A year ago, Derrick Rose owned Chicago.
Billboards, TV spots, kids wearing Bulls’ No. 1 jerseys – everyone and everything celebrated the high school hero who came home and made the dynasty that Michael Jordan built feel relevant again.
The NBA postseason was just gathering steam and you couldn’t go three blocks or step into a restaurant without being reminded of it.
Then, with just 90 seconds left in the opening game of the Bulls’ playoff series against the 76ers, Rose put a foot down awkwardly, tore his ACL and for the most part, just disappeared.
A year later, his presence is notable, if at all, at the center of a whispering campaign: “If doctors cleared him a month ago, why isn’t he playing?”
No one seems to know how to answer that, least of all, Rose himself.
His coach, Tom Thibodeau, was asked the question right after the All-Star break, and nearly every day afterward, and eventually ran out of ways to say, “I have no idea.” Rose hasn’t been any help, looking fit in full scrimmages of late and suggesting the only part of his body still to be convinced of a return was between his ears.
Two months ago, he declared himself in the “high 80s” on the way to being 100 percent healthy. Last month, Rose said his return “could be tomorrow,” and then mysteriously tacked on this at the end of his answer: “Nobody knows but God.”
If there’s going to be divine intervention – let alone some suspense – any time during this NBA postseason, it better come soon. After LeBron James’ regular-season-for-the-ages performance, it’s hard to see any team capable of dethroning the Miami Heat, except perhaps a squad made up of the stars likely to spend the rest of the playoffs on the bench.
Besides Rose, there’s Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, nursing a torn Achilles tendon and mad-tweeting coaching instructions to his teammates in real time; Amar’e Stoudamire in New York; Danilo Gallinari in Denver; Danny Granger in Indiana; and David Lee at Golden State, who tore his hip flexor in the Warriors’ opening-round loss at Denver.
Bryant caught some flak for his Sunday afternoon quarterbacking via Twitter, though after San Antonio rolled his Lakers, 91-79, in Game 1, the most charitable thing coach Mike D’Antoni could say about the running commentary was, “He gets excited. He wants to be part of it.” And unlike Rose, no one in the L.A. market doubts Bryant wants back in; even after he ruptured the tendon in a game two weeks ago, he still managed to hobble to the line to take his free throws.
In New York, Stoudamire’s absence has been cushioned by the Knicks’ late surge, the emergence of J.R. Smith as the NBA’s best sixth man and the chance Stoudamire could return for the next round. The chance that for once there will even be a next round – after disposing of the hated Boston Celtics, no less – is enough to keep restless Knicks fans from piling on Stoudamire.
The same is mostly true in other places where stars have been waylaid by injury – save for Chicago. In a workingman’s town, with the Bulls blown out in Brooklyn in Game 1 and teammate Joakim Noah playing hurt as Game 2 tips off Monday night, Rose is being called a slacker and worse.
A sampling of tweets:
“Want to minimize risk? Retire.”
“@drose needs to give his leg to Kobe if he’s not gonna use it”
“At this rate, @drose’s baby PJ will probably play basketball before his dad.”
It hasn’t helped Rose’s case that the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson returned from a similarly devastating ACL injury the previous December and had one of the best seasons ever by a running back. Or that the Knicks’ Iman Shumpert has worked his way back into the lineup as a solid contributor after suffering a similar injury at roughly the same time.
Worse, some of the same qualities that endeared Rose to his hometown – toughness, humility and the kind of quiet leadership that inspired teammates to play hard all the time – are working against him now. No matter how honestly he tries to assess things – “...I’m only 24 years old, I’ve got the whole future in front of me.” – the words wind up being thrown back in his face.
In what can only be called the most deranged reaction, a fan in Peoria reportedly filed a lawsuit claiming that Rose’s absence caused him to suffer emotional distress and eat his way to obesity.
• Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. write to him at email@example.com and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.