In some ways, it’s fitting that Derrick Rose’s most recent injury comes just a few days before the nine-year anniversary of his one and only appearance in the NCAA National Championship Game. Rose, then the point guard for the University of Memphis, was as prolific a college prospect as there can be, and he showed off his unique combination of offensive aggression and athleticism on college basketball’s largest stage.
But he lost that game in an overtime heart-breaker. We didn’t know it at the time, but that would be a metaphor for Rose’s entire professional career — flashes of brilliance and plenty of overwhelming talent to go along with a dash of bad luck and plenty of heartbreaking disappointment.
We’re also approaching the anniversary of Rose’s first knee injury. I was in the United Center five years ago when Rose tore his ACL in a playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers, and it’s hard to remember a time when I was more emotionally affected by a sporting catastrophe.
It was the fourth quarter with just a little over a minute to play, and the Chicago Bulls were up by double digits. Rose hopped into the lane with a little jump-stop and then just crumpled to the floor. It probably didn’t look like much on television, but I’ll never forget the all-encompassing eerie silence that blanketed the United Center crowd while Rose lay on the ground, first on his back, then crumpled into the fetal position grasping his knee.
Chicago leads the league in attendance every year, and having covered my fair share of playoff games in that building, I can tell you that 22,000 people yelling at the top of their lungs is emotionally overwhelming. Still, it’s nothing compared to 22,000 people who aren’t breathing. It was horrible. We all knew what had happened. Rose had spent over a quarter of the 2011-2012 season sidelined with a cornucopia of ailments, but that was far and away the worst of them.
What we didn’t know was that it was the beginning of the end.
After missing 18 months rehabbing that knee, Rose finally returned for the start of the 2013-14 season, but he tore his meniscus in the other knee less than a month into the season. He did the same thing to the same knee the next season, making it seem as though he were collecting knee injuries like Selena Gomez collects Instagram followers.
Now this. While Rose’s most recent meniscus tear is in his left knee, it is his third meniscus injury in four seasons, and any hope anybody had been holding out that Rose would ever return to any small piece of his MVP year dissipated into the spring air like fog. Any shot he had at getting paid this summer evanesced right along with it.
I remember attending Rose’s introductory press conference at the United Center. Tyrus Thomas and Luol Deng showed up just to watch, and there were red roses on every media member’s chairs to literally romanticize the moment. Remember, Chicago overcame paltry lottery odds to land the top overall pick in 2008 despite having only the 9th-best chance at doing so. It happened in a year when Chicago’s best high school player in years became available just in time to play in his hometown. There was a palpable buzz at that press conference. Every single one of us was excited to be there.
The fans were excited, too. They embraced Rose with a deep familial love that rarely happens for rookies in professional sports. When Bulls announcer Tommy Edwards would announce Derrick Rose in the starting lineup, he wouldn’t mention the University of Memphis. It was always, “From Chicago…” Dwyane Wade does the same now, and as much as fans love the guy, it just isn’t met with the same fervor. The city of Chicago loved Derrick Rose, and Rose loved the city, giving back in ways that weren’t always publicized enough, especially after the injuries.
But when it took Rose 18 months to find his way back to the court following that initial ACL injury, the city turned on Rose. For the first time in his life, he was hearing criticism, and not just from anybody but from his people. With the wind knocked out of the Windy City, the excitement Rose generated in that MVP season and that Eastern Conference Finals appearance just couldn’t be duplicated.
Rose is a weird dude. He says insane things to the media, which makes it fair to wonder sometimes just how tight his grip on reality actually is. And there’s no ignoring that scandal has followed him throughout his career, dating back to allegations that he cheated his way into college and of course peaking this past summer with a civil lawsuit alleging sexual abuse.
But he’s also a good dude. The first time I met Rose was at an exhibition game the Bulls played at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana his rookie year. Before the game I had been instructed by a buddy of mine with Down Syndrome to tell Derrick, “Seth says hi.” I also was told in no uncertain times to give Rose a hug for him.
When I relayed the story to Rose, he laughed and asked if Seth would like an autograph. I declined, but he insisted. Seth still has that autograph, and it remains one of his prized possessions.
Another time, I showed Rose a video of my daughter, then two years old, where she made a bobblehead of Rose kiss a bobblehead of Mark Beuhrle and say, “Goodnight.” He cracked up and said something to the effect of, “It’s amazing to me that kids that little know who I am. You forget sometimes how many people you reach.”
Beyond just my daughter, Rose did reach a lot of people in the Chicagoland area and beyond. He was the hero we all had waited for since Michael Jordan retired. Before Rose, there wasn’t a single year where any Bulls fans thought to themselves, “If things break right, we actually could win the championship this year.” But from 2009 to 2012, we all thought that. It never came together, but Rose gave everyone in this city hope.
This is why it hurts so much to see him break down yet again. He’s not dead, obviously, and he’ll heal and get cleared to play and find his way onto some team this summer, whether it be with the Knicks or some other organization. At this point, though, it’s clear that the hope that once came with Rose isn’t part of the package anymore. Like Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill before him, Rose was an uber-talented, athletically elite superstar that never quite lived up to his potential because his knees just wouldn’t let him.
I can’t help but root for the guy, but it gets harder to do so with every bit of damaged cartilage.
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