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Tuesday, April 23, 2013
No longer an invulnerable superstar

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- As Joakim Noah clomped victoriously up and down the court on his busted wheel Monday night, gritting his teeth through 25 inspired minutes of bad playoff basketball, the NBA nation turned its critical eyes to Derrick Rose sitting on the bench, resplendent in his suit, watching the game unfold around him.

Two players connected by friendship and uniform and right now, supposed symbols of different athlete archetypes, The Selfless and The Selfish. Forget the truth, print the legend.

Rose
Derrick Rose joined the Bulls on the bench Monday for just the third time this season.

Once the patron saint for doing things the right way, St. Derrick of Englewood is now being flogged by fans and reporters inflamed by impatience and distrust.

Once the picture of the goofy athlete -- remember the draft day suit? -- Noah is now the traditional warrior athlete, a modern-day Willis Reed with a top knot.

Of course, plantar fasciitis and major knee surgery shouldn't be compared. Yet, it feels natural to compare their situations, even if each one would hate it. Both guys want to win, want to play, but one is being patient and the other cautious, and in both cases, each is probably making the right decision.

While his teammates gutted out a 90-82 victory over the Brooklyn Nets to even the first-round playoff series at one game apiece, Rose was nothing more than a well-dressed tease. I don't remember the adidas commercial where he cheered from the bench.

That's the difference between fantasy and reality. But all of these expectations began with "The Return," the well-intentioned documentary series showing the world how much Rose wants it. When it went awry as Rose began to belatedly tell the world he wasn't returning soon, it couldn't erase the belief that Rose should return this season.

During the game, Rose passionately talked to his teammates during breaks in the action and is his wont, he stared expressionless at the action. But of course, he didn't play. "Can he play?" is the question that's bugging an entire city, an entire sport.

The judge and jury of Sports, the fans and the media, will forgive almost any trespass for a guy with a vertical, but you have to play. That's the golden rule. Give everything up for the team and you will be adored.

In quick-trigger public commentary, Noah is a hero, because he served the team above himself, even if the team does risks his health with a "The Trainer Cleared Him" players-are-robots mentality.

Rose is the new media punching bag because he seemingly isn't willing to play unless he's "110 percent." He's either a wimp or is putting his own interests above the pack, while his agent and his brother encourage it.

Forget his past exploits, Rose exists in micro-bursts of opinion that creates a narrative.

There is definitely something inspiring about Noah gutting out a game like he did, but real NBA fans know you need more than clichés about determination. You need stars like Derrick Rose. And you need stars like Derrick Rose who can explode to the rim, split defenders like pedestrians and think in his mind that he's the baddest man in the universe.

And that's why people are so frustrated. Because watching Rose play basketball is better than watching any Chicago athlete do anything else. (No offense, Patrick Kane.)

Rose is a different player than Noah, mentally and physically. Noah is a hustle player. Rose's game relies on speed and power. He needs to be confident that his legs can propel him skyward without a thought. He needs to be able to drive without fear.

I don't think Noah should have played in the first game. Were those 13 minutes worth the pain? You can praise him for his so-called "grit" but was it a smart decision?

And I know it's fun to imagine 80 percent of Rose inspiring his team to victory by paring down his game for the good of the team, but it's not realistic.

Practicing against teammates is not throwing yourself into a playoff game. Throwing up one-handed floaters against video assistant Daisuke Yoshimoto at 6 p.m. isn't going up against Deron Williams at 7.

The Bulls should have handled this better and flat-out told the world Rose is done. They should have done this a month ago.

It's silly to think Rose could miss an entire season and come back in the playoffs, and Rose and the Bulls have done the team and the fans a disservice by pretending it's possible.

The hometown kid who hurtled himself into the NBA paint without regard, the gladiator who lived by the motto, "I just want to win" is a classic example of the public pitfalls of a celebrity.

Before he blew his knee out in the playoff opener last year, Rose was on top of the world. The reigning Most Valuable Player, GQ cover model, two-time All-Star, a contractual kicker named after him, a mega-shoe deal. Fame, fortune, family and most of all, real adoration. People liked him.

Were we wrong then? Are his critics wrong now?

All it will take for Rose to be revered again -- and to be sure, there are many, from his peers to his fans, who revere him still -- is one dribble. One crossover. One dunk. He will endure some light mocking, not that he'll ever hear it in his bubble. But it will be there. He's not invulnerable anymore. But that's OK too. Reporters like me have "Godded" him up too much as it is.

During his last two years in the NBA, Rose stood out as an antithesis to LeBron James' self-love and Dwight Howard's clownishness. He was fond of talking up the team over his individual success, he said all the right things and played like a madman. His clichés became catchphrases and when he showed real emotion, he bonded with his hardcore fans.

In late January 2011, I wrote a column extolling Rose's toughness after watching him play a regular-season game with an ulcer. As a teammate shot free throws, Rose crouched down, his face in a tangle, and tried to heal his stomach with a touch, but he played nearly 38 minutes. In his first three seasons, he only missed three games.

"It's tough, but if you want to be a great player in this league you've got to play through it," Rose said that night. "I always look at myself as an old-school-type player."

In March, in one of the handful of interviews he's given to the Chicago media, he talked about being patient.

"[I want to return] bad," Rose said a month ago. "But knowing my health is the biggest key, where I'm only 24 years old, I've got the whole future in front of me. I'm just trying to take my time."

Was he right then? Is he wrong now?