When Derrick Rose tore his left ACL in Game 1 of the Chicago Bulls’ first-round showdown with the Philadelphia 76ers back in 2012—less than a year after winning his first MVP award at just 23 years old—NBA fans the world over immediately began playing the guessing game.
How long would he be out? How serious was it? Would he ever be the same?
Eighteen months of ceaseless speculation and rigorous rehab later, Rose was struck down again. Torn meniscus in the other knee, another season spent suit-clad on the sidelines.
This time around, though, the round-the-clock guesswork was much more muted, fan optimism more tempered—as if we were all resigned to Rose’s inevitable march to mediocrity.
Turns out that was the best possible outcome.
Free the doting eyes of offseasons past, Rose—ever the private person—has been able to manage his recovery more on his own terms. The Bulls, everyone had found out, would live to fight another playoff series, even given the inevitable ouster.
What he lost in Rose’s offensive dynamism, head coach Tom Thibodeau made up for in doubling down on Chicago’s defensive brilliance. The result: a team that, once Rose returned, would be poised to reclaim its rightful place atop the Eastern Conference heap.
To prevent another setback, Rose knew he’d have to test his legs against top-notch competition. On May 20, ESPN Chicago reported Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski had indeed extended a training camp invite to the three-time NBA All-Star.
"We expect him to be there that last week of July when we're choosing the team in Vegas," Krzyzewski told Andy Katz during an ESPNU College Basketball podcast. "He can't make the team unless he's ready to go full bore. And knowing Derrick I would think he'll be ready, and hopefully he'll be 100 percent."
Finally, on July 29, the public got its first real look at Rose’s physical progress. Two years ago, such an event would’ve been fed live to scores of stations and networks. The hype might’ve been relatively measured, but the end results were anything but.
"He was phenomenal [Monday], and he was today, too," Krzyzewski told ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell. "He hasn't held anything back. The neat thing about today was we went hard [Monday] and we went hard today, and he hasn't been in this [practice] environment, and he was as good or better today."
For his part, Rose wasn’t about to let a few days of domination interfere with the task at hand:
DRose: "I feel great. I don't have any aches. I'm really taking care of my body." Then he actually knocked on wood.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) July 30, 2014
Of course, the true test of Rose’s recovery won’t come until late August. That’s when Team USA travels to Spain for the 2014 FIBA World Cup, the crucial qualifying event ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Russia.
Still, the early returns can’t but inspire—in Bulls faithful and basketball fans alike—a palpable sense that, this time around, Rose’s return is for real.
Free the searing media spotlight and attendant public frenzy, Rose could focus his attention less on scoring public relations points, and more on the actual rehab.
Indeed, Rose admitted as much during a recent post-practice interview with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley:
Looking back at it, the first time I came back, I felt it was damn-near like a job, instead of just going out there and having fun. When I came back last fall, I felt like it was a job. I wasn’t smiling, I wasn’t enjoying the game, I was trying not to mess up. With me, I usually just go out and play, and me playing at least is something good. But at the time, it was just too much going on. That was just a dark side for me, a dark period of time.
He might not admit as much, but it’s safe to assume the lack of media attention served a kind of dual purpose, as both necessary public respite and a reason for doubling down on proving the doubters wrong:
How much of this is purpose-driven paranoia versus genuinely jaded ego, it’s impossible to say. If it proves the potent motivational cocktail Rose needed? All the better—for Rose and the greater basketball world.
All the same, as Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale recently underscored, there’s a danger in making his comeback too much about levying vendettas:
Not until he's once again a fixture on the court will pressure disappear and Rose agnostics become believers. The playoffs, the production, the explosion—those will all come. They are formalities and complements of a bigger picture painted only by availability and sustainability.
And time. ...
Last year's defiance came at the wrong time in the end, because it wasn't about time. It was a search for instant gratification.
This go-round will be different if, and only if, Rose abandons his attempt to validate what is already fact and instead manages to debunk the only mystery left to solve: that of personal permanence.
By allowing our doubts to trump our faith, we afforded Derrick Rose the extra space to get himself right, physically as well as psychologically. To see the final phase through and prove this to be the real, righteous return—that's on him.
There’s certainly something to be said for mining motivation from imagined slights. It’s hard to envision anyone making an NBA payday without it.
Sooner or later, though, it’ll be up to Rose to shed the slings and arrows and get back to doing what he does best: jaws agape and defenders in dust, game gleaming where once sat so much rust, leaving us breathless.
After all, it's being remembered and revered, not being forgotten, that truly fuels one’s game.