Chicago is a beautiful town, in many ways. Millennium Park, with its shining metal structures and hallucinogenic bean pods, sits right against the ocean-like lake side. You can walk for miles, finding something new around each corner. Blues clubs, dive bars. Stain glass exhibits on a pier. There is a Ferris wheel. I've ridden the Amtrak train in and out of the train station perhaps eight times. The station is a beauty. Old stone walls climbing so steep. Its main room is cavernous--an echo chamber of sorts. Voices getting lost in the hustle, no clarity to the speech of passing strangers. The squeaking of tennis shoes along the linoleum tiles, reminiscent of the squeaking of players' shoes along wooden basketball courts throughout the city.
Chicago has a proud tradition of basketball. Chicago has a proud tradition--straight up. Chicagoans are a proud people. Start talking about basketball, and who do you find but Jordan, the best of all time. The Cubs are one of the oldest franchises around. Wrigley field is a living museum--complete with brick and ivy and the onrush of times past. Chicago has weathered much. Fires, the Depression, rising crime and unrest on the south side. The city has weathered every hardship and kept its collective head held high. Our current president was shaped in the fires of Chicago politics.
But if you dig deeper, there is always an underlying fear. Sure, the Cubs have history and pride, but they've been a perennial loser for the last twenty years. They haven't won anything meaningful in over a hundred years. Many people feel that the team is cursed. They feel that no amount of managerial shakeup or splashy free agent signings will lift the team out of its current funk. And as much as Jordan was embraced by the city, in a certain way he was driven away by Bulls management. He had to play out his final years in Washington DC, and now is majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets. Downtown might be full of shiny, futuristic statues and trinkets, but what is the inner soul of the city?
No basketball player represented Chicago more than Derrick Rose. He was a legend in the city by the time he was a freshman at Simeon High School. Word spread like fire, tearing through the undergrowth of the basketball-hungry town. Have you heard about Rose? No? Maaaaan, that kid is FAST! Seriously!
He left for a year to play under John Calipari at Memphis, where he led the team to the brink of a national championship, losing in the finals to Kansas.
He declared for the 2008 draft. With only a 1.7% chance of winning the rights to the first overall pick, the balls bounced Chicago's way, and with that pick they selected Rose.
The city was crazed, the city was ecstatic. People were dancing in the streets. Derrick Rose? Derrick, come home to play for Chicago? Such a thing seemed like magic. Seemed too good to be true. People started drawing up the parade route. Making plans for champagne and celebrations. For surely, this seemed all predestined. There was magic afloat, and Chicago was the epicenter.
That very first year, he led the Bulls into the playoffs, playing against the Boston Celtics. I remember that series. I've never quite seen anything like it. The Celtics were defending champions,and yet this scrappy young Bulls team, led by a ROOKIE, took them to seven games! In his first playoff game ever, Derrick scored 36 points, had 11 assists, and four rebounds while beating the Celtics on the road, in overtime, 105-103.
In the 2010-2011 season, Derrick led the Bulls to the number one overall seed in the playoffs, along the way becoming the youngest player ever to win an MVP award. They lost in the Eastern conference finals to the Lebron James/Dwayne Wade/Chris Bosh led Miami Heat, but at that point everything was on the table.
Hall of Fame? Oh, most definitely.
Championship? Well, it's just a matter of time.
The Bulls seemed poised to make a run for the next decade.
In December of 2011, Derrick signed a max deal: Five year extension worth $94.8 million.
In the 2011-2012 season, he was again voted an All Star starter, but he missed 26 games throughout the season with an assortment of injuries. His body was not quite where it had been for his entire carer. Something was off. In the first game of the playoffs, facing the Philadelphia 76ers, tragedy struck.
Up 11 points in the final two minutes, he went for a layup, planting off his left foot. Something snapped. He went down, writhing in pain. Screaming out. Nobody had touched him. He hadn't been hit, he hadn't been fouled. He just planted, like he'd done a million times before. Just planted to jump--that explosive jumping ability--and something broke. He had torn his ACL.
Rose sat out the entirety of the 2012-2013 season to rehab his body. For the first time, there were murmurings of discord between Derrick and the Bulls. For the first time the people in Chicago had doubts. When the Bulls made the playoffs, when they were pushing towards the conference finals, many fans began shouting for Rose to return. Surely, he's healthy by now, right? The initial diagnosis of recovery time was only eight or nine months! It's been a year! C'mon Derrick! C'mon buddy. Suit up. Rub some spit on that thing and get out there! Chicago needs you. C'mon Derrick, fer godsake you've been cleared to play since MARCH 8th! For the love of... C'mon Derrick, the damn team is battling in the playoffs and yr sitting on the bench?? What kinda man would let his teammates twirl in the wind? C'mon Derrick...C'mon.
And yet he held firm, refusing to return to the court before he was ready. He would weather this adversity much as he had weathered the adversity of growing up on Chicago's violent south side. He would do things his own way. Come back when he was good and goddamned ready. Not when someone else thought he was ready. Even if that someone else was the single mass hysterical cry of the city that had created him.
That day turned out to be the next season. On October 5th, 2013, in a preseason game against Indiana, he made his return. Adidas, who had signed him to a RIDICULOUS $200 million shoe deal, jumped on board and began over-producing the whole charade.
"THE RETURN" was heralded as the prodigal son returning to his hometown. Christ returned from the desert. Forty days and forty nights more like an entire season, basketball eternity.
But he wasn't quite the same player. No matter how many national ads Adidas ran, everyone could see that his jump shot was off. His lift wasn't the same. He wasn't streaking to the basket. Dunking on people. He didn't have that same killer instinct.
Well, he's just finding himself, people said. The explosiveness will follow. He'll be back in no time! I mean, shit, he's only, what, 23? Hell, I remember when I was 23 I could do anything! Haha, you know, pull an all-nighter and get er up and into work the very next...
He was struggling, the city was struggling, and then on November 22nd, against the Portland Trail Blazers, everyone's worst nightmare became reality. He injured his other knee. This time tearing the meniscus.
Chicago, and the rest of the NBA world, emitted one long, defeated sigh.
Two words: NOT AGAIN.
Adidas pulled the ads. Derrick had another surgery. And again, he began the painful rehab process. Again he began the yearlong journey back towards basketball relevancy.
At this point, it would have been enough to be merely relevant. Sure, everyone wants to see his explosiveness and his supremacy return, but, I mean, just at the very least let's see him stay on the court, right?
This past summer, Derrick joined Team USA in their quest to win a gold in the FIBA World Championships. Many wondered why he was even on the team? Surely, that spot was better suited for someone like Damian Lillard, right? Why risk it? If Derrick is healthy, let him come back and play for the Bulls instead of risking another injury. Those cries grew even louder after the Paul George injury. And yet nevertheless Derrick went out and tried his hardest. His jump shot was still off. He still didn't have lift, but hell, at least he made it through the tournament! He never dominated any of the games, but he still played well enough, and the team won the gold.
Alright, maybe it'll all work.
Maybe he's back.
Through the first half of this season, Chicago and the world kept waiting on Derrick. Is he healthy? Can he be the same player he was in 2012? Before all this nastiness?
At times, it seemed like, YES, YES! Whoa, DID YOU SEE THAT?? HE'S BACK! HE'S BACK!
But every upswing was followed by a string of painful games. Against the Warriors, he had 11 turnovers! He was only shooting 12-32 for the game, and yet still had the confidence and panache to take, and make, the game winning shot. Sure, the Dubs fumbled away the game and Derrick never should have had the chance to win it. Whatever, he still hit the shot.
And through the ups and downs of the season, the Bulls lurked as a legit contender. If they could all get healthy, if they could put it all together at the right time, maybe they could make a run to the finals. Maybe they could win the whole damn thing.
When news surfaced last night that Derrick Rose has yet another meniscus tear in his right knee, well...
Man, I don't even know.
What is this life?
Why do we get so emotionally wrapped up in the physical well being of these young men who run up and down a court shooting a small leather orb into a metal hoop?
What is it about the game that so easily translates into our own lives?
Why do we care?
I'm devastated by the news, and I don't even root for the Bulls. I have no connection to the city of Chicago other than the fact that I've played a handful of shows there. Other than the fact that I've walked around Millennium Park and taken in the sights and gone out drinking with die hard Bulls fans and ended the night arm and in arm walking down darkened Chicago streets in the cold.
Once upon a time, Warriors fans were just as tied up in the long-term health of their star point guard. Oh, shit, that was yesterday, huh? The big difference between Curry and Rose is that Curry's injuries happened before he signed his extension, and because of that, the Warriors lucked out and signed him to a criminally low contract (4 years, $44 million). Whereas the Bulls are hamstrung by Rose's monster deal, the Dubs have been able to max out Klay Thompson and keep the current core intact without, so far, going into the luxury tax. But more importantly, the biggest difference between Rose and Curry is that Curry is now healthy. No matter how much we worry and over-obsess about his health, he seems to be doing just fine. He'll weather his own storm, and he'll be where he needs to be. I have faith.
But with Rose?
It is really tough to see him coming back from this.
And that sucks.
Derrick is the embodiment of Chicago. He represents all of its struggle and triumph and heartache. If he's done, what now? Where do they go?
I don't know. No one does.
All I can do is pray and hope that he somehow beats the odds. Pray and hope that somehow, someway, he comes back from this third injury and regains his form. Regains his superhuman explosiveness.
But I'm not holding my breath.
If the basketball Gods decide to take him from the game, then it is out of our hands. Out of everyone's hands.
He'll be the "one that got away." We'll all feel robbed of what could have been. The player he could have been.
But, shit, you know. That's life. And he'll find a way to bounce back. He'll find a way to regain the love of his city. Even if it's not on the basketball court.
Much love to you Derrick. Godspeed in your rehab.