As the return of Derrick Rose remains in a holding pattern, his critics are amping up. They don’t understand why he hasn’t come back. They prematurely jump on him, judging his competitiveness, state of mind and loyalty to his teammates. They are in dire need of a reality check.
Let’s begin with the essence of the criticism: Derrick Rose is healthy enough to play, but because he's not "mentally ready," he is sitting idly by, just watching while his teammates pour their heart and soul into courageous win after courageous win—many of them playing sick and/or hurt.
From there we get into a host of peripheral accusations against Rose: “Why won’t he admit he’s not coming back?” “Why won’t he just come back?” “He’s mentally weak.” “He refuses to compete.” That’s just a few of them, but it conveys the idea.
Then there are the charges against the Chicago Bulls: “Why did they 'leak' that he was cleared?” “Are they trying to pressure him to come back?” “Why aren't they pressuring him to come back?”
The single-most important thing you need to understand here is that none of this is real. It’s all media-driven, nonsensical hype.
Let’s just step away from all the speculation for a moment and consider the highly realistic scenario that Derrick Rose actually is “almost there,” trapped in that nether region between “not going to be ready this season” and “not actually ready right now?” What would you actually expect to see?
You would see an organization, team and player that are in complete harmony in regard to when the player might return—even if that means the answer is, “I don’t know.” If you actually do not know a thing, the only honest answer is “I don’t know.”
What you would expect to see is exactly what we do see.
If you go back and look through pretty much everything anyone has ever said, the only position anyone has stated in regard to the return date for Derrick Rose is, “I don’t know.” There has never been a hard return date set or lifted by the team. Everything else has been speculation derived from spinning what this person or that person said.
The media has floated around multiple dates. They speculated after the All-Star break, early March, early April, and mid-April. They said he had to return with at least 10 games left. There’s the "will he or won’t he" update with every game in the postseason. But none of these are initiated by anyone with the team.
It’s all media-driven.
Reggie Rose, Derrick’s brother, made one statement that added fuel to the fire, suggesting Derrick would sit out because the Bulls did not make an appropriate trade, but he wasn’t speaking on behalf of Derrick or the team.
Because of all the baseless speculation, the false illusion of a moving date, and the incessant, endless, grueling cycle of asking, “When will he?" and "Why hasn't he?” the burden is laid at the former MVP's feet—as though he is to blame for the media’s irresponsibility.
Consider the possibility he hasn't said when he’s coming back because he doesn't know when he’s coming back. Isn't it possible that he’s just telling the truth? Why is it that's the only scenario some people deem unrealistic?
Then there are some who believe what is Rose is saying but are trying to ascertain why he won’t either just play or just say he won’t play. They want to press for a hard decision. Melissa Isaacson of ESPN Chicago frames it this way:
If he may play at any time, then that means he is very close. And if he is that close, then play already. Will he be in the sort of top playoff form that the Bulls would need to topple the defending NBA champion Miami Heat? Probably not. It's why so many observers, including me, felt he should have begun his comeback during the regular season, when the transition presumably would have been easier.
If he is not close, then what exactly does he think is going to magically happen over the next week, week and a half, that will put him over the edge?
Again, let’s begin with the premise that there is nothing untoward going on here. Is there actually a fathomable scenario where he’s not ready, but “almost” ready?
There logically is. Derrick Rose keeps using language like “muscle memory” or being “mentally ready” to explain when he’ll feel right about coming back. It’s the kind of thing that some people may try to dismiss with snide, hipster, “I’m so cool because I’m negative”-type rhetoric, but that is short-sighted and even ignorant.
I don’t mean “ignorant” in an insulting sense, but according to the actual meaning of the word—the argument lacks proper understanding of what Rose’s real situation is.
Athletes have frequently returned too soon from injury. They seem fine at first, but they are using alternative muscles and muscle groupings to do the things they are used to performing a specific task with. That’s how we’ve seen countless pitchers go in for Tommy John surgery, and there’s a chance that it’s how Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first place.
It’s called a compensation injury. And while he is most likely out of the woods as far as a compensation injury, the conscious or unconscious fear of one could have their consequences.
I asked Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) trainer Art Rondeau, (pronounced like Rajon Rondo) whether there was any chance of Rose suffering another injury because he’s not mentally ready to play. His answer was intriguing:
If Rose is worried about reinjury, or if Rose’s unconscious mind dealt with the trauma of the physical injury in certain ways, the chance of re-injury could be higher than if Rose is completely ready both mentally and physically.
In other words, not being “mentally ready” alone could present a very real danger, even if he is physically ready.
Rondeau said that if someone believes he will get injured, it’s a good idea to avoid playing until he either resolves whatever is causing the belief or changes the belief itself, citing Marcus Dupree, who believed he would get badly injured in the game that ended his career, as a possible example of just that.
To understand why this is relevant, we need to understand that Rose’s previous injury may have been at least in part a compensation injury. (Bear in mind this is all speculation, we’re just talking about possibilities here.)
As one muscle weakens, other muscles try to take up the slack, causing an imbalance between muscle groups. With a hamstring injury, like the one that Rose experienced last year, that can mean the quadriceps is working harder to alleviate the burden on the hamstring (known as a ham-quad imbalance).
This, in turn, can cause the contraction of the quadriceps to be too forceful, putting extra strain on the knee ligaments and resulting in knee injuries when the knee is extended (such as was happening when Rose went down).
When an athlete is fatigued, such as at the very end of the game, the ham-quad imbalance grows worse, with the stronger muscle taking up even more of the slack from the weaker muscle.
Exactly what happened with Rose is unknown. He may have suffered a compensation injury. He may not have, but consciously think he did. He may even just unconsciously think he did. Regardless of which it is, what matters here is not so much the actual reality, but Rose’s perception of what the reality is, conscious or unconscious.
Rondeau pointed out:
We learn from experience, and sometimes we only need to experience something once before we make a generalization about it. For example, if a person is almost hit by a red convertible, he can either learn to be careful around moving traffic or to be careful around red convertibles. If he learns the latter, he won’t be paying proper attention to a moving blue SUV and may get squashed. Making a generalization—be careful around moving traffic—works to protect him.
Last season Rose came back from an injury during the postseason to help his team and suffered an agonizing injury which stole a year of his career. That trauma may well be resonating within him, even if it’s not conscious as he contemplates returning now, at the same time. And he may have learned from the one-time experience that coming back before he’s ready can cause him to be injured again.
It’s not a binary decision—return or don’t return. He’s dealing with things on multiple levels. There’s the actual injury. There’s the “be careful around moving traffic” voice. Then there’s the “RED CONVERTIBLE!!!!” voice as well.
It has nothing to do with “mental weakness” or a lack of compassion for his teammates. It’s not a values-based decision. This is what I mean when I say that most of the judgments being made are ignorant. They literally lack the knowledge of what is going on in Rose right now, or what kind of impact those things are having.
It is evident there is not a singular thought going on in him. Whenever he addresses the media it’s interesting that there are dual voices. Paraphrasing most of his statements, “I may come back tomorrow; it might be next season” or “I’m working as hard as I can to get on the court, but I have to do what’s smart.”
Rose reveals an internal conflict. He does want to come back and play. He also wants to wait until he’s ready, even if he doesn’t really know what “ready” means.
That second voice in his head, which Rose seems to be interpreting as proof that his muscle memory isn’t where it needs to be, might even be elusively defining “ready” because it’s trying to, in Rondeau’s word, “protect” Rose.
On the one hand there is the real desire Rose has to play. On the other hand there’s at least the possibility of a belief that returning could result in another injury.
Serious trauma, such as the type that Rose had, can cause such an internal conflict that it creates what Rondeau calls “parts.” We hear people say "part of me wanted to go but part of me wanted to stay," or similar language, and, according to Rondeau, that can indicate two parts of the brain trying to do what’s best for the person—a common strategy, but with conflicting tactics:
It’s like taking a step forward and an immediate step backward with no progress being made. It’s a normal response and easy to fix. Without fixing it, the “step forward, step backward” behavior can freeze a player long enough for him to get caught, and injured, in a situation that he’d never be in if the parts were working in harmony.
Rondeau didn't want to try to diagnose Rose, but whether it’s flow-blown parts or not, it is within the realm of possibility—even likely—that this basic inner turmoil is residing in Rose.
Amplifying this, ironically, could be Rose’s competitive fire. Rose seems to not want to return until he is back in his MVP form, even though it will probably take returning to regain that form. But this paradox allows for that second voice in him to set an unreasonable bar which is unattainable, yet excusable to that part of him which wants to come back.
It’s a way for Rose to keep both sides happy.
Again, this is not all some conscious thing that he has worked out to deceive the Bulls franchise, his teammates and the entire city of Chicago, as some have tried to paint it. It’s just a 24-year-old man trying to deal with a trauma in his life. This is not you going to work with the sniffles. Nor is it you calling in “sick” to work to watch the NCAA tournament.
Not being mentally ready is actually a real thing. The danger for returning before he is mentally ready is also actually a real thing. However, if there is an internal conflict, Rose getting on the court this season, even if it's for just a few minutes, could go a long way toward silencing that, "RED CONVERTIBLE!!!" voice; so it still has value.
In sum, there are valid reasons for the Bulls and Rose to hold the position they are holding.
When people ask, "Why has Iman Shumpert returned, and he was injured on the same day?” they miss a few very critical factors. First, Shumpert’s injury was out of nowhere. There was no history leading up to it, so the psychology of returning is very different.
Second, Shumpert was never the MVP, never the leader of the team, and never a player who was carrying the hopes of a city. The demands on Rose are higher. The expectations are higher. Again the psychology is different.
This isn’t comparing knee injury to knee injury. This is comparing expectations of a second-year role-player to a former league MVP. Both the physiological and psychological comparisons are false equivalents.
People who are asking why he doesn’t “just come back and play,” probably need to heed the advice of Joakim Noah who said:
Derrick is a brother. To see him go through his injury is tough. At the end of the day, it's really funny how quick people are to judge. People do not know what it's like to lead a team, especially after your tear your ACL.
Everybody who hasn't been in that situation before should really shut up. It's unfair to him and his team. We're fighting. It's crazy to me. He's tough as nails. He doesn't let anything affect him.
It’s easy to sit in the background and make snap judgments without any real qualification. We need to bear in mind that this is the same Rose who played through the 2011 postseason with a grade-2 ankle sprain and came back early last season to help his team in the playoffs. It’s evident there is something more going on here.
Some of the same people making the judgments against Rose were ready to make similar judgments in regard to Luol Deng when it seemed he was going to miss a playoff game with the flu. Then, when it turned out that there was more to his illness, they backed off their early accusations with the justification, “well we didn’t know all the facts.”
That’s precisely the point, though.
Don’t judge someone without all the facts, especially if they have a history that contradicts the judgment, like Deng and Rose do. There is clearly more to the decision to return than a simple act of will. Rose’s critics would do well to keep that in mind.