Chicago native and former NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway keeps hearing a potential March return for Derrick Rose, whose recovery from left ACL surgery reminds Hardaway of his own journey back from that injury, and that personal experience is why his target date for the Bulls point guard is farther off than most.
Hardaway thinks Rose should sit out the entire 2012-13 season.
"I'd just rather have him take his time, so he can be 100 percent, because he's like me, running and jumping," Hardaway told ESPNNewYork.com on Thursday. Hardaway pointed out that his injury was similar to Rose's, a freak, non-contact injury on a routine play. Hardaway was going up for a layup on March 3, 1993 against the Los Angeles Lakers when he tore his left ACL, and he missed the entire next season. Rose jump-stopped to shoot his trademark floater in the fourth quarter of Game 1 in the first round of last season's playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Hardaway remembers the months after the incident, thinking over and over again, 'Am I going to come back the way I want to come back?' But he overcame any doubt and stayed the course, relying on faith, confidence, his family and new eating habits, and he was able to return in 1994-95 and didn't have to deal with the ACL again -- even after his career.
Hardaway said one thing is certain about Rose's recovery: It will make him a better shooter.
"His jumpshot is going to come back a lot better than what it was," said Hardaway, who is now a community liaison and scout for the Miami Heat. "I'll tell you that. His jumpers and his free throw percentage is going to be up. I'm telling you. That's all you can do. You can't do anything else, but shoot around and just shoot free throws."
Initially for Rose, who suffered the injury on April 28 and had surgery on May 12, doctors said that he had an 8-to-12-month recovery. Recently, Rose said he's a couple of weeks ahead of schedule and started jumping again. But Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf said he will not allow Rose to return until he’s 100 percent, especially because he still regrets allowing Michael Jordan to come back early during his second season in 1985-86, after he broke a bone in his left foot. Although Jordan didn't aggravate the injury, Reinsdorf doesn't want to take that risk with Rose.
The question is: When should Rose really return? ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell said Rose could likely see action this season because more aggressive and effective rehabilitation methods have enabled players to come back sooner from ACL tears.
"Back then, there were doctors who were casting guys or immobilizing them in some way after surgery," she said. "One of the things that we've learned is to get the knee moving ASAP after surgery. These guys get their range of motion back and work on getting their quad strength back right away. Now, we give them exercises to do when they wake up after surgery."
In addition, Bell noted that because Rose's injury was just an ACL tear -- for example, the MCL, PCL, kneecap and meniscus weren't affected -- he shouldn't really have any complications when he plays again.
"People with an isolated ACL tear go on to do pretty well," she said. "It's just one of those injuries that we've got figured out. We expect players to come back and we've seen players come back and go on to have very successful careers. The ones who don't are getting fewer and fewer."
Bell said that at this stage in Rose's recovery, he likely has regained full range of motion and decent strength in his leg. Now, the trainers are starting to ramp up his conditioning with more jogging, adding higher-level balance exercises and incorporating sports-specific workouts with a basketball to make him feel comfortable.
"That's part of getting their whole motor skill back," she said. "Beyond the stuff you do in the gym and rehab, you want them doing some very easy stuff on the court, because that's where they feel the most natural."
It was actually the courts back home in Chicago that helped Hardaway find his groove again. That's where he felt the biggest drive to play at his best, and soon he realized he wasn't hesitating to make the same moves he had always made.
"I always tell people this: The people that helped me back playing to my old self were the people in Chicago," he said. "When you play basketball in Chicago, you've got to bring your A game no matter who you are. They're going to challenge you and they're going to make you play or they're going to embarrass you. When I went home, with my competitiveness, those guys helped me prepare for the season that was going to be playing. I wasn't playing every day, but every time I did play, I had to bring my A game. I could tell that I was getting to 100 percent, and my mind and my body were on the same page."
No matter what, Bell said, the most critical stage is handling an actual NBA game, which Hardaway struggled to do at times because of occasional weakness in his leg and night-to-night adjustments.
"The game is a totally different game," he said. "One game might be running, one game might be standing still or real tight and intense. But every game is different when you play in the NBA. Some days you won't be able to jump high, some days you won't have the explosiveness. There might be two or three games where you're the old person, and then four or five games where you're not the old person because the leg is dragging and weak. I didn't get right 100 percent where I could do stuff every day, all the time, be my regular stuff, until the second year."
On the flip side, Bell said she's worked with athletes who have emotional scars from their injury, and they're tentative making even the most basic movements. That's because most of the time, as in the case of Rose and Hardaway, ACL tears don't happen from contact, but from normal maneuvering -- sudden changes of direction mixed with bursts of acceleration.
Bell said that once Rose becomes confident and consistent game to game, he'll be back to the All-Star player he once was. Those elements -- even if he returns this season, and as Hardaway mentioned -- could take a full year to develop.