The moment the sentence was out of his mouth it was going to tilt the conversation. "If I'm healthy and the situation is right, if my meniscus is truly healed, of course … "
Life would have been so much easier had Derrick Rose not gone there. This time the Chicago Bulls did the right thing and protected him. This time the organization shut down all the"how-soon-can-he-get-back-on-the-court" talk by declaring Rose out for the rest of this season after the surgery to repair his torn meniscus. The team's decision-makers did exactly what they should have done following his ACL tear, which would have averted the open season of criticism last spring … but there was Rose opening the door on a return this spring, even if it was only a tiny crack.
Look, you can parse every sentence, every word out of his mouth if you want and obsess over the possibility that Rose, should the Bulls reach the playoffs, could come back. Of course, you would have learned absolutely nothing from the first knee injury and time missed subsequently, which is to say you can't miss months and months of time with an injured knee, walk back into the lineup -- especially at playoff time -- and be an effective professional basketball player, because that's fantasy stuff. Rose, unlike so many of today's athletes, doesn't have an agenda in mind when he answers a question.
It was probably best for all involved that Thibs, when faced with the media before the Bulls-Heat game, said, "To me, he's out for the season." Thibs backslid a bit when he added, "If something happens along the way … " but gathered himself to conclude, "We want him to be completely healthy … it's been determined he's out for the season."
Clearly, they're all hoping there's a fairy tale ending where Rose works himself back into the lineup ahead of schedule. It's every athlete's goal. But even in a dream scenario we're talking, what, April? By that time the Bulls might have made some fairly large deal that looks toward the future and gives up on the immediate goal of chasing Miami.
Either way you protect your No. 1 asset, which Rose still is, so with so much time between now and April I'm jumping right over that remark, the one so many people will fixate on, to get to the issues that matter more immediately, like this torn meniscus not being nearly as severe as the torn ACL, like Rose being so much more in tune with what he has to do to come back this second time, like Rose saying he's not about to change his style of play, which many people believe is contributing to his knee injuries.
The notion that Rose has to change the way he plays, that he has to get rid of the violent stops and cuts and explosions, that he'll have to play a quieter game, if you will, that relies less on athleticism and acrobatics and more on guile (think Rod Strickland) isn't just the stuff of sports talk radio. There are current NBA players who believe that. There are Hall of Famers who believe it … that Rose was going to have to alter his game anyway as he approached 30, and after two knee injuries, the future is now for him. Rose, when this is put to him, doesn't want to hear it. "I don't think so," he said more than once. "I play a unique way of playing basketball. I can't change it." And before anybody even mentions future consequences, Rose added, "I could hurt myself 10 more times. … If this was to happen 10 more times I could deal with it … "
I love the defiance in Rose. I love that the disappointment and frustration of the past 20 months haven't drained the fight from him. Show me an athlete who's lukewarm about what he can do when faced with what seems to the rest of us like insurmountable circumstances, and I'll show you a guy playing at the local YMCA. When somebody asked if the Bulls should simply turn the page and no longer count on Rose leading the team into serious contention, he considered the question for, oh, a dozen seconds or so and said after some deliberation, "You can be a fool if you want to … I know I'm going to be all right."
And that became the theme for Rose's Q & A at United Center on Thursday … that he's going to be fine. It's not entirely fantasy. A torn meniscus doesn't equal a torn ACL. "I'm walking," Rose said. "I'm able to put pressure on it … able to put weight on it … I couldn't bend my leg (after the torn ACL) for three or four months, I can bend this one now."
Part of Rose's optimism is that he knows how much healthier he is because of the first rehab. What went largely ignored when Rose suffered his first knee injury was how lax he was when it came to things like eating properly, stretching, conditioning. Rose told me during a conversation before the season that pre-ACL injury he didn't stretch. His diet was about like mine. Since the meniscus tear he's already put together his own program that includes yoga and swimming. He recognizes now, "I'm always tight. My hips are always tight … I'm going to take a chance … see how my body takes it." Earlier Rose had said, "I'm all right. My faith is good. My spirit is good. I'll be back."
Does a healthier, wiser and more circumspect, determined-as-ever Rose mean his knees will stand up to the rigors of his game? No.
But there was indeed a spirit about Rose yesterday that said he doesn't think for one second of himself as a diminished player. His logic is that if he was able to get the left knee so strong after the ACL tear, the meniscus tear doesn't merit all the depression surrounding the Bulls. And truly, the Bulls players have been largely dispirited since Rose went down … until Miami showed up Thursday at United Center and the Bulls, particularly Joakim Noah, finally started to play with what we've come to know as their true personality. When asked if winning a championship is further down his priority list in the wake of this second injury, Rose said, "No … no the only thing I'm missing is a championship. My career is going to be judged by championships … I could complain and pout about this … But I'd rather smile than be sad … I have faith. He has some plan for me. I don't now what it is. But I know he has something big for me. My story isn't done yet."