Commentary

Done tempting fate

Reinsdorf regrets letting MJ play in '86, wisely won't do same with Rose

Updated: August 14, 2012, 5:02 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- You can't compare the injuries, and you shouldn't compare the men. But Derrick Rose has a drive to compete and a passion for basketball that even Michael Jordan admits is not unlike his own.

When Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said he plans to be conservative with Rose in his return to the court after rehab from his torn ACL, as he did this weekend in an interview with ESPN 1000, you can imagine Rose enduring some of the same frustrations that Jordan once experienced.

"I was a player," Jordan said Monday. "I wanted to play."

[+] EnlargeMichael Jordan
Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty ImagesJerry Reinsdorf couldn't enjoy Michael Jordan's record-setting 63-point game in 1986 because he was worried about an injury. Reinsdorf won't go through that again with Derrick Rose.

Those are telling words, spoken with a still-detectable trace of frustration some 27 years after a broken foot kept Jordan out of the Bulls' lineup for 64 games of the 1985-86 season.

Jordan was a player, and he wanted to play. Reinsdorf was and still is the boss and had the bigger picture in mind.

The frustration was understandable given that Jordan was a 23-year-old kid in his second year in the league, that his broken foot had been rested sufficiently enough that then-team doctor James Hefferon told him he could play and that he already had begun practicing two hours a day.

Jordan was convinced, and still is, that the decision to hold him out and then limit his minutes was based more on the Bulls trying to improve their position in the draft than not wanting to take any chances with their franchise player.

"I didn't feel good being part of that," Jordan said. "I felt I was an all-out player who didn't half-ass anything, and they wanted to move up [in the draft]."

Rose's situation is different. The torn ACL in his left knee required surgery and was considerably more serious than Jordan's injury. But how much input should a franchise player be given in the decision to return to the court? That issue is very much the same in both cases, and Reinsdorf said he has learned his lesson.

Reinsdorf told ESPN 1000 and has repeated on many occasions that he made a mistake with Jordan. Even though Hefferon initially said Jordan was OK, two other doctors advised him to be conservative. Reinsdorf instinctively wanted to sit Jordan and could barely watch as he scored a record 63 points in a losing playoff effort to Boston that season.

The conversation he had with Jordan at the time has been recalled humorously by both Reinsdorf and Jordan over the years and was repeated again by Jordan on Monday.

"I sat down with Jerry, and he told me what his thoughts were, and I told him what I was thinking," Jordan said. "We got into a little debate about me getting hurt, and he said doctors told him there was a 10 percent chance I could get hurt again, and I said there was a 90 percent chance I wouldn't.

"So then he used the scenario, 'OK, what if you had 10 -- he said Tylenol -- pills in front of you and I coated one with cyanide. Would you take the chance of taking two?' And I answered, 'It depends how big my headache is.'"

Reinsdorf still laughs at the story; it is just one reason he always got along well with Jordan. But the Bulls chairman has second-guessed himself ever since for giving in. Two weeks later, when Jordan dropped a still-standing playoff record 63 against the Larry Bird-led Celtics in a 19-point Game 1 playoff loss, Reinsdorf would not discount the theory that part of the feat could have been a result of Jordan trying to get in the last word.

"The biggest part of Michael's greatness was his will to win and to prove himself, and I'm sure that was part of it. ... We got lucky that everything worked out, but the risk was crazy," Reinsdorf said in 2011. "He shouldn't have played at all the rest of that season."

Should Rose play at all next season? His doctors said there is some usefulness in allowing him to test the knee at some point, in small doses. Rose will no doubt be a star student in his rehab and will be itching to get back. Depending on the Bulls' playoff outlook, maybe he tries to talk Bulls management into letting him play reasonably normal minutes.

They've been through this before. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was criticized for playing Rose in the late stages of one-sided games and for giving him too many minutes while he was recovering from various injuries. Rose, like Jordan in his prime, always wants to play.

None of those cases involved a potential career-ending situation. Theoretically, this is. Regardless of what Rose and Thibodeau tell him, Reinsdorf would be well-advised to be conservative.

In Jordan's case, then-Bulls coach Stan Albeck was ordered to keep Jordan's playing time to no more than seven minutes per half when the second-year player returned with eight games remaining in the season.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Rose
AP Photo/Brian KerseyWith the type of fire that fueled Michael Jordan burning inside him, don't expect Derrick Rose to sit quietly once he is convinced he can play.

"Stan played me over 14 minutes when we were going for a playoff berth, and he was threatened after the game not to do it again," Jordan said. "Then we played Indiana, and he sat me down for the last 50 seconds because of what happened the game before, and John Paxson hit the game-winner."

Jordan, who had the option of getting a bone graft -- but never needed to -- was persuasive in his argument to come back when he did.

"I could have gone the whole summer without testing it and then break it again and miss the whole next season," Jordan said. "I thought, if I [injure] it now, at least I have the summer to be able to rehab and do what I need to do and be ready for next season. That was my thought process."

Persuasive, yes. Completely logical? Probably not.

The Bulls were swept in the playoffs, and Jordan was fine. He still contends that only a player knows his body and that if Rose were his player, he would listen a little more intently.

"Granted, I know the business now [as majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats], and you have to be somewhat conservative for the long-term, but you still have to take into consideration the player, how he responds to pain, what kind of guy he is," Jordan said. "That's the difference between Jerry and myself. I've been there, done that, experienced that. And if I know a player well enough, I'm going to understand where he's coming from."

It's a perspective any player would love -- unless it ends up backfiring.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.