Friday, February 27, 2015

The Tragic End Of Derrick Rose

I hate to say this, but it’s over for Derrick Rose. When the news broke on Tuesday night that he had a torn meniscus in his right knee again for the second straight season, my heart sank. I couldn’t help but feel like this was the nail in the coffin on the career of an athlete with limitless potential.


My first memory of Rose was when he was this uber-athletic, at times out-of-control, ball dominant guard who always played with a full head of steam, starring for that snake John Calipari at Memphis. I specifically remember being terrified of him before my Vols played them that season, because I didn’t think there was any way they'd be able to keep him away from the basket, or from totally disrupting everything they wanted to do defensively. I thought he was going to torch them. And at times, he did, but Tennessee was fortunate enough to escape victorious in one of the great sport’s wins of my life (Tennessee, with the win, achieved their first ever number one ranking). The Tigers did bounce back though, as they got a number 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and rolled through everyone on their way to the championship game. As they were ripping through everyone, Rose built a ton of momentum, and put together a fantastic tournament resume, including an absolute demolition in the national semifinal of a UCLA team that included future NBA players Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Darren Collison, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (he finished with 25 points and 7 rebounds). In that aforementioned championship game against Kansas, Memphis pulled ahead with 8:11 remaining, and built what seemed to be an insurmountable 9 point lead with 2:12 left, before a combination of the Jayhawk blistering shooting (they made 100% of their shots in the rest of regulation) and Tiger misses at the foul line, including an enormous brick by Rose, led to a Mario Chalmers' miracle three that sent the game into overtime, where Kansas ultimately won, 75-68.

Despite their failure in the championship game, Rose made himself eligible for the NBA, and quickly shot up the draft boards, where he was selected first overall by the Chicago Bulls. His first two seasons as a professional were chalked full of explosive drives to the basket, enormous throw downs, and at least 2-3 “oh my gosh, did you see that” displays of athleticism per game, though they ultimately led to nothing more than an extremely exciting seven game first round playoff series with the Celtics in 2009, and a few Sportscenter Top 10 plays.

The potential for some much more was evident, though it just hadn’t been realized quite yet. I remember watching him during that time period, and feeling like he was going to always miss every jump shot that he attempted. He also really had no idea how to run a team, get everyone involved, or keep his teammates consistently happy throughout the game. He was basically just out there being the best athlete on the court every night and hoping that was enough.

Then 2011 happened. Chicago hired Tom Thibodeau, an extremely intelligent basketball mind, off Doc Rivers’ staff in Boston, and signed Carlos Boozer to a max contract (that didn’t work out all that great, but at the time? Brilliant!). Expectations were high, and the Bulls and Rose didn’t disappoint, as Derrick put together an incredible season, and maybe the best ever in the history of the league for a 22 year old guard, as he averaged 25 points and 7.7 assists per game while leading Chicago to a 62-20 record, the best in the Eastern Conference. He was in constant attack mode all season, as he got to the rim at will, found open teammates, and even started to hit a few jumpers here and there. Chicago became one of the best defensive teams in the league, and basically depended on Rose to create everything for them on the offensive end, a task he met time and time again.  For his efforts that season, he was voted MVP of the entire Association, becoming the youngest such recipient of that award in league history.

The Bulls blew through the first two rounds of the playoffs with ease, before encountering the big bad Miami Heat and LeBron James in the conference finals. Rose had a mediocre series (he shot just 35% in the five games), and the Heat easily dispatched the Bulls 4 games to 1.

Obviously, it was a disappointing defeat, but Rose was still a young, ever-improving player, and his team had only just come together. Plus, plenty of great players had hit road blocks early in their careers, before ultimately breaking through and winning titles, so the loss to Miami wasn’t  completely out of the ordinary. Everybody thought this team would be around for years to come, and that the championship window would be open for a long time. If they only knew the tragedy that would be taking place less than a year later.


The lockout-shortened, 66 game 2012 season was a frustrating one for Rose, who battled through various ailments all year which kept him from appearing in 27 games. Despite those injuries, Chicago still finished with the best record in the East again, this time at 50-16. They entered the playoffs confidently against a young and inexperienced Philadelphia 76ers team. (I know, the Sixers in the playoffs? What? How did this happen?). Rose was finally healthy (or so we thought), and the Bulls had their sights set squarely on avenging that painful loss to the Heat from the year before.

But they never made it that far. In Game 1 of the Philly series, with Bulls leading by 12 with 1:22 remaining, Rose drove towards the basket, leapt in the air, and landed awkwardly, forcing him to crumple to the ground holding his left knee, writhing in pain. I remember watching the game, hoping that it was nothing more than a hyperextension, but fearing the worst, because his knee buckled. Selfishly, just as a basketball fan, I hated it, because really enjoyed watching Rose play, and I knew that if it was something serious, it was going to be so much worse for him, because he was a guy that depended on his athleticism so much to be successful. I wanted to watch Rose on the court as many times as possible, and a serious injury would’ve put this season, and the next, in jeopardy.

The news broke sometime after the game that it was indeed a torn ACL, and I remember getting a “Stick a fork in the Bulls” text from my Angry Old Man. The reason those words resonated so much with me was because I was shocked my Pops even knew how to send a text message. Normally he’d just call me and yell into the phone about how we’d lost the country before abruptly hanging up.

But he was right, as the Bulls lost four of the next five games and were sent home from the playoffs earlier than anyone expected.


It would be a long time before anyone saw Rose play another NBA minute. Nobody knew when he’d return during the 2013 season, but most people thought they’d at least see him at some point during the year. But as the season began, and games and months began to pass, it became more and more apparent that there would be no D-Rose in 2013.

The Chicago fans, and most of the media, did not handle that reality well at all. It didn’t help that Derrick hardly ever spoke to the press during that season (something that wouldn’t be allowed now), or that Iman Shumpert, who tore his ACL on the exact same day as Rose, returned to the Knicks’ lineup on January 17th. Throw in the fact that almost all of his Bulls’ teammates gutted out multiple playoff games with serious injuries while Rose continued to sit on the bench, and that he signed a massive, 5 year, $93 million dollar extension in December 2011, and it wasn’t shocking that D-Rose wasn’t exactly the most popular athlete in the city during and after the season. He was getting paid millions of dollars, and the fans wanted to see him suit up and do Derrick Rose things again. They wanted to see him battle with his injured teammates against the hated Heat in the playoffs. They wanted to see their star shine.

But he wouldn’t shimmer during that season. Chicago lost in five games to Miami in the conference semifinals, and Rose did nothing but sit on the bench wearing a suit and tie.


Maybe Rose was destined to break down. Watch his legs during this highlight film. Look at the unbelievable amount of torque he put on his knees, ankles, and hips almost every time he attacked the basket. He’d land with his body going one way and his legs awkwardly pointing in another, followed by him somehow inexplicably exploding towards the rim. If I had to describe his playing style in one word, I’d call it ‘violent’; he changes directions so sharply and quickly, and there’s no way that didn't put an enormous amount of stress on his joints and ligaments. If there was anybody who was going to have multiple knee injuries, wouldn’t it be him? Should anyone really have been shocked by that? Probably not. Ironically enough, the very thing that made him so effective may have cost him everything.


Everybody was anxiously awaiting the return of Rose during the 2013-14 season. We hadn’t seen him play in 18 months, besides in a few meaningless preseason games. We also had no idea what to expect. Would Derrick be able to recapture his athleticism? Would he still be explosive? Did his jumper improve at all? And could he reestablish himself as the best player on a championship contending team?

We never really got an answer to those questions. Rose struggled mightily (for him), averaging just 15.9 points and 4.3 assists per game on 35.4% shooting, before he suffered another gigantic, career-altering setback in Portland in his tenth game of the season, as he limped off the court with an apparent knee injury in the third quarter. Our worst fears would be realized soon after; Rose had a torn meniscus in his right knee, and he would need season-ending surgery to repair it. Once again, Derrick’s year was over.


I spent a lot of time over the last few days (probably too much time, because my brain started to hurt after a while) trying to figure out the right cross-generational NBA comparison for Rose, before realizing that there really wasn’t one. The best I could come up with was Bernard King, though it’s not a perfect fit. ‘Nard, a small forward, never won an MVP like D-Rose did (he finished 2nd in 1984, and 7th in ’85), but was also so much more of an unstoppable scorer than Rose ever dreamed of being.

For those of you unfamiliar with Bernard’s career, here’s a basic layout; after struggling for a few years with drug problems, King came into his own as the best scorer in the NBA on lackluster Knicks’ teams in the mid 80’s. He was the most difficult guy to guard in the league from November of ’83 to March of ’85, before he also tore his ACL in a game against the Kansas City Kings. He was the player we all hoped Carmelo Anthony would become, only we all now know that ‘Melo was never up for it. He scored a ton (26.3 points per game in ’84, 32.9 points per game in ’85), and was extremely efficient (57.2% shooting in ’84, 53% shooting in ’85), and also elevated his teams, as he dragged a mediocre ‘84 New York team through seven extremely competitive games with the future World Champion Celtics in the conference semifinals. But that torn ACL was a career killer 30 years ago, and it sapped Bernard of almost all of his explosiveness, which made him so much less effective. What a tragedy. It makes you want to curse the basketball gods.

Injuries kept ‘Nard, who was on his way to being one of the 40 greatest players ever, from reaching his potential. The same can be said for Rose. In June of 2011, I would have believed almost any positive outcome for his career. He, at just 22, was one of the two best point guards in the league (along with Chris Paul), the most explosive athlete in the NBA outside of Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin, and was only getting rapidly better every season. But then he smashed into the injury wall repeatedly, more times than any crash test dummy ever would.

Plenty of players have had their careers decimated by injuries. But how many times has it happened to a guy with top 40 all time potential? Not very often. And when it does, it’s heartbreaking.

King eventually found his redemption (sort of) when, at 34 years old, he averaged 28.4 points per game on 47.2% shooting and made the All Star team playing for the ’91 Bullets. And despite those extremely impressive numbers, he was still far from the ‘Nard that terrorized everyone for two straight years. Will Rose every have a bounce back season like that? Considering how much more technically sound King was (he actually had a reliable jump shot), and how many different ways he had to score, compared to how Rose basically started everything in his basketball life with his athleticism (which is fledgling as we speak from his repeated knee injuries), I think it might be, as unfortunate as this sounds, highly unlikely that he ever recaptures that magic again.


I was cautious when I heard that Rose was going to be playing for USA Basketball this past summer. I didn’t know what to expect from him, as I hadn’t seen him play competitive basketball since November 2013, or compete at a high level since April 2012. There were a few video clips from practices that summer that looked like the old D-Rose, but I wanted to see him on the court playing real basketball against teams that were trying their hardest to win. Again, there were flashes of brilliance, and the old Rose, but there were never any stretches of sustained excellence. He never put together one complete, classic, throwback D-Rose game in any of their tournament games, and he never came close to consistently looking like Derrick again.

I guess this didn’t surprise me, and I didn’t expect all that much from him. The team was loaded, he hadn’t played basketball in basically 26 months, and he’d just gone through two major knee surgeries. More than anything, I was just happy to see him out there, getting knocked around and taking some bumps, because he hadn’t done that in so long.

The 2014-15 season arrived, and Rose was, for lack of a better term, sluggish. The numbers (18.4 points, 5 assists per game on 40.7% shooting) and the tape weren’t close to what we were used to seeing from him, and it was becoming more and more apparent that we might not ever see prime, 2011 Derrick ever again.

But I didn’t give up hope. Every once in a while, he would play a game, like against Cleveland the day before the All Star break, where he ran around, drove to the basket, knocked down some tough jumpers, and got his teammates involved, as the Bulls absolutely demolished the Cavs. Games like that one kept my hopes up. If he could ever get healthy and shake off all the rust, why couldn’t we see that guy again, consistently, every night?


Derrick’s biggest problem, to me, more than anything, was that he was never able to overcome his mental demons. Sure, his knees were ravaged over the last three years, but when he was on the court, he just looked so timid and terrified, like he was worried about planting awkwardly and ruining everything again. His drives were way less frequent, and he stopped landing and exploding towards the rim from every conceivable angle like he used to. That’s why I didn’t kill him for his “I don’t want to be in pain at my kid’s graduation” comments that he made back in November like so many other people did, because I understood it. He just wasn’t right mentally. The only person who might’ve been more scared watching Rose night to night this season than me was, in fact, Rose himself.


I got the same, “stick a fork in the Bulls” text from my Angry Old Man on Tuesday night, when the tragic news broke that Rose had, once again, torn his meniscus in his right knee. The outpouring of support and prayers from the NBA community and fans was unbelievable. Not again. Not to this guy. He’s already been through so much.

Rose had successful surgery today, and the Bulls expect him to be back in 4-6 weeks, which means he could be back for the playoffs. Even still, isn’t it fair to ask if Chicago done this year, even with Rose? I don’t have a real solid answer to that question, but it’s leaning that way.

But I can more solidly answer this one: Will we ever see apex, 2011 Rose again? No, we won’t. I don’t think his knees will ever be right again, and I doubt we’ll ever see him put together a full, 82 games, plus playoffs, season again. And I don’t think he’ll ever be able to fully defeat his internal demons. Another knee injury means more doubt, more fear, and less court time.

This is the biggest NBA tragedy since the Malice at the Palace, not only because we’ve lost such a great talent, but also because it seems like everybody has basically forgotten just how awesome Rose was. There’s this revisionist history creeping around on Derrick’s career now, that he was basically nothing more than Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, or Steve Francis (What a farce. Rose was never that selfish, and he competed way more on the defensive end), and that he wasn’t a “winning” basketball player, nothing more than a fireworks show, according to Colin Cowherd. I remember having a Steph Curry-Rose conversation with my Angry Old Man during the 2013 playoffs, and thinking to myself, “Yeah, I mean Curry is a great player, but has everyone forgotten that D-Rose was the NBA MVP JUST TWO YEARS AGO??!! DOES THAT NOT MATTER TO ANYONE??!!” He stole the MVP from LeBron during the King’s prime, and every media member was all for it. I don’t remember hearing any “Rose is Iverson” criticism back then. But now that he hasn’t played at a high level in such a long time, the in-the-moment observations are forgotten, and the narrative around his career has completely changed. What a shame.


I hate this so much, and I’d love nothing more than to give the basketball gods a collective roundhouse drop kick right to the throat. Get well, Derrick Rose. 

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