Even though the Bulls have only six regular-season games on their schedule. Even though his doctor cleared him to play back in early March. Even though NBA insider Ric Bucher suggested Rose had probably gained such clearance the moment he participated in five-on-five practice. Even though Rose had originally been expected back shortly after the All-Star break.
Even though Derrick's brother, Reggie Rose, hinted that his superstar sibling might sit out the rest of the campaign due to dissatisfaction with the rest of the Bulls roster.
That last bit is a particularly interesting part of what throws the rest of D-Rose's recovery into doubt. Normally, it'd be perfectly reasonable for a star athlete to take as much time to recover from tearing an ACL as Derrick has from his. It hasn't even been a year yet since Rose suffered the injury on April 28, 2012, at the end of a playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers and underwent surgery to repair his knee shortly thereafter.
But the circumstances of Rose's situation are anything but ordinary. He starred in an advertising campaign with Adidas that hyped up "The Return" with social media ploys and inspirational TV spots:
He hid from public view for months while rehabbing, during which time the "myth" of the 10-month recovery, popularized by Adrian Peterson's run to a historic NFL MVP season with the Minnesota Vikings just 10 months after tearing his ACL and MCL, seemed to calcify.
When Rose finally resurfaced in mid-February—right around the time many thought he would be playing again—he did so almost exclusively with the national media. In his first official interview since the injury, Rose told Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, "I'm not coming back until I'm 110%. Who knows when that can be?"
And when Rose was asked at the time how he'd rate his condition, he replied, "Right now, probably in the high 80s. Far away. Far away."
Not surprisingly, news of Rose being "far away" from full recovery, after all previous signs had pointed to a late-February return, was met with some confusion in Chicago. The fact that Derrick wasn't making this information directly available to local media led some in the Windy City to speculate as to whether his handlers, rather than team officials, weren't the ones calling the shots.
Reggie Rose didn't help matters for his younger brother any when he said this after the passing of the NBA's trade deadline (via ESPNChicago.com): "It's frustrating to see my brother play his heart and soul out for the team and them not put anything around him."
Wittingly or otherwise, Derrick had given rise to a war of expectations that's yet to cease and likely won't until he steps into a real game in his No. 1 jersey. With every report of progress and every video snippet of a dunk during warmups or a circus shot in one-on-one drills, Rose's impending return seems all the more inevitable.
Until it doesn't happen. Until head coach Tom Thibodeau has to answer the same tired questions in the same tired way for the umpteenth time. Until Derrick shows up on the bench during a game in warmups, but never comes close to discarding them. This apparent discord between perception and reality has engendered a firestorm of frustration and, in some cases, resentment with Chicago's homegrown superstar among Bulls fans.
The success that the Bulls have enjoyed in 2012-13 without Rose has only amplified those adverse reactions. It's tough to look at a team that's currently 42-34, within earshot of home-court advantage of the Eastern Conference, and not wonder why Derrick, whose physical readiness has long since been confirmed, isn't playing a part.
Especially when you see those still in uniform, particularly All-Stars Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, killing themselves, night in and night out, to carry the team. Especially when the Bulls' lack of creativity on the perimeter—a deficit that Rose would presumably solve on his own, at least in part—is all too apparent amidst another evening of stagnant offense. Especially when the Bulls, more depleted than usual, pull out rough-and-tumble "miracles" like the one that ended the Miami Heat's 27-game winning streak.
Can you really chastise a fan who sees what these Bulls are capable of, remembers Rose's former feats, hears the back-and-forth over Rose's recovery and wonders why Chicago's favorite son is still playing the role of a high-profile spectator?
It's all too easy to get caught up in the hype, a good chunk of which Rose and his associates are responsible for creating. As enticingly frustrating as wins like those over Miami, New York and Boston can be, fans shouldn't overlook embarrassing losses like those to the Washington Wizards (by 13 points), Detroit Pistons (by 14 points) and the Sacramento Kings (by 42 points) in formulating a more complete picture of this year's Chicago squad that includes the highs and the lows.
That victory over the Heat was monumental, not only in its significance as a historical footnote, but also in that it saved the Bulls from registering their second straight losing month—and just their second losing month overall since Tom Thibodeau came aboard in 2010.
The fact that the Bulls are where they are in the standings is a testament to Thibs' acumen as a coach and the respect he commands amongst his players. Few would've begrudged the Bulls for taking an enormous step back this season, perhaps even out of the playoffs and into the NBA draft lottery, a la the San Antonio Spurs with an injured David Robinson in 1996-97.
The Bulls were without their MVP and had survived an offseason in which dismantling the previous season's "Bench Mob" had become a fiscal necessity for the team's frugal ownership. General manager Gar Forman had done well to replace that beloved group for pennies on the dollar with the likes of Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Nazr Mohammed and Vladimir Radmanovic, among others.
But did anyone, upon looking at the team's retooled roster, think that title contention might actually be feasible with this group?
We know Derrick's brother didn't. It's not at all unreasonable to imagine that there were (and still are) plenty of folks within the Bulls organization who didn't (and still don't). Perhaps even Derrick himself doesn't, either.
Chances are, if talk of a 10-month recovery hadn't been allowed to stew beyond mere speculation, and if the Bulls weren't in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, and if Reggie Rose had kept his mouth shut, and if Chicago hadn't pulled out some big wins on national TV, then Derrick's continued absence wouldn't be quite the cause for controversy that it's become.
There might still be reservations regarding Rose's insistence that he's not mentally ready to return, even though he's supposedly in solid physical condition, though there's reason to believe that sending him out into live NBA action when he's not sound of both mind and body would be a disservice to all involved.
But, unfortunately, all of those "ifs" came to pass.
As a result, we've essentially stripped Derrick of the benefit of the doubt, even though the sports world is well aware of the severity of his injury, even though Rose is the most promising and beloved athlete in Chicago since Michael Jordan.
And even though Jordan himself missed most of his second season with a broken foot injury that Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf wishes, to this day, he'd handled with greater care. If Michael Jordan, the greatest player in the history of the NBA, wasn't Superman, then why should we hold Derrick Rose to such an impossible standard of health?
Of course, the sports world has changed dramatically since the mid-1980s. Advancements in sports science and medical technology have enabled athletes to run faster, jump higher, pivot quicker, and recover faster and stronger from career-threatening injuries than ever before. Likewise, the growth and expansion of sports media—up to the present day with 24-hour networks, the explosion of the blogosphere and the advent of Twitter—has turned developments that once would've been mere scribblings at the end of daily newspaper reports into massive issues to be picked apart ad nauseam, piece by tiny piece.
Not to say that Derrick Rose is solely a "victim." The circumstances in his case suggest at least some measure of manipulation.
But anyone who resents Rose for not coming back by now, and anyone who would if he winds up spending the entire season on the shelf, need only think back to the dog days of the post-Jordan era to remind themselves of what Derrick means to his team, his city and his fans.
And what he'll bring to the table in 2013-14, when the Bulls gear up in earnest for their postponed title push.
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