On Thursday night, a Chicago sports hero will make his formal return, his homecoming, in a nationally televised game replete with all the hype that accompanies even the mundane moments in today's NBA. Derrick Rose will be back for real, on his home floor in the United Center, to the delight of the crowd and the relief of his teammates and his proud, championship-adorned franchise.
Eighteen years ago, another Chicago sports hero made his own return from a lengthy absence. On Saturday, March 18, 1995, Michael Jordan sent the fax heard 'round the world when he announced, "I'm back." The next day, amid global hysteria and a media meltdown, Jordan suited up -- having switched from his famous No. 23 to No. 45 -- and returned to the Bulls after a 21-month hiatus as a minor league baseball player. This took place in Indianapolis' old Market Square Arena and was beamed nationwide by NBC in what became the NBA's highest-rated national telecast in five years.
There are a few similarities -- or at least, common threads. Rose's return from an entire season spent recovering from an ACL injury is certainly the most anticipated comeback for a Chicago basketball star of his magnitude since Michael took off his spikes and reclaimed his Air Jordans 18 years ago. As with Jordan, Bulls fans and the basketball population at large have been wondering about Rose, "Will he be the same as he was when he left?"
But mostly, Rose's gradual, long-anticipated comeback is in an entirely different category from Jordan's sudden, clandestine return to the sport he ruled to the tune of six championships -- three before the comeback, three after. The gradual, methodical way Rose has made it back, the championships so far missing from his resume, the fact that no comparison to Jordan is fair or sensible -- all of this makes Rose's official return before the home crowd on Thursday night just another example of how different he is from the man who raised all those championship banners hanging above the United Center court.
When Rose returned from a 17-month absence during preseason, there was no mystery -- no need for a dramatic fax. (Though today, of course, it would've been a tweet.) The differences don't end there.
"You're talking about a guy returning back to the game where he had left after winning three championships," said Scottie Pippen, Jordan's longtime running mate in Chicago. "Derrick's situation, he's yet to conquer a championship. So the anticipation and the excitement, the momentum is all there. We feel that we're on the verge of becoming a championship team. But I can't say that it feels the same way."
The endless desire to view today's biggest NBA stars through the prism crafted by Jordan has haunted and driven LeBron James and Kobe Bryant much more than Rose -- even though Rose is one of the league's biggest stars, playing in Jordan's building. A look back at the importance of Jordan's return -- an event that dwarfs anything you could imagine in today's NBA, even amid the magnified media and social coverage that envelopes it -- should only drive home the point that it's pointless to compare.
For one thing, Paxson -- now the Bulls' executive vice president -- has always known Rose would be back. When Jordan stunned the basketball world and announced he was leaving to play baseball, Paxson said, "I thought he was finished. I wasn't anticipating Michael returning."
"You've got to be very careful when you're comparing anybody to Michael and what that means, because it's not relevant and it's not fair," said Paxson, whose last year playing for the Bulls was the 1993-94 season, when Jordan was away.
"The circumstances were so much different," Paxson said. "Michael had just won three championships, and there was a sense of accomplishment that we had done that. So him leaving caught us all by surprise, because we were hoping to keep it going. But we'd still been there and won championships. We haven't done that in this era."
As with Rose's official return on Tuesday night, Jordan's comeback was on the road against a heated rival -- at Indiana against Reggie Miller's Pacers. Unlike Rose, who had an entire summer, training camp and preseason to prepare, Jordan came back "out of the blue," said TNT analyst Steve Kerr, Jordan's teammate when he returned and for the subsequent three championships the Bulls won. "When Michael came back, he literally prepared for like two weeks."
And nothing in today's NBA -- short of LeBron taking a break to play in the NFL and then returning to win more NBA titles -- could ever be the same.
"The excitement that night in Indianapolis was a global phenomenon," Kerr said. "When we ran onto the court, there were 8 million flashbulbs from the Pacer fans."
Paxson, seated at the scorer's table with the broadcast crew, described the atmosphere as "Finals times 10."
"The environment was crazy," Paxson said. "Let's face it. You had the greatest player in the history of the game coming back."
Jordan scored 19 points on 7-for-28 shooting in his return, a 103-96 overtime loss to the Pacers, who went on to win 52 games, capture the Central Division and lose to the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals. (Orlando beat Jordan's Bulls in the semifinals, 4-2.)
Rose's return on Tuesday night in Miami was equally unfulfilling; he had 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting with five turnovers in a 107-95 loss to the two-time defending champion Heat.
"I've worked hard, so I know I'm going to have a breakout game soon," Rose said.
Nobody remembers what happened in the first home game of Jordan's comeback. Seriously, Kerr and Paxson, who were there as player and broadcaster, respectfully, didn't remember the details of Jordan's 21 points on 7-for-23 shooting in the Bulls' 106-99 loss to Orlando on March 24, 1995. That's because all anyone remembers about Jordan's comeback was the famous "Double-Nickel" game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. This was Jordan's breakout game, as he dropped 55 on 21-for-37 shooting in the fifth game of his comeback -- a 113-111 victory in the building he dubbed the Mecca of Basketball.
"That's the, 'I'm back' moment," Paxson said.
"That was really him," Kerr said. "That was the Jordan that we had always seen -- unstoppable and so much better than everybody on the floor and making people look silly."
Taj Gibson was a 9-year-old growing up in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, a basketball junkie addicted to that Knicks-Bulls rivalry. Even now, he remembers.
"I remember him wearing that 45; it didn't look right on him," Gibson said. "I remember watching [the Double-Nickel]. I remember watching all those games. I was a Bulls and a Knicks fan, because those were the two best teams in the East at the time so every time they played it was a dogfight.
"I was scared," Gibson said. "I was like, 'Is he going to be the same?' Because he had been on the baseball field for a while. ... But he came back and he was his old self. John Starks couldn't stick him. Not at all."
Eighteen years later, another Chicago sports icon makes his formal homecoming from a long absence. He will do so at home against the Knicks, a team that all these years later is back on an elite level in the East and chasing the same title that Rose and the Bulls are chasing.
"People want to know, is he back? Is he going to be at the same level?" Pippen said. "I think he's proven that. ... Not only do we feel that we have a team that can compete for a championship, but the fans feel that way, too."
Instead of flashbulbs popping, there will be iPhone shutters clicking. Instead of a global phenomenon, it'll just be Rose and his unassuming persona sharing a semi-private moment with his hometown fans. Millions will be watching -- not only on TV, but on smartphones, tablets and laptops, too.
Compared to the comeback of the greatest Chicago sports icon 18 years ago, Rose's formal homecoming will be just another event on the NBA calendar -- a snapshot rather than a wide-angle extravaganza.
"He's very unassuming and modest and quiet," Kerr said. "He's a lot more like Tim Duncan than he is like Michael, and I think he likes it that way."
And so do we.