Right now, the Chicago Bulls are, among other things, a walking, talking bundle of basketball cliches. They play hard, they play as a team, they play for each other, they play for their coach and they play for the love of the game.
In these playoffs, they have shown resilience through all manner of adversity, persevering through pain to win one series (vs. the Brooklyn Nets) and make another (vs. the Miami Heat) more interesting than it otherwise would be.
But as romantic as it would be to simply lionize these Bulls for the way in which they embody the spirit of competition, there's no ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room. It's the same elephant that's been seated at center court since well before the 2012-13 NBA season began and so often glossed over in the way we talk about sports.
Namely, that even the most superhuman players are mortal—subject to the same forces of gravity and decay that keep us all grounded—and that, as such, they must cope with all of the same physical and emotional sensations that we do.
Sounds silly to bring up, I know. Obviously, these guys aren't invincible, right? So why bother harping on it?
Because, clearly, there are elements "out there" who would presume upon an athlete's fitness, who would cast judgment on athletes who they deem to be something other than "tough" or "gutty."
Luol Deng knows what I'm talking about. He recently returned to practice for the Bulls after spending more than a week in hospital while dealing with complications from a spinal tap. As Deng described it (via KC Johnson of The Chicago Tribune):
I did the spinal tap and, after that, I just didn’t respond well. I started having severe headaches, was struggling to walk. I started feeling really weak. I started throwing up, (had) constant diarrhea. I couldn’t control my body really. Because of that, I lost a lot of weight. And I still don’t feel right.
I was really scared. I’ve never been through anything like that my whole life. It was scary for me, scary for everyone around me.
Not surprisingly, the ordeal has left Deng 15 pounds lighter and unable to play the game he loves without feeling the residual effects of his illness:
I want to play, but I don’t know what I can do. I haven’t done anything. It really sucks. I’m weak and I have headaches. When I’m moving around a lot, my headaches increase. I tried to shoot a little bit and I struggled. I couldn’t do it.
It's not as though the Sudanese All-Star hasn't played through plenty of pain and discomfort before, either:
We’ve had a long season. I’ve played with a lot of injuries. I’ve gone through the torn ligament in the wrist. I had a fractured thumb earlier this year. I played with it. I went through all that to be able to play. I didn’t think something besides an injury would keep me out. And that’s what makes it really hard. I don’t know what you can do.
And yet, Deng felt the need to take to Twitter to defend himself against those who assumed he could've (and should've) played in the last two games of the Nets series or somehow found his way into a game against the Heat.
(Note: Deng won't play in Game 3 while he continues his recovery from illness, per ESPN.com)
Deng reiterated as much at Bulls' practice on May 9 (via KC Johnson):
I just felt like everyone kept saying I was missing the game because of the flu. I’ve been here for nine years. I’ve played games with the flu. I’ve come to the media and said, ‘I’ve had the flu.’ I don’t think the flu would make me miss a game. I might not play well. I might not play the minutes I play. But even if I had the flu, I would sit on the bench.
It kind of bothered me a little bit that that’s what was being said when I had a totally different thing. It wasn’t just the flu.
As if "just the flu" is something that can easily be overcome while playing professional basketball. It's difficult to imagine getting out of bed or even sitting at a desk all day while dealing with the aches and pains, the fever and chills, the coughs and sniffles that come with a flu. How anyone could play a game amid and against the best basketball players in the world under those circumstances is beyond me.
But the heroic efforts put forth by the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Nate Robinson under such sickly conditions don't appear to have lent us any greater appreciation of the physical and mental efforts required to play through debilitating illness of any kind.
Rather, those performances have raised our expectations to even more impossibly high places. We presume that professional athletes handle the flu like the rest of us handle the stubbing of a toe: they walk it off, suck it up and get back to business.
Except, it's never that simple, and sometimes, as in Deng's case, it's much worse than that. We think we know what guys like Deng are going through, we think we know what they should be doing (i.e. playing), but we don't. We're not their doctors, we're not privy to the minutiae of their respective conditions and we wouldn't be able to evaluate those conditions since most of us lack the requisite expertise to do so accurately.
All we see is precedent and how we imagine these highly compensated athletes should respond in light of how others have, because we think they owe it to us.
We see some athletes battle through a flu and rip on Luol Deng for not doing the same, even if his illness was something far worse than a run-of-the-mill virus. We see Metta World Peace take just two weeks to "recover" from a torn meniscus and, as a result, we think that Russell Westbrook, a much younger athlete in the prime of his physical powers, might be able to make a similarly miraculous return, even though a) his injury and his body are different, as are all, and b) MWP's timetable was ridiculously unrealistic to begin with.
We see Adrian Peterson rush his way into the history books as the NFL MVP after a sixth-month rehab from ACL surgery, we see Iman Shumpert playing his best basketball for the New York Knicks a year after tearing his ACL (and nearly four months since the end of his rehab) and we assume that Derrick Rose should be back as well, because he's been cleared by doctors and has been practicing with the team for months now. And, as such, because he isn't, he's presumed to be mentally "weak" or unconcerned with the blood, sweat and tears that his teammates have poured into their season.
We ignore that, like us, athletes of Derrick Rose's ilk experience fear, doubt and uneasiness just as we do. We hardly consider that he might be at greater risk of injury if he sets foot in a live NBA game without complete faith and confidence in the integrity of his own body, even if his doctors have already assured him that his knee is good to go.
We think guys like Deng, Rose and Joakim Noah (who's been battling plantar fasciitis for some time) should transcend pain and suffering, should shuffle off this mortal coil like Hamlet, to play basketball because we place "intangibles" in such high regard.
When, really, it's the most tangible aspects that lie at the intersection between the game and the facts of life that truly dictate who plays and who doesn't, as well as how those of us at home connect to who and what we see on TV.
And when the Bulls win without Rose, Deng and now Kirk Hinrich (whose calf is still severely bruised), we imagine what they might be able to accomplish with those player in tow and, in some cases, demand even more vociferously that they rise above the trappings of their humanity to entertain us.
At which point, I can't help but spring into Chris Crocker mode and implore everyone to leave Luol and Derrick (and everyone else who would be well served to sit out right now) alone! We don't know exactly what these guys are going through. We shouldn't presume anything on their condition and rip them if they don't live up to our expectations.
In the case of the Bulls, even if we think these guys could play at less than full capacity, why would anyone want them to right now? Chicago's chances of beating the Heat four times in seven games (now, three times in five games) would still be slim to none if everyone were completely healthy and available to play.
Tom Thibodeau has done a masterful job of squeezing every last ounce of energy and passion out of his remaining players to keep his team alive to this point, but such exertion isn't sustainable from game to game. Just look at what happened to the Bulls in Game 2, when the healthy, well-rested Heat mopped the floor with them.
There's much more at stake than just another win (or two) for the Bulls in these playoffs. Chicago has known for some time that there would be no legitimate title contention this season, not without a fit and confident Derrick Rose to lead the way.
As such, the Bulls would do their best to turn this lemon-tree-of-a-season into lemonade enough to tide over thirsty fans in the Windy City, at least until the team had a better idea of who would be healthy when and what else the roster needed to contend for a title.
Urging Chicago's walking wounded to rush back won't change that. If anything, it would behoove the Bulls to continue to make the best of a bad situation, roll over their successes and lessons learned from this year and come back stronger and better than ever in 2013-14 and beyond.
That's the biggest cliche of all, isn't it? That things can and will get better. That one need only exercise patience and perseverance amid unseemly circumstances to live to see a brighter day.
The Bulls certainly will, once Derrick, Luol and Joakim have re-established the integrity of their own bodies, once the front office has surrounded them with players whose talents more perfectly complement a championship-caliber core.
Now, it's up to us—fans, media and otherwise—to take the long view, to recognize the value of patience, to set aside our frustrations and presumptions in the face of uncertainty, and to just enjoy the efforts of those who are playing rather than question and cast judgment upon the absences of those who aren't.