The fade Derrick Rose is currently catching started the way a lot of bad things start, and that’s with good intentions. Or in this case, at least positive assumptions. When Bulls superstar point guard Derrick Rose blew out his ACL last spring, the overall reaction was disappointment.
Rose was coming off an MVP season and was generally thought of as a good guy by the average fan. He was the “anti-LeBron” for all of the ignoramuses out there who searched for a counter to what the Heat had assembled in Miami.
Once the surgery was complete and the timetable for his return set, the implicit understanding was obvious. For a player who plays with as much neo-athleticism as Rose – who, at 6’3, jumps as if he has gravity boots on – he needs to take all the time in the world to return. Skipping the entire ‘12-‘13 season was bandied about, as well. There weren’t any columns or snarky blog posts or radio host ranting about coming back sooner. So what if this pushed the pause button on the Bulls resurgence project? In the long run, they will be better for it.
With that said, it’s hard to understand why the whole situation has gotten so ugly a year later. What was once a best-case scenario (“Hopefully he’s back to full power by the start of training camp”), warped into something unfortunate (“What’s his problem?... He’s a b*tch for not coming back this year”). Rose, who was officially cleared to play in late February, has not yet donned a uniform this season, citing several reasons for not being totally ready, by his standards, to play.
The first waves of frustration started after Rose’s brother made a couple of comments about the caliber of his teammates. That became more of an issue as the season went on and the Bulls kept their contender status in the East.
Fast forward a few months and those comments look even worse. Not only are the rest of the Bulls playing well, but playing hurt. Joakim Noah has plantar fasciitis, Kirk Hinrich has a calf injury and Luol Deng has, well, they’re not sure; but, whatever it is required the democratic needle of a spinal tap last week.
The Bulls are battling the Miami Heat in the NBA postseason again and after grabbing Game 1, they’ve made it a series (sans the Game 2 blowout). That the team has overachieved is not shocking for anyone who follows the Bulls or the strategic game planning of their head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Problem is, each game the Bulls win only amps up the conversation on Rose’s status. What was once a side concern for die-hard Bulls fans, has now become a mainstream news driver, titillating sports fans with constant “will he or won’t he dress.”
What’s lost in this banal reach for content filler is the fact that not a single Bulls player, coach, or employee has said anything to indicate that Rose’s situation is detrimental to the team (it actually has been the opposite). Not a single rumor or leak. Not even from a United Center concession stand worker's girlfriend’s hairdresser. Be certain that, right now, someone is scouring the streets of Chicago, trying to find a morsel of fake truth from which to construct a story. Still nothing.
Bulls beat writer Aggrey Sam covers the team for CSN Chicago and had this to say in regards to Rose’s current standing with his teammates.
“One rule among athletes is to never question another player's health, especially when it comes to a teammate, although even numerous rival players have spoken up on his behalf. With Derrick's track record of playing through injuries–people are also quick to forget last season, when he probably came back from a series of ailments too soon–they know how much he loves the game, so for him to miss the entire season, they have no question that he's making the right decision for himself. After all, if he came back and got injured again, after brief public sympathy subsides, Derrick would be on his own,, as well as facing criticism for capitulating to outside pressure and not being ready to play.”
The players get it; the fans, however, they do stuff like this.
I blame it on Adrian Peterson. Ever since the Vikings’ all-world back returned in the fashion that he did, it changed everyone’s expectations. Not only did he come back early from ACL surgery, he came back better than ever. We were all like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception – on some, “what we’re seeing right now, is this real or what?”
Now every time a guy gets hurt, people bring up AD as an example. As if Peterson is not an anomaly. Like that standard is attainable for everyone. You got people out here talking about ACLs and really don’t even know what it is or what it does.
Everybody isn’t the same, nor does everyone heal the same. For every fast healer, there is a slow one. We have no idea where Rose fits in on this scale. If he doesn’t think he can play yet, so be it. The vitriol this has caused speaks to a bigger issue. Namely, the idea that players aren’t individuals. They are just names on a jersey, a person who exists to fill out our fantasy lineups.
Guys who play contact sports for money, of course, know that injuries are a part of the game. Occasionally, there will be moments of fallout, where guys are breaking each other’s balls or commenting about a guy’s toughness; but that’s rare. Occasionally, ownership chimes in, but it's usually frowned upon.
Fans see it differently. We use words like brittle and weak to describe players. We challenge their manhood on public radio and national television and in columns. We don’t ask this from other people in our lives. We barely know the names of the teachers who instruct our kids, and yet we can tell you, to the exact week, the expected return for all of the players on our favorite teams’ IR lists. It's been well-reported that politicians sometimes simply don’t show up to work, or, if they do, they don’t actually do the work for which they're elected and paid. These become discussion points for talking heads on MSNBC, but it doesn’t seep into the mainstream in the same way. Dudes aren’t walking around pissed that their senator didn’t vote on the latest immigration bill. With athletes, it’s different; we hold them in contempt. We don’t believe they are hurt, no matter what they tell us.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed Penny Hardaway and pointedly asked him about his injury history, and, if at the time, he felt pressure to return before he was ready.
“To me, there was a lot of confusion. Back then you played hurt, so they were like, “Oh, it’s just in your mind.” It was hard to believe. They kept asking me, “Did you hear anything? Did you hear your knee pop?” I would tell them, No, but it really does hurt. I went from being very athletic, one of the best guards in the NBA, to barely making it. No speed, no agility…. Nobody would say, “Hey man, are you OK?” Nothing. It was more that people thought I was faking, and I have no idea why they would think that.”
Penny was one his way to a likely HOF career, and then Boom, he’s the face of “what if” constituency. You think Rose in unaware of the injury history of Hardaway? Or Grant Hill? Or Gilbert Arenas? You think he’s unaware how easily youth can be snatched away and made insignificant?
We’re all just observing and processing athletes’ health from our own myopic viewpoint. Giving out side-eyes and dropping expletives because someone we want to play cannot. Sports used to be a distraction from all of the monotonous negativity in life, but now, sports is the negativity.
Fans, conditioned to dehumanize athletes, always put their concerns first. You see it every year with collegiate players who are legit pro prospects. Once they consider leaving school early, fans come out with the usual “he should stay and get his degree” garbage. We know fans of these schools don’t care whether or not any of these players graduate. They don’t care if they learn any actual skills. They have no idea what their majors are, never mind if they are on track to graduate. They just want to know if they’ll be able to help their alma mater compete for a conference championship. Once these dudes go to the pros, it’s the same song. That’s why, when teams trade and/or discard players, nobody flinches; but if a guy leaves via free agency, it’s somehow a disgrace.
So the impetus for injury recovery, and for Rose specifically, isn’t for whatever is in Rose’s best interest. It’s for the entertainment of the fans. At presstime, Rose hasn’t decided whether or not to come back. If he does come back and gets injured again, all you’re going to see are shoulder shrugs galore, and discussions about trading him for Russell Westbrook or Rajon Rondo. This is what fans do. It’s a commodity market. We want what we paid for and we want it now.