It had, after all, been 526 days since Bulls fans got to see Rose do much of anything, other than sit pensively on the bench, exhausting his supply of Italian suits as well as the fanbase's patience, while he worked his way back from knee surgery.
The most scrutinized anterior cruciate ligament in the NBA was, at long last, back in action. It hardly seemed to matter that the date was Oct. 5, or that this game against the Indiana Pacers was merely an exhibition.
Every stride, every shot and every twitch by Rose—from the first layup he converted in the first quarter to the two-handed breakaway dunk he flushed in the third—seemed heightened. His final line of 13 points and three assists in 20 minutes was encouraging enough under the circumstances.
But the moment that mattered most was not a shot Rose attempted, but rather a shot he absorbed.
With a minute and 34 seconds left in the first half, Rose powered into the lane, launched himself off his surgically repaired left knee and into the brawny torso of Roy Hibbert, the Pacers' 7'2", 290-pound center.
Rose bounced backward, awkwardly, his right foot planting and then his left, until he staggered and flopped onto his back. He was up within two seconds, preparing to shoot free throws.
“That’s the way I’ve been playing,” Rose said afterward. “In practice, I’m not slowing down, and I don’t care who’s in the hole or whatever. If they’re going to foul me hard, I’m just going to get back up and continue to go hard at them.”
The knee was fine. Rose was fine (albeit rusty, judging by his four turnovers). The interminable wait and all of the questions that accompanied it—“When?” “Why not now?” “What’s taking so long?”—were at last silenced.
There should be no doubt now about Rose’s resiliency or his mental toughness or his ability to lift the Bulls back into contention in the Eastern Conference. Whatever hurdle Rose felt he needed to clear, it has been cleared. The timetable is irrelevant now. The searing criticism he absorbed last spring, when the banged-up Bulls were grinding through the playoffs without him, should soon be a distant memory.
“It doesn’t matter now,” said TNT analyst Steve Kerr. “It’s past, and he’s back and he’s always had such a great reputation around the league and with his teammates. I think he’s earned the benefit of the doubt, that’s for sure.”
The only moment of tension Saturday came with 7:07 left in the third quarter, when coach Tom Thibodeau told Rose he was done for the night.
“He got mad at me,” Thibodeau said with a grin. “I knew we were good.”
Said Rose, “He told me he was going to give me eight minutes, and he only gave me like five. So I was mad about the other three minutes.”
Rose was unstoppable on the move, lethal in transition and typically efficient around the basket, going 5-of-7 in the restricted area. He was 0-of-5 from everywhere else, but this was not a night for nitpicking.
To the naked eye, Rose looked just as quick and explosive as he did before tearing his ACL all those months ago.
“That’s the way he played before the injury,” Thibodeau said, “and he’s back to playing like that.”
Rose said his vertical leap had actually increased by five inches, to 42.
“I think I’m more balanced,” Rose said, a statement that should send shudders through the rest of the East.
The Bulls went 50-16 in Rose’s last full season. They went 62-20 the season before that, with Rose winning MVP honors. They made it to the conference semifinals last season despite Rose’s absence and despite the lack of any singular offensive force to carry them. Their dominant defense was enough.
If Rose is back to being Rose—and he seems well on his way—then the Bulls’ offensive dynamism should return too, making them a certified threat to end the Miami Heat’s three-year reign atop the Eastern Conference.
The Pacers can also make a compelling case, having pushed the Heat to seven games in the conference finals last spring, and having since bolstered their bench with Luis Scola and C.J. Watson and the return of Danny Granger, whose own comeback from a knee injury was thoroughly overshadowed Saturday. (Granger had six points in 28 minutes, going 2-of-10 from the field.)
This was not a typical exhibition game, by any standard. Pacers officials issued as many media credentials Saturday as they would for a first-round playoff game.
“It’s fun to be part of history with a big October preseason game,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel cracked to reporters.
In the stands, dozens of red jerseys were strewn through the usual sea of yellow. Rose was greeted with a supportive roar during pregame introductions, and with an “MVP” chant when he went to the foul line.
Rose said he was relieved to get this game behind him. In truth, he had crossed his most important mental hurdle more than a week ago, away from the spotlights and cameras: Rose was scrimmaging with teammates when he drove straight into Dexter Pittman, the Bulls’ reserve center.
“He knocked me, and both of us fell at the same time, actually,” Rose said. “I knew then that I was kind of ready for an NBA game.”
Rose had been running and even dunking last spring during workouts, which only raised more questions about his decision not to return. Fans grew angry as Rose dithered and delayed, held hostage to a timeline only he knew or understood.
It got so bad that a Chicago sports-talk station published an open letter to Rose on its website, inviting frustrated fans to air their pleas and grievances.
Now, Rose was soaring and dunking again. All seems forgiven.
“It’s great to see,” said teammate Luol Deng. “I mean, I had no doubt.”