It was the 26th of December, and the Chicago Bulls, who had just played Christmas Day, were about to tip off their second game in two days. Richard Hamilton, the veteran guard who had come to the Bulls to be the final piece of a championship puzzle, told me to listen up.
This season, Hamilton said, was going to be like no other. Teams would need to be more patient than ever before; players would, too. They were about to put their bodies through hell. Not just the three games in three nights, but the four games in five nights, the seven games in 10 nights, the weeks without practice and necessary rest and recovery.
Hamilton didn't predict unprecedented injuries that day; he guaranteed them.
Players were beginning a season without a full training camp. They'd also missed the period before training camp when they would wander in after Labor Day and work out under the watchful eye of the team's training staff for three weeks, maybe a month. The lockout eliminated all that. And the season began anyway, a money grab for both sides, neither of which wanted to lose another dime.
Derrick Rose was doomed the moment the owners and the players' union signed that agreement. I've talked with multiple trainers who work with NBA players. They say very few -- if any -- athletes in the NBA put the pressure on their joints and move their bodies with the torque Rose does. These opinions weren't offered Saturday, in the wake of Rose tearing his ACL; they were offered in great detail weeks ago, when Rose was trying to come back from one injury, then the next, then the next. What's that old song: "The leg bone's connected to the hip bone ... ." Well, it is. Everything is connected, and when Rose hurt his toe, it affected his hip, which affected his knee. And he never had the time, in this compressed season, to condition himself the way he had previously -- the way he would have this season. The kid, before now, had played in 280 of 286 games since he left Simeon High School. If not Ripkenesque, it's still damn good at 98 percent participation. In other words, Rose didn't miss games -- until this winter.
He's not the only one. Dwight Howard, who had played more than 550 NBA games since high school, played in 98.7 percent. He missed seven games. If not Superman, it's Ironman. Yet, Howard, after back surgery, is done for the season, just like Rose. Old guys such as Chauncey Billups (Achilles) are done for the season, as are young pups such as Ricky Rubio (knee) and Iman Shumpert, who like Rose crashed to the court Saturday without contact.
Injury avoidance or maintenance has been the key to the entire season. You think Gregg Popovich didn't know what he was doing when he would simply sit certain players at certain times? Of course Pop knew. Rip Hamilton knew, too. At one point, when Rose wanted to play through an early injury, it was Hamilton who said to him, "You've already won the MVP award; you're playing for a title now. You can't rush back."
Hamilton himself missed 38 games this season with various injuries. He endured all the whispers locally, that he'd never make it back this season to contribute, that acquiring him was a bad move. And Hamilton would say to me every time we talked, or every time another player went down with a serious injury, "You know this is different, don't you? You know this season is a killer, don't you? You have to resist the urge to rush back because your body ain't making it through this if you don't listen."
One after another, players would go down. Players of significance, we're talking. Al Horford, Brook Lopez, Eric Gordon, more recently Ray Allen. Hamilton would say, "See, I told you. There's nothing like this season."
So, yes, even if it's impossible to predict, it had dawned on me that Rose -- given the fury of his drives to the basket, the way he lands on one leg, the force with which he plants so violently, sometimes awkwardly -- was a prime candidate to suffer one of those devastating leg injuries. Having lived through Chicago sports as long as I have, it seemed Chicago-like to first lose Jay Cutler to a freak hand injury just when the Bears were rolling people, then lose Rose when the Bulls were as close to winning a championship as anybody else in the NBA.
It's the injury you fear most, really, an athlete who depends on his legs as much as Rose does, going down with an ACL tear. It's career-altering, usually, even now, although it certainly doesn't have to completely derail a career the way it did with Gale Sayers more than 40 years ago. Players come back from ACL tears all the time now. Tony Allen tore his ACL and MCL and has come back strong. Chris Paul has overcome a serious knee injury suffered in 2010. Rose is a worker. He'll come back. But how soon and how completely, only time will tell. Will he ever explode and finish at the rim like he did these first 3 1/2 years? God, there's no guarantee he will.
Let me declare freely I'm an unabashed fan of Derrick Rose. He comes from the neighborhood just north of where I come from on the South Side of Chicago. He's as tough as we all imagine we are, unrelentingly tough. He didn't need to befriend every good player in the league or link up with anybody who became a free agent. Rose hasn't found that he needs a nickname or carefully crafted image. He's a doer, a leader, charismatic in a way perhaps only Chicagoans understand -- without smiling and clowning and dancing and posing, kind of like a young Dick Butkus. He has represented Chicago in a way even Michael Jordan couldn't. Jordan is an adopted son, Rose a native son.
The fact that he insisted on being introduced to the words "From Chicago" made all the difference in the world. Although the Bulls have a record of 18-9 without Rose and could very well win this playoff series with the Sixers, there's no consoling most of us today or tomorrow. The kid was already a civic treasure of sorts.
Yet, as Magic Johnson said Saturday on ABC, the entire league suffers because of Rose's absence. He was the centerpiece of a team that is as determined as he is dynamic. His absence cannot, regardless of whom you might root for, mean anything good for the NBA. He's a young star in the making, yet still a kid who'd answer by saying, "Yes, sir," and "No, ma'am." Leagues simply can't afford to lose young men like that for long stretches of time, not these days, not from the playoffs and the Summer Olympics.
It's an unbelievable downer that Rose is now done for the season, just when the season starts to truly matter. And I'm dogged by this feeling there was something inevitable about it. But a very smart man I know who makes his living in the basketball industry is miffed by the notion, held by many of us, that the compacted season contributed mightily (not at all, in his opinion) to Rose's injury. While, like the rest of us, he finds the injury to be a downer, my friend says Rose's playing in five games the past 46 days and only 39 games in four months suggests he had plenty of time to recuperate. He contends the schedule didn't have the wear and tear on him it might have had on others, and this was just a freakish thing the schedule had nothing to do with.
Reasonable people, especially those who love to watch Rose, can disagree. The cases made by veteran players, Hamilton especially, and trainers and former players who are now club executives have persuaded me. Probably, it's moot on some level anyway; the devastating part isn't as much why, but that Rose is gone for the season and that he won't play in London this summer and that he probably won't be on the floor when the Bulls start the season in November and that it's probably going to take him a second full season to get back to being an elite-level player.
Anyway, it's some way to open the NBA playoffs, to see Rose go down like that, then to see Shumpert (another Chicagoan and a helluva rookie, probably the Knicks' best perimeter defender) suffer the same injury.
Please don't tell me Tom Thibodeau is somehow at fault. I'm betting of the 16 coaches in the playoffs right now, at least 14 of them would have had Rose on the floor with a lead of 12 points. It's not February. And it's not a 25-point lead. Coaches, all of them, are conservative by nature when it comes to calling a game. They're even more conservative in the playoffs. So this knee-jerk criticism of Thibs is too easy, remarkably lazy and unaware of the history of playoff basketball. (But if we're talking about coaches, I'll admit I couldn't help but think about Doug Collins being on the sideline in United Center, the same Doug Collins whose dreams of winning an NBA championship as a player were sabotaged by knee injuries.)
If you want to read about how this changes the Eastern Conference playoff picture, you'll have to go to another place on the site, someplace where that's a priority today. Today, if you care about Rose or the Bulls or the playoffs, it's time to just wallow in a little self-pity. Rose would never do that himself, but the rest of us will. He'll just have to understand.