This letter comes from someone who did not vote you first in the official 2011 NBA MVP balloting you won but understood wholeheartedly Kobe Bryant’s point the day he said a year-and-a-half ago: “Chris Paul is really the only other guy in the league, other than Derrick Rose, with the same competitive edge as me.”
Your tenacity is that special. People who really understand the mental aspect of the game and how it is the precursor of physical toughness appreciate you more than most of those who cast MVP votes for you because the narrative of your team’s significant improvement was so easy to follow.
I voted you second, so no disgrace, behind LeBron James that year. He didn’t have as seamless a plot line and he was still a ways from full credibility as a champion, but he was better overall. And you understand that, because you’re the one who said in your recent HoopsFix.com interview that LeBron is the toughest opponent out there and the one who is consistently the most aggressive on the court.
Yet what I want to convey here is that your one entire season away from the NBA gives those of us who love the never-say-die spirit in you a little hesitation. Not complete confusion or loss of belief in your tenacity, but certainly some pause.
If almost anyone else had medical clearance to return to action and did not do so while his team had at least some chance at knocking off LeBron and winning a title, it would’ve been case closed on the conclusion: What a wimp.
But you, D-Rose, you’ve proved your toughness and competitive fire. You’d torn your ACL and you didn’t feel like yourself yet, so you didn’t play. And that’s your prerogative. The most respected trainers I know have told me repeatedly that what goes on in someone’s mind is the most legitimate hurdle in the rehabilitation process.
It’s just that sitting out isn’t at all in keeping with the true story of you being tough and fiery. That’s the narrative we demand from our greatest sports heroes, whether it’s fair or just a false pedestal.
Your job is to play for yourself…but your legacy is to inspire others.
What if LeBron had blown out his ACL in Game 1 of the Bulls-Heat Eastern Conference Semifinals (a game your Bulls won in Miami)? Would you have come back then, seeing it as a worthwhile endeavor to help yourself and all those teammates playing through various pains with a championship in more realistic sight?
More likely, considering what we know of what has been a largely tight-lipped recovery, you still would not have played. You didn’t feel right yet, and you didn’t want to do anything to risk the entirety of your career at age 24. (Not that there was really much “risk” of a setback or severe damage after medical clearance came more than two months before the Bulls’ season ended.)
So the Heat went ahead and beat your Bulls teammates in Games 2-5 to end the will-he-or-won’t-he saga, one that I remember clearly from the careful words but live eyes of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau way back on Jan. 21. That night before the Lakers-Bulls game, Thibs said with clear expectation that your first full-contact practice “could” happen in the next week.
Who could’ve imagined then that you wouldn’t ever play a game—even though the season lasted another four months.
That disparity is difficult to swallow, but not for everyone. Your college teammate, Chris Douglas-Roberts, reiterated your virtues the other day in a podcast with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com. CDR saw your call as clearly “a decision for his future” and took offense at all of us trying to be judgmental from afar.
“People had jokes,” Douglas-Roberts said. “People were attacking his character. This is the same guy. This is the same guy the year before that everybody loved. I already knew this was a meat-grinder, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of game, but that really showed me.
“A lot of people were just very unfair to this guy. This is your MVP. Very unfair the things they were saying.”
I don’t want to say unfair things to you and I have no clever jokes, but I have to wonder if Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul would’ve played. I really have to wonder. And as someone who respects those with the utmost respect for their professional craft and work ethic, I am left still wondering and still uninspired.
Then again, I also wonder if that is all beside the point. If your job is to play for yourself but your legacy is to inspire, then whom do you really belong to? We want it to be us, but maybe it’s not.
You said yourself in your February interview with USA Today that your down time was a growth period for you to learn to let others help you and improve your diet and strength—in addition to advance your game mentally via film study.
You reflected in that recent Hoopsfix interview in London about what a deeply meaningful season it was for you even without basketball. Your father wasn’t around when you grew up, so how fulfilling it must’ve been for you to be there for your baby boy—and really there, not rushing off to morning shootaround or the flight to Charlotte or sneaking in peeks at the edge of the crib after a home night game.
“It was definitely hard missing the whole year of basketball, but my son came at the right time,” you said. “It kind of took that attention..being around him as much as I can because I didn’t have my father in my life when I was younger. So just trying to be there for him and trying to kind of let him know that I’ll always be in his corner.”
That’s great stuff there. And it sounds like you are coming out of the lost season a more whole person, which is certainly more important than anyone’s disappointment at not seeing you play. You made your call, and now you’re preparing to unleash an improved jumper and finish better with your left and “do something no one ever did” with an over-the-top return to the NBA hardwood next season.
I’m starting to think it doesn’t much matter what I think, but even as I wonder about the past, I believe you will do all that in the future.
One cautious year does not change a career of aggressiveness. One story as a prisoner does not preclude future conquests.
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.