This is no longer about Derrick Rose's knee. It's not about his heart or his head, either. Not anymore. The Derrick Rose Watch, pretty much the leading storyline of the 2013 NBA playoffs, is about his eyes.
As in, how can he look at his teammates?
Seriously, how can he do it? Only Rose knows how he can look at Nate Robinson, puking into trashcans during timeouts, wiping his mouth and returning to the floor.
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Only Rose knows how he can look at Joakim Noah, playing on a sore foot, an affliction called plantar fasciitis, the kind of thing that sounds manageable until you've actually had it, and then you know the only way to heal it is to stay off it. Noah stays off it a good 12 minutes per game. The other 36? He's playing.
Only Rose knows how he can look at Taj Gibson and Luol Deng, who had been playing with flu-like conditions. Turns out Deng was suffering from a lot worse than that. He was sent to the hospital with symptoms so bad -- symptoms that had doctors wondering about meningitis -- that he had to have a spinal tap.
Know what that is? They stick a needle, not a small one, into your spine and draw out fluid. And in Deng's case the spinal tap didn't go well, the puncture leading to massive headaches that sidelined him for several more days, even though the spinal tap ruled out meningitis. From his hospital bed in Chicago, Deng was tweeting to Bulls fans that he would be on a plane to Miami to play against the Heat if the doctors would clear him. Which they did not.
How Derrick Rose can look at Luol Deng, I have no idea.
At some point, pride has to take over. Or humiliation. Whatever it takes to get Rose to acknowledge that what is happening around him -- what is happening to him -- is the erosion of a reputation. Rose has always been one of the more likeable players in the NBA, star or otherwise, but this is different. This isn't about him being humble or gracious. This is about him still not playing, a year after surgery on a torn ACL and months after doctors cleared him, even as all hell breaks loose on the Chicago Bulls' roster.
Two months ago I wrote about Rose, and two months ago I defended him. Two months ago I chided Bulls fans for doing to Rose what they had done in recent years to Chicago athletes Jay Cutler and Jake Peavy, harshly judging those guys for not returning quickly enough to action.
Two months ago, I told Chicago fans to shut up.
Notice the phrase I keep repeating: two months ago. A lot has changed in two months. For one, we now know just how long, and how well, Rose has been scrimmaging full-court with his teammates. As it happens, Rose has been playing five-on-five basketball since February, more than 2½ months ago. It has been reported that Rose has been the best player on the court. Nobody has disputed those reports, by the way, not even Rose's mouthy, media-friendly brother.
Derrick Rose has been playing full-court basketball for almost three months, and he has been playing so well of late that he's the best player -- the word "dominating" has been used -- and still he's not playing in playoff games?
Even as Taj Gibson is sick and Nate Robinson is puking and Joakim Noah is limping and Luol Deng is tweeting from a hospital bed that he sure does want to play?
How can Derrick Rose look at those guys? How can he look in the mirror?
Seriously, does the guy have no pride? Does he have no shame?
He does have a lot at stake, I'll give him that. He's 24 years old, which means he has another decade to play. This is a Hall of Fame career he's having, and there are hundreds of millions of dollars to be earned.
But there are hundreds of millions of dollars already earned. Rose's $95 million contract with the Bulls, good through 2017, is guaranteed. If he blows out his knee Friday night in Game 3, the money is his. Every penny. How much money is enough for a lifetime, and even the lifetime of family members born and unborn? No idea, but $95 million sounds like enough.
And Rose has earned more than that. He has a $260 million lifetime contract with Adidas, and while I have no idea if that contract is guaranteed, the word "lifetime" makes me think that it is. I mean, Adidas doesn't expect Rose to play in the NBA for the rest of his life, does it? Of course not.
A fascinating story at SBNation raised the possibility that Rose could be balking at returning because he doesn't trust the Bulls' doctors, who have said for months that the knee is ready. The story lists the travails of Deng, Omer Asik, Kirk Hinrich and Rose himself, and it does a fabulous job poking holes in the reputation of the Bulls' medical staff.
Thing is, Rose has been scrimmaging for almost three months. Full court. And dominating. Doesn't matter what the doctors are telling him, not anymore. What matters now is what he has seen from himself -- and what his teammates have seen. And they've seen Derrick Rose kicking their rear end in practice, and then sitting on the bench in a suit while they're puking and limping and scrapping their way through the playoffs.
How can Derrick Rose look at his teammates?
And how can they look at Derrick Rose?