- Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption co-host
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Even on the faces of the people standing to applaud him the trepidation is apparent.
Between the ovations come the bouts of fretting: Does Derrick Rose really need to play now, in these international exhibition games or, for that matter, the upcoming World Cup tournament itself? Couldn't he just avoid any and all risks until the start of Bulls training camp in October?
Such is the anxiety produced by two serious knee injuries in 18 months and essentially two full seasons missed.
But that's exactly why Rose isn't merely better off playing for Team USA this month and next -- it's the best possible scenario for Rose to have any real chance of being a great player again this season.
Protecting Rose until October isn't going to strip the layers of rust away from more than two years of basketball inactivity or get him emotionally and physically ready to resume playing back-to-back games or stretches of four games in five nights.
Protecting Rose now isn't going to get him past the local hysteria of another comeback, as evidenced by another evening in Chicago, where, understandably, adoration has turned into something of a civic obsession.
And it's certainly not going to allow him to cross over Chris Paul or Kyrie Irving in midwinter the way he did that Brazilian kid in the third quarter of Rose's homecoming Saturday night at the United Center.
It's not just good that D-Rose is playing right now -- it's necessary.
You can take that from his coach, Tom Thibodeau, who said after that exhibition win for the U.S. squad, "This is the perfect setting for him." Or from an expert in emergency medicine, Dr. Jason Daniels, who told me of Rose playing for Team USA: "It's necessary. It's smart. It's something you cannot shy away from."
Daniels is a basketball junkie with whom trainers consult, in addition to being a physician who deals every day of his life with traumatic injuries and recovery.
"The international competitive level is probably the perfect incremental step for Derrick. It's probably best to look at this as a four-step progression," Daniels said Sunday.
"The first step is building up strength. The second step is playing at the entry level. The third step is taking it up a level, and I see the international competition of this tournament and the practices and exhibition leading up to it as the perfect step up. The fourth step will be going against real NBA players in preseason."
Daniels explained that playing against a Brazilian national team "is better than him playing, say, a pickup game at Northwestern."
"It's closer to a test that he'll get in the preseason," Daniels continued. "These guys need to be brought back incrementally. It's extremely important. Right now, he'll be facing mostly guys who aren't fast enough to possibly stay in front of him, but that's part of the natural progression."
And so is a move like the one that stayed on the highlight-video loop all weekend. The one in which Rose began dribbling with his left hand, didn't use the screen from Rudy Gay, went to the right hand around Brazil's Raul Neto, then switched back to the left hand as he went airborne to score over Anderson Varejao, who looked like Sam Perkins trying to assess what Michael Jordan was doing in that 1991 NBA Finals circus move against the Lakers.
The most encouraging part wasn't that Rose switched hands so effortlessly or finished the play with a spinning layup; it's that he exploded off his left knee, the one he shredded in the 2012 playoff opener against Philly.
Look, blasting off that left knee Saturday night against Brazil doesn't guarantee anything, but it shows Rose can still do that. Should he be calling on that kind of explosion the way he did in, say, 2010-11? One would hope not.
Rose has said countless times in recent months he can see the game in a way now, having sat out so much time, that will allow him to have a big impact by making basic, below-the-rim plays so he won't have to take flight so frequently and put himself at risk quite as often. We'll see. I wonder if Rose will ever play an earthbound game if he knows that even after multiple surgeries he can soar the way he did on that play against Brazil.
But Rose couldn't be working under more ideal circumstances. He's playing for Mike Krzyzewski, a coach who adored having him on the U.S. team in 2010 and adores having him now,. It certainly isn't lost on Coach K, also a Chicagoan, that Rose is a civic treasure. And with Coach K in the corner is tag-team partner and Team USA assistant coach Thibs, who has even more invested in Rose's comeback.
Rose isn't playing for coaches with agendas in conflict with his. He couldn't be in better hands. It might have produced raised eyebrows if somebody else had played Rose the entire third quarter, as Coach K did versus Brazil. But as Krzyzewski explained afterward, he purposely extended Rose's minutes.
"If you keep honoring his minutes [limit], you put a lid on him," he said. "You've got to see if he can play tired."
That challenge is coming, too. With the U.S. team heading into a routine of game, flight, hotel, practice, game that most closely resembles NBA life, Rose certainly will begin to navigate playing tired.
But so far it's impossible to find a dissenting voice as it concerns how Rose appears at this point. Steph Curry, opponent come November but U.S. teammate now, said, "Physically, he looks like the Derrick of old."
Asked if Rose seemed to be nervous before Saturday's game with his every move being followed, Curry said, "I wouldn't say uncomfortable, but there had to be a lot of pressure.
"Man, he brings them joy."
Even that joy has to be accounted for. Probably, the best thing for Rose is having played the first international game in Chicago and now moving on to New York, where he'll be less the center of attention. Thibs is hoping that with Rose playing actual games in September, the noise will have died down considerably by the time camp begins in October.
Rose, who does not bask in the "MVP" chants and the thousands of people who surround his pregame shooting workouts, is determined to play with more of a governor ("under control" is the phrase he uses) and improved shot selection in this second NBA comeback.
(We need to interrupt this Derrick Rose-obsessed column to point out that Anthony Davis, the "other" Chicago kid on this U.S. team, is turning into a monster player, a two-way force who can impact the game at either end. My first bet of the NBA season is that by April, Davis will be one of the 10 to 12 best players in the league. I also wonder how soon, with so much emphasis on "Homecoming" -- thanks, LeBron and, maybe, KD -- somebody asks Davis if, when his contract with the Pelicans is up in two years, he plans on coming home to hook up with D-Rose? I'm just saying. Coach K called Davis "one of the emerging stars" and wondered if this summer will launch "what could be a storied career for him.")
Rose, of course, could again be one of the biggest stars, even if he picks his spots as he finds his game again. And the U.S. team, with older superstars such as LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Tim Duncan having played their way into retirement from international basketball, could use Rose preferably in his full glory or even at the level he flashed against Brazil. And a healthy three weeks would give the entire Bulls franchise unfathomable momentum coming into training camp.
Nevertheless, every time Rose drives to the basket, the metropolis will hold its collective breath, almost certainly for the entire season and subsequent playoffs. People will clutch their rosaries and cling to their good-luck charms and superstitions hoping Rose, finally, can make it through an NBA season in good health.
And what already is an interminable basketball season will necessarily be longer and anxiety-filled for him and everybody emotionally invested in him.
2dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann