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Of sound mind and body, Derrick Rose is finally back for the Bulls

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Seventeen months later, the moment has finally arrived. Derrick Rose will lace up his shoes, jog onto the court, hear his name announced during introductions and play in an NBA game again.

It's been 527 days since Rose tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a playoff game against Philadelphia on April 28, 2012. Rose turns 25 on Friday. He was 23 the last time we saw him play a game.

If the time in between has felt like an eternity to you, imagine what it has felt like to Rose. He was playing in the 29th postseason game of his young career when he went down, and has endured what must seem like 29 stages of grief for anyone who has ever tried to come back from ACL surgery. The fallacy is that the final steps aren't as excruciating as the first ones. In some ways, they're worse.

"It really gives me a fresh start to go out there and prove myself again," Rose said.

He's right. It's like starting over.

Rose, the 2010-11 MVP, is the signature name associated with an epidemic of ACL injuries in the NBA. Since Rose and the Knicks' Iman Shumpert went down with the injury on the same day during the 2012 playoffs, the league has lost Baron Davis, Brandon Rush, Lou Williams, Rajon Rondo, Leandro Barbosa and Danilo Gallinari to the injury. A condition long common amid the sheer brutality of the NFL has wrapped its tentacles around basketball.

"It seems like it just became the new rolled ankle for the NBA," said Shumpert, who returned to play this past January.

When Rose returns to game action for the first time since the injury in the Bulls' preseason opener at Indiana on Saturday, he will join a fraternity of ACL survivors. Even after all the grueling physical work -- the rehab, the stretching, the strengthening, the frightening shedding of scar tissue, the scary, inevitable spills on the court -- the journey is never really over.

"Three months ago, I couldn't even stand up on my own two feet when I was on crutches," said the Hawks' Williams, still working his way back after tearing his ACL against the Nets in January. "Every step is a brand new experience."

Recent and past victims of ACL tears have formed an informal support group of sorts. They call each other at various stages of rehab to compare notes, each victim wanting to know if he's keeping up or falling behind.

The need for counseling transcends sports. David West, who tore his ACL playing for New Orleans in 2011, heard from then-Saints safety Darren Sharper, who had microfracture knee surgery in 2010. Williams spoke with Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who blew out his knee this past January. Shortly after he returned from ACL surgery, Shumpert's good friend -- then-New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis -- tore his ACL. The two spoke about rehab options and how to prepare for the long road ahead.

"You just talk to guys and say, "I've been there. I know how hard the journey is," said the Clippers' Jamal Crawford, who tore his ACL with the Bulls in 2001.

Williams didn't need a cell phone to compare notes with Rondo, who went down less than two weeks after Williams did -- in a game against the Hawks, no less. The two rehabbed side-by-side at famed surgeon Dr. James Andrews' clinic in Gulf Breeze, Fla., for about a month after surgery.

"He was just asking different questions about how I feel to make sure what he was going through was consistent," said Williams, who is said to be aiming for a return around the All-Star break. "Now he's actually ahead of me in the schedule, because I think he had a partial tear and I had a full tear. He was able to speed up his process up."

After Shumpert's knee gave way on the same day that Rose's did in 2012, he was approached by West, who went down in his final season with New Orleans.

"You can't go out there trying to protect yourself," said West, who has since earned two more contracts with the Indiana Pacers, including a three-year, $36 million deal this past summer. "You've got to let it go."

Incredibly, West offering encouraging words to Shumpert was not the first time their paths crossed on the ACL comeback trail. A few months into his comeback in 2011-12 with the Pacers, West said he drove to the basket and got undercut in the air by Shumpert. The 6-9 power forward, still trying to scale the final mental hurdles in his comeback, crumpled to the court and feared the worst.

"I literally landed on same leg the same way I tore it, and it held up," West said. "I went down and I stayed down for a few moments. But then it felt good; it felt strong. I needed that. I needed an experience like that just to prove to myself that the knee would hold up."

Shumpert had a similar scare. About two months into his comeback this past season, he left a game against Orlando after feeling a pop in his surgically repaired knee. False alarm; it was only some scar tissue breaking loose.

"It didn't pop and hurt; it just popped and scared me," Shumpert said. "I felt the pop when I tore my ACL, so when it popped, it scared me and had me rattled and I was shaken. But I didn't feel any pain."

That's part of the cruelty of this injury, the unknown territory that Rose will now begin to explore. No matter how many physical tests the repaired knee passes Ð and Rose's knee has passed all of them, many times over Ð the next scare is only a couple of dribbles away.

"The mental stage," Crawford said, "is the last stage of it."

Crawford, 33, tore his ACL and meniscus playing pickup games in Chicago during the summer after his rookie season with the Bulls. That was 12 years ago, and yet Crawford still compensates every time he touches the ball.

"It was a behind-the-back spin move," Crawford said. "When I did the spin move, my knee was facing one way and my body was turned around going a different direction. I heard the 'pop, pop pop,' and I remember that. So I've never done that move since then."

Rose didn't need summer pickup games to know that his knee has completely healed. In fact, the genius of Rose's excruciatingly long road back is only now about to become apparent.

Though he has been roundly criticized in Chicago and elsewhere in the NBA for taking so long to return, Rose will be at a distinct advantage over players who attempted in-season comebacks. For one thing, he'll be trying to regain his game conditioning at a time when everyone else will be, too. And after putting in the rehab and strength work to get his knee healthy again, Rose has had months to work on the rest of his body Ð and on his game.

"As long as I'm on the court playing this game that I've been missing for a whole year, I'm just happy to step out there -- being with my teammates again, being involved and feeling like a player," Rose said.

Those who've witnessed his explosive, aggressive drives to the basket in practice this week -- the five-on-five portion of practice is closed to the media -- say Rose might be better than before. He added muscle. He worked tirelessly on his jump shot. All the nagging injuries that were bothering him during that lockout-shortened season when he went down have healed.

"I think he finally just wanted to sit down and get his body completely right," said Shumpert, who is from Chicago. "I'm happy for him coming back and having that confidence to step back on the court again, because I know Chicago's missing him and I want my city to be happy again. They've been going around with the angry eyes."

Crawford, who played the first four years of his career in front of passionate Bulls fans, said their anger toward Rose for taking so long to come back was "misguided."

"They love Derrick to death," Crawford said. "Just talking to people in the city and having played there, I know they hold Derrick in such high regard. I don't think it was personal. Obviously they want him out there. But he can't go back out there until he feels it in his head and his heart."

That's what it's about for Rose now; it's no longer about his knee. Now it's about pushing past the next step, the next hurdle. It's about getting his swagger back and rediscovering the relentlessness that made him so great. In many ways, returning to the court on Saturday is bigger than even Rose can comprehend.

"The biggest key is trusting yourself, trusting that your knee is going to hold up and you did everything you were supposed to do and did everything the right way," West said.

There are two things that basketball's ACL victims remember vividly for the rest of their playing days: the moment they got hurt, and the moment they came back. Now Rose gets the other bookend, the other half of the image that will be burned in his memory forever.

"All smiles," Shumpert said, recalling his comeback this past January against the Pistons. "I just remember there was nothing that could've messed that day up for me. The only thing that could've messed that day up for me was not being able to walk off the court."

Rose will walk onto a court and play a basketball game for the first time in 17 months on Saturday. It's the next step in a long journey -- a crucial step, but not the last.

"I'm preparing myself for it," he said. "Me getting past this, I think it's just going to help my confidence, help me become better as a pro and as a veteran for my team."

It's been a long time coming. After 17 months of membership in a grim basketball fraternity, Derrick Rose is finally back.

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