Commentary

Missing the point

Derrick Rose should be applauded - not criticized - for listening to his body

Updated: April 25, 2013, 2:10 AM ET
By Michael Wilbon | ESPNChicago.com

It's unthinkably misguided that Derrick Rose's continued rehab of a career-threatening knee injury has become a referendum on his manhood, that something as vague as being "cleared to play" suggests not being in the lineup one year after suffering an absolutely devastating injury means he's shirking his responsibility or is some kind of slacker. It's unthinkably misguided that we're more interested in Rose proving his toughness than in his long-term viability or what makes the most sense in terms of the Bulls getting back into championship contention in reasonable time.

[+] EnlargeRose
AP Photo/Kathy WillensDerrick Rose's teammates, and various other players, support his decision to not rush his return.

You want to revel in more of that nonsense you'd better look elsewhere because you're not reading here that Rose needs to play Thursday night against the Nets, or if he's a real man he'll suit up against the Miami Heat in the next round if the Bulls advance. I'll leave it to others to compare Rose's comeback to Ricky Rubio, whose next explosive play will be his first, and Iman Shumpert, who's been a shadow of his rookie self … as if either Rubio or Shumpert has been a league MVP or led a team to the NBA conference finals or is truly a franchise player.

Add the words "cleared to play" to the sight of Adrian Peterson coming back, yes miraculously, in another sport and now Derrick Rose is a bum because he's paying attention to his own body and taking seriously and responsibly his long-term commitment to his career and the Chicago Bulls? The biggest mistake of this season was Bulls management not coming out in October and saying, "As far as we're concerned, Derrick Rose will sit out this season and anything else will be a bonus, a complete surprise."

That's what somebody in the front office should have announced the first day of training camp; instead Rose is just out there, doing what he (and many players who've suffered this kind of injury) thinks is the smart thing to do, but twisting in the wind from a public relations standpoint. This is a perception problem more than anything else and the people at the top, starting with Jerry Reinsdorf, should have shut off the conversation before the season began. Hell, that's why Gar Forman (very, very wisely) put together a bridge roster with a bunch of one-year contracts, BECAUSE THEY KNEW IT WAS VERY POSSIBLE ROSE WOULDN'T PLAY THIS SEASON!

But because this false-hope speculation became rampant, the Bulls now have a 24-year-old star who was easily the most beloved player in Chicago sports since Michael Jordan, under attack, first nationally and now, unbelievably, locally.

Before you buy into this nonsense, if you haven't already, do some research. Look up some of the players who had their careers wrecked by serious knee injuries … or if not wrecked, then derailed for a long while, meaning a full season or more. Players such as: Penny Hardaway, Gilbert Arenas, Tim Hardaway, Antonio McDyess and Bernard King.

That's a tiny sample of NBA players, explosive players, who had their careers sabotaged by knee injuries similar to the one that felled Rose. That's a handful of former All-Stars, four of them former All-NBA players, who I bet would give anything to do their rehab over again and take more time than they did before returning to the court. All played again, all had very productive seasons again. None was ever close to his pre-injury form.

Rose seems intent on not joining that group, on coming back much closer to the MVP he was before ripping up his knee. But the chorus of critics, which grows larger and louder by the day it seems, is equally intent on deriding him as being soft for doing so, even in Chicago where impatience is plain goofy. Wouldn't we rather have Rose back as close to his old form as possible than to just have him back? To do that, "cleared to play" can't be the bar he's trying to clear. And even if "cleared to play" was a magical sentence that healed all scars and took away all pain, how come all those NFL players, who were at the time "cleared to play," are suing the NFL over medical and safety issues?

The reason you shouldn't be clamoring for Rose to play right now is Gilbert Arenas, who just six years ago was Rose before blowing out his knee. Arenas was an all-NBA scoring point guard in 2005, 2006 and 2007. His best years were the first of those two, when he was 23 and 24 years old. He was an explosive player, not as much as Rose but 100 times more than Rubio. Arenas was determined to come back in less than a year; he had unfinished playoff business with LeBron James. So Arenas rehabbed with a vengeance, was praised by the talk show radio heads and so many of the people who were really impressed by his manhood …

… and Arenas is playing in China now. He's 31 and in all likelihood done in the NBA. This was before guns and other crazy issues. Arenas went from having a team in contention in the Eastern Conference -- he beat the Bulls, remember, in a seven-game playoff series after the Bulls led 2-0 -- to playing in China because his knee wouldn't let him do what he did brilliantly for three seasons. Look up his numbers, find him on YouTube.

That not enough for you? Look up Penny Hardaway's career. First-team all-NBA in his second season, first-team all-NBA in his third season. Was 23 and 24 years old when he was arguably the best lead guard in the NBA, just like Rose was. He blew out his knee in his fifth season, came back (I'm sure he was "cleared to play") and then hurt other stuff, a foot, then a knee that needed microfracture surgery. And then, the great and diligent Penny Hardaway -- and yes, he was on the way toward historic greatness -- was done in the sense of being a player of impact. You think Penny Hardaway, who had championships in him before that first injury, wouldn't love an extra two or three months and maybe a training camp if he had it to do all over again?

That not enough for you? Look up Tim Hardaway, a Chicago kid just like D. Rose. Timmy reached 5,000 points and 2,500 assists faster than anybody but Oscar Robertson. Tim Hardaway invented the modern crossover. But he blew out his knee and had to miss 1993-94. Yes, miss. He was savvy and determined enough to re-shape his game and by 1997 was again one of the best guards in the NBA, but he wasn't himself for entire seasons in the meantime and never got back the explosiveness of his early years at Golden State. Perhaps you saw Hardaway's comments to the Sun-Times. In case you didn't, Tim Hardaway said it took him 11 months before he was ready to play in an NBA game. "My biggest thing," he said, "was getting my head and knee on the same page, so I could do the same things I did before the injury -- doing the crossover, exploding to the basket [and] not being afraid to lay the ball up over a big guy ... I had to get to the points where I didn't fear leaping off my [injured] leg ... That was the biggest challenge I had to overcome ... It's something you just have to go out and do."

At one point, Hardaway wasn't ready to go out and do that, and Rose isn't at the point, either, not yet. You want to say he's physically been cleared but isn't mentally ready to play? Fine. That's the most difficult part, any honest athlete will tell you, about returning from a serious injury. Rose has admitted this, and if you think that makes him weak it tells me more about the person sitting in judgment than it tells me about him.

[+] EnlargeRicky Rubio
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty ImagesRicky Rubio plays a different style than Derrick Rose, which makes comparing their return from ACL surgery less relevant.

Magic Johnson tells the story about a knee injury early in his career, after he'd already won an NBA championship. He had been medically "cleared to play" and came back because he thought he was supposed to but he couldn't find his form, felt lost on the court. It wasn't until the summer, when Magic dunked over a bigger player in a summer league game, that he was psychologically ready to be Magic Johnson again.

What I love about Rose is that he's not a follower. In a brief conversation last week he made it plain to me that if doing the smart thing means braving being trashed on sports talk radio and Twitter then he'll survive it. It's so sad and misguided that it's coming to that. As somebody who has covered pro basketball for 30 years and developed some sense of how difficult it is to come by a true franchise player, one with sober judgment to go along with a great skill set, I hope the relationship between Chicago and Rose isn't going to be irreversibly damaged. Fortunately, Rose's teammates seem to have maintained some common sense about this. They know they're not playing with Rubio or Shumpert.

If Rose goes to Thibs before Thursday's game against the Nets and says, "Put me in Coach, I'm ready to play" then fine, even though incorporating a player as dominant as he is would be an enormous and likely unsuccessful strategic challenge in the middle of a playoff series. Teams need three or four games to do that (ask the Lakers about Pau Gasol) and you don't have that luxury in the postseason. But if Rose wants to yell his encouragement from the bench in a stylish suit, so be it. It means he'll at least, come November, have a better chance than people who suffered similar injuries in previous years and never really got their groove back.

Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon

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