the question too loudly, afraid to seem too focused on the player and not the person, too unsympathetic to his recuperation. Although Rose is the one with the surgically repaired knee, it's everyone else -- teammates, coaches, fans and media -- who have been stepping gingerly when it comes to his injury. But no more. It's time for everyone to stop tiptoeing around, including the point guard himself. Derrick Rose should suit up and play.
It wasn't just the media, either. Fans became impatient.
One such fanatic even claimed Rose's absence ruined his life and intended to file a lawsuit. CBS Chicago implored fans to send in their letters of frustration, and the responses were mixed. They ranged from "take your time coming back" to "you just need to man up." Footage of him dunking off that surgically repaired leg only strengthened the case against him.
We laugh at such responses (and apparently lawsuits), but this is how big a storyline Rose had become. Forget about the fact that the Bulls had made the playoffs—Rose needed to return for the playoffs. It was about him, and "The Return" that many had thought he promised.
Still, he sat. The biggest story of the season remained on the sidelines. In a suit. With each passing game, faith in him began to decline. So many still believed in him, but the portrayal of his absence also varied beyond comprehension.
And then, another bombshell dropped.
The ambiguity surrounding Rose's plans was considered infuriating, but upon Chicago advancing past the Brooklyn Nets and into the second round of the playoffs, it reached a new level of maddening.
Per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Rose wasn't going to return during the postseason:
For the good of his franchise and fans, for everyone's focus to be where it should belong now – Bulls-Heat, Game 1 on Monday – Rose needs to drop the illusion that his return in these playoffs remains a consideration.
"Who knows?" Rose told reporters hours on Saturday. "It's still up in the air."
Who knows? Derrick Rose knows. His choice has been made to sit out the season and it includes no provisions for turning back, sources with direct knowledge told Yahoo! Sports.
Wojnarowski's report wasn't so much construed as news as it was betrayal. Rose never committed to returning during the playoffs, but he never divulged any concrete plans not to.
To know that he could have been deceiving everyone who still believed in him was crippling. Never mind if you bought into the report or not—the sheer notion of his deception was enough to get the blood flowing.
Rose never conceded to such a conspiracy, though. He never conceded to anything. Even his updates were empty of meaning.
Right on through to the second round, nothing changed. Returning remained a possibility, but it wasn't a guarantee.
Rose on his status: “Right now, I’m not ready. I’m just trying to take my time and really, really be smart.” #HEATvBULLS— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) May 6, 2013
And yet the public still hung on every word like a lifeline. There was rarely ever a change, but each "update" was treated as breaking news.
"I might have a chance," Rose said of his odds of returning in Round 2 of the 2013 NBA playoffs (via Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com).
Same diagnosis, different day.
Derrick Rose the Teammate
Consider the word "teammate" for a split second. What have I failed to mention more than a few times until now?
The Bulls. Rose's team.
Everything about Chicago has come back to Rose. The same Bulls team that won 45 games without him and finished fifth in the Eastern Conference was and remains an afterthought. Rose's teammates only exist to help put his situation into context.
How could he sit out when Joakim Noah was playing on a mangled foot? How could he remain on the sidelines while Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and the rest of his team incurred injuries and illnesses? How could he continue to stand by and do nothing?
Injuries have plagued the Bulls more than any other team in the league, but they're still in the middle of a playoff run. They upset a fourth-seeded Nets team on the road in Game 7, down Deng and Hinrich in addition to Rose. That should count for something. And it does. Just not as much as Rose's absence.
Case in point: The Bulls won three consecutive games against the Nets in the first round of the playoffs. As they were playing for a series victory in Game 5 (which they eventually lost), TNT analyst Steve Kerr was lobbying a personal inquiry into Rose's resolve (via Steve Aschburner of NBA.com):
“I know I’ve kind of changed my mind,” Kerr said on-air. “I’ve really supported the Bulls and Derrick with the way they’ve handled it. I think you err on the side of caution. But I think where the Bulls are now with this series with [backup point guard] Kirk Hinrich struggling with the calf injury — if Derrick is OK and there’s no threat to further injury, I think he’s got to play.”
Was Kerr right? Was he wrong? Again, that's not the point. Rose's decision to sit out (thus far) isn't the point.
Here, the Bulls are going for a first-round upset and still the attention is on Rose's whereabouts. Nothing the Bulls have done has trounced his availability. Nothing at all.
To some extent, that's good. Great, even. The focus has been on Rose and not the alarming number of injuries.
Deng's continued absence following hospitalization and a spinal tap has been mentioned, but it's been used as fodder to foster the arguments behind Rose's status. The same can be said of Noah's foot. He's playing on it—he can barely walk—why can't Rose play on a medically cleared knee? Especially knowing that a fellow point guard in Hinrich is battling calf issues? When his team is preparing to go up against the defending champions?
Rose's extensive stay on the bench (as previously discussed) has often been considered a failure. If he was loyal, he'd put an end to the duplicity and just suit up, like Noah has.
Few have elected to put stock in the theory that Rose's apparent failure is actually a vote of confidence. Perhaps he doesn't feel the pressure to return because he realizes what most of us have ignored—the Bulls are still good.
Are they better with Rose? Of course. But they haven't buckled under the pressure in his absence or due to the increasing number of physical afflictions they've been forced to endure. They've played on. And what's more is that they've won.
Remember, the Bulls went 18-9 without Rose during the lockout-truncated campaign of 2011-12. They were 45-37 without him this year. And they were 2-2 against the mighty Heat, with one of those victories coming without Rose and Noah and ending Miami's 27-game winning streak.
Despite such accomplishments, the bigger story has been Rose. Which could make his teammates bitter, angry that more attention is being paid to an absentee than an improbable postseason run.
Feelings of being slighted—which I believe the Bulls must possess—don't extend to Rose himself, though. Distrust has not been bred within the locker room. His teammates still respect him.
“We know what kind of guy he is, we know what kind of teammate he is," Hinrich said of Rose (via Aschburner). "We don’t feel that way. I haven’t heard one ill word said [among teammates] about it.”
You won't find head coach Tom Thibodeau harboring any resentment toward Rose, either. If anything, he's even more fond of the superstar.
"He’s not quite there, and we made that clear to him from the beginning—we’re going to support him in every way possible," Thibs said (via Aschburner). "I would never question him. Ever.”
The rest of us have questioned Rose. In one way or another, we've doubted him and the Bulls. All of us are not necessarily skeptical of his will, but we have questioned Chicago's ability to win without him.
Who hasn't? The Bulls themselves, Rose included.
Rose on how well #Bulls have played in face of adversity: “It’s not the 1st time. We’re used to it. We know it’s us against everyone else.”— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) May 6, 2013
They understand that they can weather adversity. They've done it before. Save for the heightened coverage and increased emphasis put on Rose's absence, this is nothing new.
Derrick Rose the Decoy
When you combine everything that Rose has come to embody, you have a decoy.
Not a bad one, not a good one and not even an unnecessary one. He's just a decoy.
Which has been the more polarizing storyline for the Bulls this season?
Rose has been the center of everything in Chicago since last April. He's been a hero, a coward, an enigma and even a scapegoat, among other things.
His place on the bench, in the locker room and across the social stratosphere has been contorted by the report. He's yet to play this season, but he remains the Bulls' most important player, the one who is most talked about and the one who will be held (widely) responsible if and when they lose.
He is still the Bulls. And nothing he or his teammates do will ever change that.
"We have enough [to win]," coach Thibs has said on numerous occasions. "We have enough."
They have indeed proved they have enough to win with or without their best player, but it hasn't been about winning. For them, it's been about escaping the inescapable, about eluding the shadow cast by life without Rose. Winning hasn't been enough to do that. Nothing has. It's been impossible.
Transcending the indomitable always is.