So what could we possibly have done to deserve this sentence of six months in professional sports hell? Which of the sporting gods did Chicago offend to bring about this karma? I grew up accepting that the Cubs were cursed, but not the Bears and Bulls, too. Since November, though, a one-two punch to the civic groin has left us face down and semi-conscious in an alley. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in June of 2010; then seven months later the Bears advanced to the NFC Championship Game. Looked like smooth sailing. Maybe Jay Cutler spraining his knee was a tipoff that we were about to enter a nuclear winter.
Look, we've obviously had worse moments singularly; that whole Cubs 2003 postseason thing is something I don't talk about with friends or strangers (seriously). It replaced the summer of 1969 for me, as far as baseball depression goes. There were the Blackhawks, on home ice of the Stadium, blowing a 2-0 lead in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals to the Canadiens in 1971; the Bulls in that infamous Mother's Day collapse against the Warriors, up 3-2 in the 1975 Western Conference finals. Anybody who's called Chicago home for a sustained period of time damn sure has some emotional sports baggage.
But in 50 years I don't know that anything has hurt like these last six months. On Nov. 20 -- what a nice birthday surprise for me -- I took my 3-year-old son to his first Bears game. They beat the Chargers, waxed San Diego good for a fifth straight win. Aaron Rodgers told me he thought the Bears were playing as well as anybody in the NFL. Cutler was in the process of becoming the quarterback and leader everybody had hoped for when the Bears gave up a posse of draft picks to get him from Denver. His common-sense approach had rescued the offense from Mike Martz, and the Bears were on the verge of beast mode. Offense, defense, special teams … better than the 2006 Super Bowl team. And best of all, the Bears had negotiated the hardest part of their schedule. A few patsies, including Kansas City and Seattle, were on deck.
Then in the middle of that evening word began to circulate that Cutler might have broken his hand and could be out for the season. What? His throwing hand? Just like that? I was convinced that night that the Bears, with no authentic backup QB -- I don't blame Caleb Hanie; I blamed Jerry Angelo and still do -- would lose out … and they essentially did. The whole thing was sealed when Matt Forte went down a week or so later. Cutler and Forte might not have been the two best players on the team but they sure were the two most indispensable. There was no way of cashing in on what could have been a run-the-table holiday season for the Bears: Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos, Seahawks, Packers on Christmas night and then the Vikings. Are you kidding me? The Bears were looking at 12-4 at the very least, maybe home field in the NFC, even after starting the season 2-3, even after all that stuff about the offensive line not being good enough, blah, blah, blah. Few things for the true -- if sicko -- sports fan are better than your pro football team charging out of nowhere into contention.
And just like that it was gone, poof, a fluke. I remember telling my editors at ESPN.com after that loss to the Denver Tebows that the whole Cutler hand thing was so deflating it was just time to move on to the Bulls season, if the NBA ever got out of Labor Hell. Derrick Rose and the Bulls were going to keep Chicago preoccupied until at least the first week of June. They'd either beat Miami or lose to Miami and either way it would one of those seasons in which obsess over every game, every practice, every piece of gossip and every trade rumor for at least five months.
I'll admit, I would fret every time Rose made one of those wondrous drives to the basket, where he'd land with such violence and disregard for his personal safety. It seemed to me the Bulls needed to win this year or next because Rose's body wouldn't stand up to the way he played, and trainers who work with NBA players would whisper as much in private conversations, saying things like "Your boy D-Rose needs to win while he's young, because he can't keep that up." The various injuries that forced him to miss 27 regular-season games seemed like -- and only a Chicagoan would think this -- protection against a Big One, something catastrophic, a season-ender.
Game 1 against Philly, for about 30 minutes, showed just how good the Bulls could be, championship good, with Rose picking his spots to drive, hitting his jumper, dishing nine assists, grabbing nine rebounds. Rajon Rondo passes better but can't put it in the hole the way Rose could. Russell Westbrook is even more athletic, but doesn't have Rose's instincts or judgment. Rose and Rip Hamilton were playing instinctively off one another, finally. Yep, they'd get rid of Philly in five, the Celtics in five or six because the Bulls enjoy such favorable matchups over Boston.
Then, at the end of what could have been a playoff triple-double … down goes Derrick Rose. It's the worst injury in my life as a Chicago sports fan, which is to say 50 years. Worse than Jordan missing 67 games in his second season, because Jordan hadn't yet earned an MVP or led his team to the conference finals or revealed he was going to change the sports universe as we'd always known it. OK, wait: Rose crashing to the floor a week ago Saturday tied for the worst ever, with that Sunday afternoon nearly 45 years ago when Gale Sayers suffered a career-wrecking knee injury that was impossible to come all the way back from in those days. But I was 7 years old then. I'm not sure I knew exactly why I was crying, other than the fact that even little boys could sense that losing Sayers that day meant we were being robbed of something no other city had, not New York, not Los Angeles, not anybody.
Then again, the knee injury seems to be a staple of most great Chicago athletes, not including Jordan and Walter Payton and Scottie Pippen, thank God. Jerry Sloan? Bad knees. Butkus? Bad knees. Red Grange, for that matter. Knees. Remember Ronnie Lester? You know how good Ronnie Lester of DuSable High School and the Chicago Bulls would have been without that knee injury suffered his senior year at the University of Iowa? Lester was Rose 30 years before Rose. Ask around.
The realization that Cutler's injury meant absolute doom unfolded slowly. It didn't sink in until we saw that Hanie couldn't do a single thing out there to help his team. The Rose injury meant doom immediately. Part of Tom Thibodeau's magic as coach these last two years is he's gotten his guys to absolutely buy into "next-man-up" and "we've got more than enough" and all these coaching clichés that coaches simply must believe in and somehow communicate to their teams. But there's no "next-man-up" to replace Rose. And the Bulls -- we know, now that they're down 3-1 to the 76ers -- don't have more than enough. They don't have close to enough, not with Joakim Noah down and Luol Deng's damaged wrist throbbing, bless his stout heart. And it's a killer that the Bulls are unable to play at that Game 1 Philly level when you watch Miami put forth that lame level it did in the Garden against the Knicks on Sunday.
The Bulls, I fear, are going to go out the same way the Bears did immediately after Cutler's injury, dropping four straight. It's not about heart or courage; the Bears had plenty of that, too. Professional sports are about players … well-coached players, sure, but players first and foremost. You lose your best ones, you lose. That's why today's coach of the year is tomorrow's new coach somewhere else.
Rose and Noah are Cutler and Forte, at least in terms of impact, which is all that matters. Both tandems suffered injuries just as their teams were about to reach that rare point where all the elements are coming together in such a way that a championship is entirely possible. Cutler has a much better chance at picking up where he left off; the new Bears bosses have upgraded significantly at receiver and, ahem, backup quarterback. Jason Campbell is just what the doctor prescribed.
Rose? We don't know. We're talking about Christmas or beyond … maybe really beyond. Neither Chicago baseball team looks strong enough to cast our desperate eyes toward. So maybe now a long timeout is what Chicago needs … to ride bikes along Lake Michigan, to sample summer art and book fairs, to do anything that will get us out of this funk. Turns out the players aren't the only ones who now desperately need some time to heal.